What should I call you
He, she or it
Are you a person, a thing, an idea?
Where are you now
While I call out your name
Are you high on a cloud
Or under a bush
A fire in the daytime
Or warmth in the night?
Do you live in a mansion
Or outside in the woods
Should I tremble in fear
Or relax in your love?
Are you father or mother
Brother or child?
Do you dwell deep inside me
Or around the next bend
My questions are many
My answers are few
Oh God be my witness
I am doing my best
Come down from your heavens
To live in our souls
Bring peace to this planet
Comfort the lost
Care for the children
The hungry the hurting
Who cares what we call you
I know you don’t mind
Living and loving
We’ll just try and be kind
from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into this world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. It? I ast.Yeah, it. God ain’t a he or a she, but a it.But what it look like? I ast. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It aint something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it… Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t, but more than anything else, God love admiration. You saying God vain? I ast.Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. What it do when it pissed off? I ast.Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
“Autumn lies down to rest having shared all her best, comes a soul and comforter, autumn gives her hand to winter.”
That line from the anthem the choir just sang reminds me of the words of John Muir.
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
The changing of the seasons can sometimes seem to mirror the changes in our lives. Very little in life stays the same for very long.
This morning I want to share with you some of the changes that have happened within me as I have tried to follow our 4th principle, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Some of this will be about what I have come to believe about God.
First, how many people here have dogs? Do you love your dog? There are a lot of jokes around the fact that God is Dog spelled backwards. That makes sense if you love dogs – and for some of you, loving a dog is much easier than loving God.
This leads me to wonder that if God were in fact a dog, what kind of dog would God be? A stately Great Dane perhaps, high above it all? A St Bernard, coming to the rescue?
A practical Collie like Lassie or maybe a Golden Retriever who just wiggles with love? Some people may see God as a Pit Bull waiting to snarl everyone into hell in short order if they don’t shape up. When I look at a Pug, I sometimes wonder if God might often have a similar expression.
Now, I know, and you know, that God is not really a dog, except of course in the sense that there is a spark of the divine in all living creatures. But I think sometimes we humans can treat God like a dog. Not badly, I don’t mean that. But I think sometimes we tend to treat God as our own personal pet. We keep God on a leash, in a box, under our control. I think this is true even for folks that don’t believe in God. They usually have a quite definite image of the God they don’t believe in.
When I was young, I thought of God as an old bearded white man who sat on a golden throne, high in the sky, amidst fluffy clouds, with sweet-faced plump cherubs fluttering about him. A child, if they have courage, might want to climb up into the lap of that sort of God, the view alone would be worth it I think. If that God became angry, however, the clouds went gray and lightening flashed. Any sensible child would run for cover. Which is exactly what I did, and I stopped believing in God for a very long time. Those childhood images of God stayed with me, though. I didn’t believe in that old man in the sky, but it was him that I didn’t believe in if anyone asked me about God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 1, it says, “So God created humankind in God’s image.”
Some sociologists say that the process is just the reverse, that humans create God in their own image, or an image that signifies an ideal in the common culture. Old white men were the ones with all the power while I was growing up. No wonder that is what God looked like to me.
Earlier, I told a story about playing hide and seek with God. It is easier to find something if you know what you are looking for. Think for a moment if you will, think about how you picture God. You don’t have to believe in God to do this. (pause)
All of us, whether we are believers or unbelievers, tend to carry around with us images of what God is and is not. We need to pay attention to those images, to what we think about even the God we may not believe in. Because God is a cultural symbol of what is ideal, what is the most valued; our image of God can affect how we are with ourselves and with each other.
If we see God as perfect and unchanging, how do we see our own need for change?
If we see God as all-knowing do we somehow get the idea that it is possible to know everything?
If we see God as all powerful, do we think that if we don’t have the power to change things in an absolutely Godlike way, then we can feel that it is not worth trying.
Several things happened to me that shattered my old image of the God I did not believe in. The first was shortly after I retired from Social Security.
I was in the hospital for several days, undergoing a number of tests. Everything turned out fine for me, but in the next bed was a woman who had just been told that her heart was giving out and she had only a month or so left to live. She was crying and worrying that she was going to hell because of how she had lived her life. I started channeling John Murray. I told her firmly that there was no hell, that a God that would send people to hell makes absolutely no sense at all. I still didn’t believe in God, but it was a different God whose existence I questioned.
Then I read Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes. A lot of that book is about her being sexually molested as a child. While talking with her therapist, she comes to the realization that God was with her in those moments when she was being abused, holding her in love, and that even if she died, would continue to hold her. What most struck me while reading that was the God she was talking about wasn’t all powerful. That God could love her and hold her, but could not prevent what happened.
I still didn’t believe in God, but I stopped believing in a God I could blame for all the bad things in the world.
In seminary, I dove into theology and in particular I loved Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian. In his book, Divine Relativity, he critiques the traditional image of God.
A wholly absolute God can provide no lasting good inclusive of human achievement….
A wholly absolute God is power divorced from responsiveness or sensitivity;
and power which is not responsive is irresponsible and, if held to settle all issues, enslaving. (Hartshorne148-149)
Hartshorne also said, “In trying to conceive God, are we to forget everything we know about values?”
Hartshorne’s question about values is a good one. Our conception of God should be composed of the highest human values. It leads to the question of what kind of God would be most valuable; what kind of God does the world need? Bernard Loomer, another theologian, says that
“value is greater than truth… the problem with being addicted to truth is that it can throw you off from many of the deeper dimensions of life.” (Religious Experience and Process Theology pg 71)
Maybe God is like that, a value deeper than truth, or what we can conceivably know as factual, provable truth. Maybe it even doesn’t matter so much what God really is, what the “truth is,” but instead it may be more important to believe – or even not believe – in the sort of God we need. If God is truly God, then God will be the God the world needs. That should, I think, be part of the definition.
I then started to ask the question, “What kind of God would serve us well, here, today, in the twenty-first century?” What God could be more inclusive of diversity, more responsive to oppression, better able to help us get along with others in peaceful and loving ways? What kind of God could help us face and do what is before us now to face and do?
What could it mean to us if we began to see God not as absolute and unchanging, but as relational? What if God was a sensitive, changeable presence, one that interacted with the world rather than ruled it? What if we took God out of the box, off leash so to speak? Maybe we could start imagining God as the best of what humans have the potential to be.
Unlike the image of the old man in the sky, this relational image of God can inspire love and compassion rather than awe and fear. The following poem by WEB Du Bois, an African American born shortly after slavery, expresses this well I think.
Help! I sense that low and awful cry — Who cries? Who weeps? With silent sob that rends and tears — Can God sob? Who prays? I hear strong prayers throng by, Like mighty winds on dusky moors — Can God pray? Prayest Thou, Lord, and to me? Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Poor, wounded soul! Of this I never dreamed. I thought — Courage, God, I come!
Du Bois’ poem is somewhat startling. It portrays a God who is not all powerful, who needs our help in fact. Can we imagine God that way?
When it comes to love of other people it is usually their imperfections that draw us. Our best friends are often those who are willing to share some of their vulnerability, some of their fears. We can trust these friends with our own failures and also cheer their triumphs and successes with full and open hearts because we know something about their struggles. Can we learn love God in the way we love those friends?
After learning about different ways to imagine God, I decided to stop worrying about whether God existed or not. Once I did that I began to both remember and experience moments in my life where I felt the presence of something deeper and larger than just me. Those moments I would describe as transcendent and they have happened at relatively random times. Sometimes when I am writing or speaking from the heart I get the feeling that the words are coming from someplace else. I have also sometimes felt something powerful in hospital rooms where I sat people who were in the process of dying.
Call it the spirit of life, call the strength of the human spirit, call it magic, call it whatever you will, or call it nothing at all. I choose to name that awesome something, that mystery that cannot be fully described, I choose to call it God.
And perhaps, if God were really a dog, it wouldn’t be a purebred at all, but instead a shaggy, floppy eared mutt who loves freedom and is interested in the world. A street dog that knows the ways of the world. A dog who is not perfect, who is not all powerful and unchanging, and who, like us, needs both courage and compassion.
May we all find courage. May we all find compassion. May we all find an image of God that we can unleash and let run free through our lives and through the world. Blessed be.
In honor of National Coming Out Day I am posting a sermon I wrote in 2013
Opening words – a poem by Kathleen Bonnano:
You can try to strangle light:
use your hands and think
you’ve found the throat of it,
but you haven’t.
You could use a rope or a garrote
or a telephone cord,
but the light, amorphous, implacable,
will make a fool of you in the end.
You could make it your mission
to shut it out forever,
to crouch in the dark,
the blinds pulled tight—
still, in the morning,
a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking
its optimistic finger
through a corner of the blind,
and then more light,
clever, nervy, impossible,
spilling out from the crevices
warming the shade.
This is the stubborn sun,
choosing to rise,
like it did yesterday,
like it will tomorrow.
You have nothing to do with it.
The sun makes its own history;
light has its way.Happy and Gay
“You can be anybody you want to be, you can love anyone that you will. You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you. The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done”
I cried the first time I heard that song – and the second time. OK, I cried today too.
Tears can be from pain, but they can also be tears of joy. My tears are happy tears.
I am so glad that I am gay! Don’t you wish you were? You don’t have to answer than just yet. Maybe later you can answer that question, but not yet.
It is pride weekend, and while I know a lot of you identify with the slogan, “straight but not narrow,” this morning I want to lift up how wonderful it is to be in a relationship with someone of the same gender.
As much as I appreciate the reasoning behind the argument that being gay is not a choice, it also bothers me. It leads to quickly to the idea that no one would choose this life, that what gay people need is tolerance and pity, after all, we were born this way, and we just can’t help it.
I don’t pretend to understand the science behind the argument, and I also know that many gay people have tried really hard to become heterosexual and have failed both miserably and painfully.
It may not be a choice, at least for everyone.
But I want to say clearly and proudly today, that if it is a choice, it is one I am both happy and proud to have made. It is GOOD to be gay. Yeah, there is a lot of discrimination; it would be great if the larger society were more accepting. It is getting better, but even when it was really terrible, even when it was illegal everywhere in the world, it was still worth it.
It may surprise some of you because I am so young at heart, but I am in my 60’s – early 60’s, very early 60’s. I was 15 in 1965 when I fell in love with my best friend we will call Kathy. We were in Rainbow Girls together if you can believe it. Anyone know about the Rainbow Girls? It is an organization for young women affiliated with the Masons and Eastern Star. Job’s Daughters is another one; the boys were in DeMolay. We would dress up in floor length formals, and conduct very serious rituals. In 1965, the rainbow was not yet a symbol of Gay Pride – that did not happen until 1978. I like to think the creators of it got the idea from me. Not true, but I like to think that, because I was, and still am, a Rainbow Girl. I just don’t wear floor length formals anymore. Floor length clerical robes, yes, fancy formal dresses, no.
As young girls often do, Kathy and I shared our hopes, our fears, our troubles, and our souls. One night we hugged each other and neither one of us wanted to let go. We knew something was happening while we held each other, but it took us awhile to figure it out.
In 1965, in a small town, we didn’t know any other gay people, any other lesbians. There weren’t any on TV and it wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper.
We did know that if you “wore green on Thursdays it meant you were queer.” That was the playground taunt when I was growing up. But what is one to do if March 17th falls on a Thursday? If you didn’t wear green on St Patrick’s Day, you would get pinched. Get pinched or be queer? Any sensible person would choose queer.
Seriously, we knew enough to know that what we were doing was not something that others thought was OK. But we knew it was wonderful; we were, after all, in love. I wrote in my journal the following question: “How can anything so wrong be so right?”
We were good for each other and we were glad that we were both girls. If one of us had been a boy, our parents would never have let us spent the night together. We had a whole lot of sleepovers in the year and a half that we were together.
After Kathy and I broke up, she was a year older and we began to have different friends and interests, I dated a few boys. I even lived with a man for three years while I was in college. That was OK. I like men, but to be honest, for an intimate relationship, for a life partner, for me, women are just better. I decided to come out and to identify as a lesbian. It was a decision, a choice to lead a more fulfilling life. Because of that choice, I was lucky enough in 1975 to fall in love with my dear Anne. It has been good, not perfect, no one’s life is perfect, but Anne and I have had a very good life together. We have had children, children that always knew they were wanted. Lesbians don’t tend to get pregnant by accident. Having children was a choice, a choice I would definitely make again.
If being gay is a choice, it is also one I would make again.
Frankly, being gay is so great that heterosexuals really should be jealous of us. You have all heard the line, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” If you are part of a same gender couple, at least you live of the same planet!
Seriously, there are so many gender related cultural attitudes and approaches to life that it is just easier to understand and get along with someone of the same gender. There is also the fact that we are still a male dominated society, and with same gender relationships, the external power differential, including earning capacity, tends to be less.
If you live with someone of the same gender, you also don’t have to argue about whether or not to put the toilet seat down.
If you are close to the same size, you can even share clothes without anyone else noticing. We did that some before I gained so much weight, but then again I have always like purple more than Anne does.
No two people are exactly the same, but the standard gender roles require a lot more negotiation in heterosexual relationships. Our oldest son, when he was about 12, made the comment that he liked having two moms partly because it gave him the freedom to be who he was. He could like cooking, he could like doing yard work, and could just be whoever he was. He wasn’t locked into a stereotypical gender role just because he was a boy. He’s a heterosexual and he is going to make some woman a wonderful husband one of these days.
Studies show that children raised by same gender parents turn out pretty much like other kids do with the small, but not insignificant difference, that as adolescents and as adults they are more accepting of all kinds of differences. We need more people like that in the world.
When our kids were small the other mothers we met would often comment as they saw us both changing diapers and dealing with the kids that they would love it if their kids had an extra mom to help with all the mothering duties. Not that men can’t do those things, and not that there aren’t some dad’s, both straight and gay, who are awesome at all the nurturing tasks, but for at least most of those women, their husbands were just “helpers” and the childrearing duty was not fully shared. They said they were jealous and I think they really were.
There are also all the straight women friends who, when their relationships with men just didn’t seem to work out, have told us that they wished they were lesbians because it just seems a whole lot easier. They were jealous of what Anne and I have together.
Jealousy can be a good thing. It is much better than tolerance, and it is certainly better than disgust.
The point of this sermon is not, however, a recruiting effort. Yes, I think it is great to be gay; it makes me happy. But even if straight people have it harder in some ways, they can be happy too, and the real message is that we all need to find the good that is in each of us, in each of our lives. There are advantages and disadvantages to almost everything.
A lot of things have and will break our hearts. There is so much that we would change if we could, about the world and about our own lives. There is loss, and there is grief, discrimination, and oppression. There are tragedies of all kinds in life. Most of us would like more of something in our lives. More time, more money, better health, better weather, more peace, or more excitement, there is always something that we think will make our lives better. I’d love it if we had marriage equality throughout the world. I would love it if all churches were as accepting of diversity as this one is. We can work for the changes we would like to see. But in the meantime, let us count our blessings. Let us be happy with who we are and what we are doing.
Each of you has positives in your life. Recognize them and celebrate them. Celebrate who you are, a complex human being with a complex life. Know that there is a river than runs in each of our souls; we are all somebody. Don’t get stuck in the negative messages. No one is less than anyone else. We all have inherent worth and dignity. Relish it, enjoy it, be who you are. The song Beth sang addresses a young child,
“You can be anybody you want to be, you can love anyone that you will. You can dream all the day never reaching the end of everything possible for you.”
But the message of the song isn’t only for children, although I wish all children could hear it. We all can continue to dream. Our dreams need have no ending; no limits imposed by others who would tell us that they know better than us what our lives should be like.
We have only to remember that “the only measure of our words and your deeds will be the love we leave behind when you’re done.”
Stand on the side of love. Choose to stand on the side of love. It is the only thing that really matters. Amen and halleluyah!
Opening words (here)
Good morning. I hope you are all well and that those of who have been uncomfortable with parts of our services lately are feeling a bit better today.
I am going to start with a brief history lesson. One, I love our Unitarian Universalist history and find it inspiring. When I took my ordination vows, I promised to uphold the principles of our faith. Two, although our history does not define us, it can inform us. Life is a riddle and a mystery, but it is important to know where we come from. I love the song in our hymnal, “Rank by Rank,” which is often sung at ordinations as it was at my own. One line is: “Days of comrades gone before, lives that speak and deeds that beckon.” How can we not listen to the voices of Martha and Waitsill Sharp, John Murray, Olympia Brown, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and so many others?
Both Unitarianism and Universalism, in modern times anyway, were a part of the free church tradition. That term originally just meant they were not state sponsored religions. They also had congregational polity, which in the simplest definition means that congregations chose their own leaders, including their ministers. That authority does not rest with a larger association or denomination as it does in so many other religions.
Unitarian Universalism is now a creedless faith. We have no requirements for membership that involve a particular theological belief. This was not always true.
In 1803, the Universalist Church of America adopted the Winchester Profession which stated in part that
“We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”
Almost immediately after the adoption of this creed there was controversy and discussion. Those folks were our ancestors after all.
In 1899, the liberty clause was added, which states:
“Neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a condition of fellowship…”
That addition was the beginning of making our Universalist faith a truly free one.
One the Unitarian side, we have Theodore Parker to thank. Famous for writing his sermons with a pistol on his desk because he had fugitive slaves hidden in the parsonage, he also was one of the secret six who funded John Brown’s attempted slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. If we had Unitarian Universalist saints, he would be one.
He also made our free faith truly free. In 1841, he wrote the
“Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” which in a much more complicated way said, basically, that the “religion of Jesus” would have existed even if a man named Jesus had never lived.
People really freaked out when he said that. His fellow ministers and the Unitarian Church even conducted what could only be called a heresy trial. Parker was not just a saint but also our only true Unitarian Universalist heretic. His ideas were truly heretical for the time, but what is significant, is that he was not convicted.
Instead, Parker was instrumental in creating what we now call the free pulpit. He had these words to say:
(Truth) “speaks in a thousand tongues, and with a pen graves her sentence on the rock forever. You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire your servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves …. But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth …. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers,”
So we have a free pulpit because of Theodore Parker. But just because ministers have not only the right but the obligation to speak the truth as they see it, we also have a free pew. Because of the liberty clause, members of the congregation also have the freedom to agree or disagree with whatever is said from the pulpit.
This is some of the history contained in our fourth principle “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
There is a lot more I could tell you about, dating back to the Edict of Torda in 1568 and Francis David and the line sometimes attributed to him, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
It is hard for me to stop talking about our history because I love it so, but I really need to talk some about what is happening here and now at the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma.
We had a Listening Circle last Sunday where people spoke from their hearts about worship. I heard some disagreement, but mainly I heard pain. Freedom of the pulpit aside, no minister wants to hurt people. Disagreement is fine, it is healthy, and it is part of our tradition. Part of minister’s job, particularly a transitional one, is to challenge some of the assumptions and practices that may be inhibiting a congregation’s growth, both in numbers and in spiritual growth. I am going to do my best to do that in a way that will hopefully be less painful for those of you who are traumatized by religious language.
I did hear you and I also understand some of the pain because I have felt it myself. Early on, when I first started attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I left after a worship service in tears simply because the minister quoted from the Bible. I did not understand anything then about our history of the freedom of the pulpit or the freedom of the pew. I thought I was being expected to believe what the Bible said.
The particular quote wasn’t at all offensive, I can’t even remember what it was, but the fact that the Bible was quoted caused me pain. I eventually got over those painful reactions, and I also know that may not be possible for everyone.
Last Sunday, people talked about the words in the order of service, most of which were there long before I came here. In response, I have changed some of the words. Opening words instead of invocation, closing words instead of benediction. I also introduced the prayer differently this morning, leaving more of an option for people to “opt out” if they wanted to do so. These were all fairly simple to do and I really hope they helped.
There was also a great deal of disappointment about the water and stones service which was on the 15th anniversary of 911. In retrospect, we should have moved the ingathering celebration to a different Sunday. The Worship Committee and I will keep that in mind for the future.
There were a couple of concerns that I listened to and I think I understood, but then decided I could not make the changes that some wanted.
A very specific one is whether or not I speak from the pulpit. Some of you may not know, but after my first sermon here on August 21, I fell after the service. I tripped on that stupid step over there and went down hard on my left shoulder, which still aches. Paul Mark was the only one around at the time and he helped me get up. I don’t think he wants to have to do that again, although I am sure he would.
This pulpit has sides I can hold on to that the lectern does not. It also has a large raised platform, and I don’t have to stand on a small box so people can see me. I really don’t want to fall again, so I hope you understand my choice to use the pulpit.
Some people also really wanted me to eliminate the pastoral prayer while others said prayer was something they wanted. I changed the introduction as I said, but I left the prayer in. Prayer is important to me personally, but I can do that silently and in private. But I also strongly believe that spoken, community prayer is important to a congregation’s spiritual life. We are a people of faith and we long to bring our values into the world. Prayer is a way of setting our collective intention to bring more peace, compassion, and justice into the world and into our own lives. I don’t think prayer by itself changes the world, or that some supreme being responds to our prayers by taking action.
I don’t believe in a God that can act in any way other than through human beings. But I do believe prayer changes us. It has changed me. Prayer can make us realize that we are not all powerful, that we need help sometimes, that we always need hope. Community prayer can take us out of our individual boxes to find the deep truth that we are all connected, no matter our particular situation in life.
I also understand that prayer doesn’t work for a number of you. I used to feel that way about silent meditation. I’d be tapping my foot, impatient for it to be over. Patience has never been my strong suit, but I have worked on it over the years.
I did not care for the periods of silence, but once I became a minister, I realized how important they were for some of the people in the congregation I served. So I did it. I watched the second hand on a small clock on the pulpit, making sure I waited long enough before I could – finally – ring the singing bowl.
And over the years something happened that I had not expected. The silent times during worship became very important to me. They enriched my own spiritual life in ways I cannot really describe.
I am not saying that if prayer is really upsetting to you that you should try it anyway. That is for you to decide, if and when you ever feel ready to do so. But for those of you that right now just find it boring or meaningless, consider giving it a try. See if it might work for you after some practice. A spiritual practice is just that, a practice. We practice, by trying, failing, and trying again, and sometimes we are surprised by what we might learn. Cherish your doubts, but continue to examine both your beliefs and your doubts. As James Luther Adams said, in a quote that is in your order of service, “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident”
I’ll close now with the Kenyan prayer, also in the order of service, revising the language slightly, because that prayer is really for me, as I learn how I can best minister to this awesome congregation “From the cowardice that dares not face new truth, from the laziness that is contented with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, may I be delivered.” May it be so.
We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
Call to Worship (here)
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition draws from many sources. The six primary ones are listed in the front of the grey hymnal, the page before hymn #1, if you want to glance at them. We tend to know our principles better than our sources, but the sources are what really ground our faith and uniquely distinguish it from other secular and religious institutions.
Ellen just spoke of one of those sources, the fourth, which is “the Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” Ellen learned much about love and about justice from her Jewish education. Martha and Waitsill Sharp were inspired to act from that same source. In 1939, most Unitarians identified as Christians, as followers of the prophet Jesus. Not exclusively so, of course; we almost always have had a liberty clause which guaranteed freedom of thought and belief for both congregations and ministers.
I will talk more about the history of our free faith in a couple of weeks, but today I want to focus on the story of the Sharps.
Their story, for us, relates directly to our second source which is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
Martha and Waitsill Sharp confronting evil directly as they worked to rescue people. They left their young children and risked their lives for people they did not know in another part of the world. Why did they do it? Why would anyone leave their children?
They were already leading lives of meaning. They were already making a positive difference in the world. Martha was a social worker. Waitsill was a minister. They both were aware of the terrible threat of the Nazis. Waitsill preached about it, more than once I am sure.
They knew what they believed. They knew that all human life had value and that everyone deserved justice and compassion. As Unitarians, they also knew that humans had a responsibility to act. They could not stand by and expect God to save anyone.
But I don’t think they would have gone at all except for one very important reason.
They were asked. They weren’t the first people asked. 17 ministers had already said no, but for the Sharps when someone asks you to do something important, you had to at least think seriously about doing it. They said yes. They traveled to Prague.
So much of our Unitarian Universalist history comes from that time and place. While in Prague, they met Rev. Norbert Chapek, the creator of our flower communion. They were working with the newly formed service committee, the committee that commissioned Hans Deutsch to create our symbol of the flaming chalice.
The chalice was used for the rescue work that the Sharps and others did. Every time we light our chalice we are honoring that legacy of confronting evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power love.
Like any legacy, we can either ignore it or try to live up to it. I think most of us try, the best we can, to do what our faith calls us to do in the world. This congregation’s mission statement, “Live your sacred • Transform through love • Act with courage” is certainly in keeping with that legacy.
The powers and structures of evil are rising today, in our very own country. How will we answer the call to confront them with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love?
We have virtually the same story that most countries had during WWII. Jews were denied entry with the excuse that some of them might be Nazi spies. Today the excuse is that they might be terrorists or criminals. But people are not skittles, but it can make for some interesting metaphors.
I found the following on facebook written by Eli Bosnick.
I am going to try and skip over some of the profanity.
The Sharps loved their lives, but they knew that other lives were just as important. They were willing to eat the skittles.
Would you eat the skittles?
Today, in America, the forces of hate, misogyny, and white supremacy have been unleashed. They have always been here, but they are more blatant because of the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign. I can’t tell you how to vote, but I can say to vote your conscience and your values. There is so much at risk in this election for so many vulnerable people.
People of color are being executed almost daily in our streets. Just a few days ago, Terrence Crutcher’s car broke down. The police arrived and this unarmed man put his hands up as they directed. He had not committed a crime. But he was shot down and killed simply because he was a large black man and so looked like a “bad dude.”
Meanwhile while white college boys spend a couple of months in county jail after they are convicted for brutal rapes.
Ending racism will require much more than putting a slogan on a wall, or even preaching a sermon about it.
The Sharps risked all. Their actions saved lives, but their own children were hurt by their absences. Their marriage fell apart.
What are you willing to risk to save lives? Black lives because we believe black lives matter? Immigrant lives, Muslim lives, because those lives matter too. I’d use the phrase “all lives matter here” if that line had not been corrupted by those who believe that only the lives of people who are exactly like them really matter.
The Sharps did not care about the religion or the race of the people they saved. And back then, Jewish people were considered to be a different race. We know now that race is simply a social construct, that there is no intrinsic difference between any of us, no matter the color of our skin. . But even in that time of ignorance, the Sharps knew, because of their Unitarian faith, that all life is sacred, to be treasured and protected.
Others had said no, but the Sharps said yes when given the opportunity to make a difference, to do something important with their lives.
The poet Mary Oliver asks us what we will do with our “one wild and precious life.”
It is the same question Martha Sharp asked her grandson, “What are you going to do with your life that is important?”
Will you say yes if someone asks you to do something scary for justice? It doesn’t have to be life threatening, although these days you can never tell. Maybe it is just speaking up when you hear hate expressed in a public place – like when you hear someone in the grocery store rudely telling someone else to speak English instead of Spanish. Anyone ever heard that? I have, even here in California where Spanish was spoken long before English was. Maybe it trying to talk to some of your relatives who have been swayed by the politics of fear.
Explain why you care, why you are willing to take a risk for justice and compassion.
Explain that your faith calls you to have a warm heart and an open mind. Tell the story of the Sharps. Explain how that story has inspired you. They were asked and they said yes. Consider yourselves asked. May it be so.
What would it take
For you to decide?
Would you stay safe or go
When humanity called?
Would you leave your children
Your work and your home?
To risk your body
Maligned and abused.
How deep is your faith?
How strong is your call?
Martha and Waitsill
Just had to go.
Evil was growing
It had to be stopped.
They met hate with love
And saved who they could
This is the challenge
We still face today
Hatred and fear
Build walls to keep
Children die in the desert
And drown in the sea
What would it take
For you to decide
To answer their cries
With love in your heart?
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is an account of a daring rescue mission that occurred on the precipice of World War II. It tells the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who left their children behind in the care of their parish and boldly committed to multiple life-threatening missions in Europe. Over two dangerous years they helped to save hundreds of imperiled political dissidents and Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation across Europe.
If there is a stairway into heaven
There must be an elevator too
Every one is welcome
You don’t have to believe
You don’t have to be good.
You don’t need to worry
About playing a harp
You just have to come
And be who you are
If a God does exist
And I am never quite sure
Then God must be kinder,
Not meaner than most.
We won’t have to crawl
Grovel or whine
We’ll just push the up button
And ride into the clouds
Along with our enemies
Neighbors and friends.
Come in today, come in.
Come in peace, come in hope.
Come in sadness and in despair
Bring all that you carry
And all that you are.
Know you are welcome here.
Come in this morning,
And let your tears flow
In memory and pain.
Let the gentle waters of the spirit,
Soothe you and heal you
As you drink your fill
Of community and of hope.
The river of life flows on
With the force of all our yearnings.
The strong stones of our journeys
Build the pathways to our healing.
Come in peace, come in hope
Come in sadness and in despair
May our thirst be quenched
May we all find the strength
To meet hate with love
And carry the blessing into the world.
Amen and blessed be.
Some of you were here a couple of weeks ago when I talked to you about John Murray and how he did not believe in hell. Do any of you remember that? I heard afterward that some of the younger people were a little confused about the idea of hell, and weren’t really sure what “hell” means. I think that this congregation takes Murray’s “Give them hope not hell” pretty seriously. That is a very good thing, but just so you know, some people, some religions, believe that people who do bad things are punished by God after they die in a place they call hell. Unitarian Universalists rarely believe in that kind of god. I am not at all sure what, if anything, happens to us after we die, but I think it is just the same for all of us. We might become part of a larger spirit, or maybe we simply return to the earth to be reborn in another form. Maybe a flower or a tree, maybe a squirrel or even a bug. Who knows for sure? There is no punishment after death though, that doesn’t make any sense to me.
I think people created the idea of hell because sometimes people do really bad things that hurt other people. When someone does something bad it is easy to get angry at them and want to hurt them back. If we can’t punish them ourselves, we want God to do it.
Today is our water and stones service, a time when we gather together as a community in preparation for the fall and the coming year. This year it is also the 15th anniversary of a day when some people did some really bad, really terrible things. On September 11, 2001, they flew airplanes into buildings in New York and in Washington DC and killed a lot of people.
Those of us who were alive on that day will never forget it. Those of you who don’t remember it at all may want to talk to your parents or the people who care for you about it more later. It was a terrible and a very sad day. It is important, I think, to cry when bad things happen and when people are hurt. Tears can help us heal and go on and find hope again.
The choir is going to sing a song for us now about finding hope, about opening the windows of our hearts and letting peace and love inside.
I may ask you to come up again and help me later in the service, if you’d like to do that, but for now, you can go back and sit with your families.
Reflection 2 prayer
Open the window, let the dove fly in.
A dove is, of course, a symbol of peace. We need more peace in the world and in our own lives. It is so easy to feel despair when so many terrible things happen. Relationships fall apart, jobs are lost, we are bullied at school, the rent goes up, and people we love can die. Then there are mostly random events like earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes and tornados. Humans also create suffering for ourselves and others by things we both do and do not do. Global climate change is already killing people, and it will get much worse if we don’t act more decisively to protect our planet. What really breaks our hearts, however, is the pain and suffering that is intentional.
Today is the 15th anniversary of a planned mass murder. It wasn’t the first, and as we know too well, it wasn’t and won’t be the last. From slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples, to Sandy Hook, Oklahoma City, Boston, and Orlando. I can’t list them all, there are too many, even limiting it to the United States. That alone is heartbreaking, and I haven’t even mentioned war, but I should. We have to name the Holocaust as well.
The horror of what people can do to other human beings gives us so much to weep about, so much to fear. When I feel overwhelmed by all that is going on in the world, I hear echoes of the Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah, crying out,
“Is there no balm in Gilead, Is there no physician there?
So why is there no healing for my people?”
His cry is our cry, aren’t we all looking for a balm to ease our suffering? For a physician to heal our wounds and the wounds of our world?
One of my favorite theologians, Mr. Rodgers, said that when something bad is happening, to look for the helpers, because they are always there. As Unitarian Universalists, we pride ourselves on being helpers. In a couple of weeks, I will talk about what some of us did during the Holocaust to try and help.
When we are in trouble, if we can, we also reach out and take the hand of another person. We just hold on, as tight as we can, feeling that human connection.
One memory of September 11th that stays with me is the images I saw of people either jumping or falling from one of the towers before it collapsed. The images were tiny, but you could tell they were people. Two of them were holding hands as they fell. We don’t know who they were, how could we? Were they coworkers, friends, strangers, or lovers? We don’t know their religion, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, or gender identity. We don’t know what jobs they had or how much money they were making. None of that really matters. They were two people who held onto each other. It did not save their lives, but I believe it gave them strength.
I also believe that religious communities such as this one can give us each the strength we need to face whatever comes, to work as helpers to try and heal some of the hurt in the world. Our tears are healing too as they wash over our wounds with a gentle salt caress.
Will you pray with me?
Hold us as we weep and give us the strength and courage to do what we can to help heal this broken world. We are grateful for communities such as this one that offer comfort and meaning in confusing and even terrifying times.
We are grateful for the water that quenches our thirst and grows the plants that become our food. But mostly, we are grateful for the beloved companions who travel with us on this journey we call life.
We pray that those who hunger might someday have their fill. We pray that all will someday understand that we are all connected, that no one should be left out, that every drop of water and every single soul matters.
We also offer prayers this for members and friends of this community:
We pray for all who are suffering in body or in spirit. We pray that they might soon find both comfort and healing.
If there are other people who should be mentioned, in prayer or in gratitude, please say their names now, just their names.
Blessings on all who have been named and upon all who have named them. May peace be with you.
We will now have a time of silence for your personal prayer or meditation. Silence, BELL
Blessings on this Church and upon our wider communities! Blessings on the world and all its creatures! Blessing on all of us. Namaste. Hymn #95 there is more love
This ritual is for young and old, for rich and poor, for gay and straight, for the able and less able, for people of all backgrounds, races, and situations. It is for founding members and first time visitors.
One of my favorite poems is I’ve Know Rivers by Langston Hughes, an African American poet from the Harlem renaissance of the 1920’s and also a gay man. It is in our hymnal #528. Let’s read it together.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve know rivers ancient as the
World and older than the flow of
Human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when
dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and
It lulled me to sleep.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I looked upon the Nile and raised
The pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the
Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
Went down to New Orleans and
I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn
All golden in the sunset.
I’ve know rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Our souls grow deep, I believe, when we become more aware of our connections. Souls, like rivers, cannot stand still, movement, change is in their very nature. Just as rivers seek the sea, we humans seek connection with something greater than ourselves.
One of our tasks, as human beings, and collectively as a religious community, is to deepen our souls, to increase our understanding, and to move forward toward that transformative moment when we know that we are not alone. That no one is alone. We are somebody, each of us, and just like in our opening hymn. And in our final hymn this morning we will sing about the peace, the sorrow, the joy, the pain, the love, the tears, and the strength each of us has within us. When we share our tears and our strengths, they fill us and bind us together as we move toward that deep sea of mutual care and understanding. All of it, all of the individual drops of our complicated lives come together and create the spirit of life that can both heal and transform. It is then we really feel the power of the river, the power of love. It is a wellspring of the spirit that calls us to drink deeply and be satisfied and renewed. Some of you may have brought water or a stone with you today that you collected from somewhere special to you. Some of you may have forgotten or simply didn’t know that we would be doing this today. No worries, we have extra water and extra stones. In a minute, I will invite each of you to come forward to add some water to this vase (bowl?). This is a sacred and quiet ritual. After the service there will be plenty of time to share your summer adventures with your friends. Today, let the water you pour symbolize the tears you have shed in your life and offer that sadness and grief into the care of this community. Add your water without any words if that feels right or, if you are so moved, perhaps whisper a word or two that describes what you are feeling or who you are remembering. Jesus will be playing while we do this, so not everyone will hear whatever words may be spoken, but we will all be holding on to each other, with the fullest attention of our hearts. After you have added some water, move to the altar that has the stones and add one to symbolize the strength you have within you and the faith in the power of the love that sustains us all. After you have placed your stone, please select a different one to take with you. Keep it warm in your hand as you return to your seats. Keep it to remind you of the strength we can find together.
Ritual blessing Now we will bless this water and these stones. (Children) Blessed be this water gathered here from far and near;Blessed be these stones, strong and solid as the earth. Blessed be those whose lives are lived like flowing springs, and those who are steady as a rock. Blessed be this community of memory and hope, which in its coming together, in joy and sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, makes this water and these stones holy. We bless this water. (say it with me)We bless this water.And for the stones that are on this altar and the ones we are holding in our hands.We bless these stones. (say it with me) We bless these stones.
Does the changing of the season
Speak to your spirit?
The warm glow of sunsets
The rustle of autumn leaves.
We must prepare for winter
Even as we bask
In the fading light.
What did you harvest this year?
Will it feed you?
Will you have enough
To share with our hungry world?
I fell down a lot when I was a kid, so many times that I can’t count them. I always had skinned and scabby knees. All kids fall a fair amount I suppose, my own children certainly took some tumbles. I may have fallen more than is usual, however, as I had polio when I was just a year old, and my legs are a bit uneven which can throw my coordination off. It was hard to learn to skip, and I never learned to skate. I am just not physically graceful.
As adult I have only had three falls that were at all serious, which is really quite miraculous.
Once was just this last Sunday, thankfully just after and not just before I lead my first worship service at a new church. There is a step in the back of the chancel that was not yet embedded in my memory. While I was putting my things together before heading to the social hour, I tripped on that step, and down I went. No major damage, but my shoulder is still sore from where I landed. The first service at a new church is a big deal.
The time before was in my driveway in Ogden, Utah. I was on my way to the church where I was to lead worship for the congregation and for the attendees of our district assembly. There were Unitarian Universalists from all over the western states, and the sanctuary was packed. It was very big deal to be leading worship for that gathering. I preached that day with a black eye and a scab on my chin. I also damaged one of my knees in that fall, a knee that still gives me some trouble.
The first time I took a big fall as an adult was after going out to Thai food with an old and very dear friend. We left the restaurant and crossed the street on our way to the car. The pavement was uneven, and I tripped and my face landed on the curb. I broke my glasses that time. The next day I got on a plane to DC for my very first meeting with the then Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Kenneth Apfel. The meeting was an extremely big deal, something the organization I worked with had put a lot of effort into setting up. I met him with a black eye, taped-up glasses, and a few scabs on my face.
I don’t fall often, obviously, partly as I tend to be fairly careful knowing how clumsy I can be. I do trip a lot. But it seems my serious falls have all been at times where something significant is happening. It is likely just a random coincidence. I don’t always fall down at momentous occasions. I might have stumbled a bit at my wedding, but I definitely did not fall to the ground.
We can draw some meaning even from random events, if we want to do so.
These three falls of mine all happened around events that were highlights of my professional careers, moments that I felt both lucky and honored to have experienced. Moments of grace, if you will.
We can’t all be graceful, but our lives really can be full of grace.
How’s that for finding an accidental blessing?