Archive | October 2013

Noah’s Boat

To watch a video of the sermon click (here)

Noah’s Boat

Opening words: World’s End

Reading:

Genesis

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[d] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 

Music:  Somewhere over the Rainbow by Masters of None

Sermon notes:

Ah rainbows!  We really love rainbows here.  This week we celebrated National Coming Out Day, so it is quite appropriate to sing the song we just heard from the choir.  Did you know that back in the bad old days, when almost everyone was in the closet, asking someone if they were a “friend of Dorothy” was a safe way to find out if they were gay?  Sometimes it takes a wizard.

Today we are going to talk about Noah and his ark, and what meaning that ancient story might hold for us today. The topic is one I chose in response to a comment made on facebook from someone who has been attending this church a fair amount. He said that the first time I told the story of Noah and the flood as if it were actual fact would be the last time he came to this church.  So in case you are worried, and you know who you are, the plan today is NOT to drive you away.

The Noah story is an interesting one, but our earlier reading is not the most interesting part even if it is the most popular.  The interesting parts you have likely never heard in a more traditional church.  They are frankly more than a little awkward.

In Genesis 6 it says,

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide[a] in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

Say what?  The “sons of God” had children with human women!  I thought there was only one Son of God?  This is where we need to understand that the concept of God changes in the Bible.  In the oldest sections, there were many Gods and the other religions in the region had a great deal of influence on the ideas and stories of the wandering tribe that eventually developed the Jewish faith tradition.  Another example is from the Ten Commandments the one about having no other gods before me. Monotheism, the belief there is only one God is a fairly new invention in terms of human history.

There really is a lot of history in the Bible.  It just isn’t literal, and you have to read between the lines if you want to understand it even a little bit.

The story goes on to say:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” God’s creation was evil, and the children of his Sons evil too.  So much for the idea of a perfect deity, here he is apologizing for his mistakes.  The next line is one I don’t like very much:

But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.”  I don’t like it because it implies that God likes some people more than others, which is something that makes absolutely no sense to me.

Noah is also a very questionable choice for an example of virtue in my opinion.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

In the story, Noah builds his boat and follows God’s instructions, which were very specific as to how big it should be and what kind of wood to use. He gathers his sons and their wives and every creature on earth. He tells Noah to have seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of unclean ones. Funny, the toy ark I had as a child only had two of each animal and there were only about six different animals.  At least they all fit in the ark, something that would clearly be impossible if we wanted to believe this story as actual fact.

Later in Genesis, it doesn’t mention the seven pairs of clean animals.  This is more evidence of what almost all real Biblical scholars believe to be true.  The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of ancient writings, many of which have conflicting information.

The different sources were put together in a way that seemed to make the most sense to the compilers but it is why there are two different versions of the creation story for another example.  The same is true in the New Testament with the four gospels having very different narratives of the life of Jesus, including those about his birth and resurrection. They cannot all be factually true at the same time.  Some followers of modern Christianity have attempted to blend them all of them together.  It is a tough job.  I am so glad not to be a Biblical literalist!

I could go on, there are a lot of metaphors in the story of Noah, the forty days of rain just meant it rained for a long time.  Quite often, the number 40 is used in Bible stories to mean a long time, whether it is the 40 years wandering in the desert as Moses did, or the 40 days in the wilderness in the case of Jesus.  Similarly, there were of course floods in ancient times just as there are today.  “It covered the whole world” is perhaps how a really big flood would likely be described.

I could go on line by line but I need to mention one more part of the story of Noah.  Remember that God liked Noah, and said that he alone was righteous. After the flood, he told him to be fruitful and multiply.

But if you think Noah was so good, then how do we explain the following passage that follows the sweet story about the rainbow in the heavens.

20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.

21 He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.

23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”26 He also said,“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but the way this story reads to me is that Noah got very drunk.  He got so drunk that he took off all his clothes.  Who knows what else he was doing in that tent of his.  Then his son Ham goes into the tent, sees his drunk, naked father, and tells his brothers.  Because of this his son Canaan is cursed and so are his children.  Is that righteousness?  Is that justice?  Hardly, all Ham did was see his drunken father.  His son Canaan did not do anything at all. Does this mean the Bible is telling us we should ignore the failings of the powerful, that we should turn our backs so we don’t see their vulnerabilities and shame?

Who knows what it is in fact saying?  It is likely another metaphor.  Ham’s son is named Canaan and Canaan was another nation in those times.  Perhaps that story was meant as an explanation of why the Canaanites were considered bad people.

It is a weird story though, and it doesn’t make Noah look fair or just or righteous.  What was God thinking to save only him and his family?

But what can the story of Noah mean for us today, if anything?  One, we need to understand some of the traditional interpretations because so many people believe them.  Some of the deniers of human caused climate change say they aren’t worried because God promised Noah that floods would never destroy the world again.

Somehow that doesn’t reassure me and it probably doesn’t reassure all the people in Colorado who lost their homes to the horrible flooding there last month.

But more important than knowing that some people take these stories literally and act as if they really happened, is taking to heart the underlying message of the story.

We need to look around and see what is happening in the world and to our planet.  We need to prepare for the floods, both literal and figurative, that are coming.  We need to see the signs that tell us we are close to killing the earth that sustains our lives and the lives of all the creatures that live here with us.  We need to build an ark and begin to start saving what we can.  The promise of the rainbow to me is a symbol of hope, a hope that humanity can find the strength and the wisdom to connect with a spirit that can save us from whatever disasters we have created for ourselves. Humans are not inherently wicked and our hearts are full of so much more than just evil.

We aren’t completely righteous either.  We too, like Noah, can tend to blame others for our own mistakes.  We ignore the signs of coming floods and other disasters because it is often easier to turn our backs and pretend not to see.

Look to the rainbows, friends.  We will find our way to dry land.  Amen and blessed Be.

Closing Hymn “Blue Boat Home” Click (here) to see a you-tube version

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Sunday Twitter Feed 10/13/13

The sermon can be found by clicking (here).

World’s End

How will the world end?

Will we spin out of control

Into a far away star

Burning bright in the evening sky?

Will the air we need fill with smoke

Choking our hungry lungs

On poisons created by greed?

Will we hate so much that war becomes

The fiery inferno of hell?

 

What shall we do?

Shall we build an ark

For the floods we know will come?

The ice is melting and the seas will rise

Prayer alone will not see us through

Can we use our hands our hearts our heads

And turn this disaster around?

 

Listen my friends

The world’s going to end

Science is a prophet too

Let’s start to care for the planet whole

We are all in the same big boat.

We have to start bailing

The damage out

We have to repair the sails

I’ll work with you

Will you work with me?

We’ll  follow the rainbow

It will show us the way

To a renewed creation

And paradise reborn

 

 

 

 

Ordination of Women and LGBT Acceptance

A few days ago, I posted about the LDS church and their continued opposition to the ordination of women as well as their persistence in naming  same gender relationships as sinful.  (Click here to read that post.)  I commented that I thought the two issues were related.

I do know that my own faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism has been in the forefront of the struggle for full inclusion of both women and LGBT people.  The first  woman in the US to be ordained by a national denomination was Olympia Brown, who was ordained by the Universalist Church of America on June 25, 1863.  Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell was earlier on Sept. 15, 1853 by a local congregational church.  She later became a Unitarian and preached frequently in Unitarian churches.  In terms of of LGBT issues, as early as 1970, shortly after Stonewall, our General Assembly called for an end to discrimination based upon sexual orientation.  Currently, roughly half of our ordained clergy are female and we have many ministers serving our congregations who are openly LGBT.  I am one of them.

Many different denominations will now ordain women but relatively few will ordain openly gay ministers, particularly if they are in a marriage or relationship.   What is striking is that there is no religious tradition that is at all supportive of same gender relationships that does not also ordain women.  (I started to research various other world religions, but gave up as the information of GLBT acceptance was much harder to find.  Someone else may wish to do so.  I suspect the same dynamic would be there.)

The major examples of Christian denominations that ordain non-celebate LGBT people are the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), and the Episcopal Church.  All ordain women.

Most of the other mainline Christian denominations are still dealing with the issue.  The Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptists, and the Disciples Of Christ (all of whom ordain women) have not reached a consensus on the issues of GLBT ordination but they are not actively engaged in trying to stop GLBT progress in the area of civil rights including civil marriage.

Who are the major Christian denominations that are actively opposing full civil rights for GLBT people?

The Southern Baptist Convention

The Missouri Synod Lutherans

The Catholic Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

None of them ordain women.

I suspect it is mainly about patriarchy.  Stable loving same gender relationship challenge the patriarchal ideal of men always needing to be in the leadership role both in the family and in the church.   Male privilege and power is threatened both by women who demand significant roles in religious life and by marriages that are based upon equality.  Women should no longer be silent in church.  Paul would never have written that infamous line anyway if there were not already a lot of sisters making their opinions known in the churches of that time.

Jesus spent a lot of his ministry with women and he never said anything to indicate that same gender relationships were sinful.

The struggle of women and of GLBT people for full inclusion in society and in religious institutions are clearly linked.  If women are not equal participants in a faith community, then GLBT people have not been accepted there either.   So there is a good reason for LGBT people to be cheering on those working for the ordination of women in male dominated faiths.  Not that we wouldn’t be doing so anyway.  It is both a justice issue and a spiritual one.

The Real Sinners

As a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Utah, I serve a congregation composed of many people who have left the LDS church.  Most have left with great pain, shunned too often by family and friends.  Some were shamed for who they are and what they believed (or just could not bring themselves to believe.)  My sermon yesterday addressed some of that pain (click) and I hope it brought some healing to some who heard it.

We always have more visitors during the LDS conference weekend, and the same was true yesterday.

I do follow what happens during the conference and was encouraged by some of the remarks made by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, said “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.”

Wonderful words, words that generated hope among many.  If the church could admit past mistakes, perhaps the future could hold positive change.  Then 200 women were turned away from the priesthood meeting.  Then Elder Oaks had to go on and on about how sinful same gender marriages are.  The two issues are not unrelated.  I truly believe if women had more real power in the LDS church, the bigotry against GLBT people would soon diminish.  Almost all Mormon women are mothers, and given the large family sizes, many have GLBT children.  They know the importance of unconditional love to a child’s spiritual and physical growth.  They have also learned that rejecting such a child can lead to that child’s death either through suicide or through risky self-destructive behaviors.

President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, was relatively subdued this time.  Elder Oaks took up his message, however, by saying,

“There are many political and social pressures for legal and policy changes to establish behaviors contrary to God’s decrees about sexual morality and are contrary to the eternal nature and purposes of marriage and child-bearing. These pressures have already permitted same-gender marriages in various states and nations.”

Laws legalizing so called “same-gender marriage,” he added, do not change God’s law of marriage of His commandments and standards.

“We remain under covenant to love God and keep His commandments and to refrain from bowing down to or serving other gods and priorities — even those becoming popular in our particular time and place.”

I wonder if he answered his own, earlier question:

“Are we serving priorities or gods ahead of the God we profess to worship?” “Have we forgotten the Savior who taught that if we love Him we will keep His commandments? If so, our priorities have been turned upside down by the spiritual apathy and undisciplined appetites so common in our day.”

Yes, I think the answer is definitely yes.  The priorities of the LDS hierarchy are truly upside down.  Patriarchy, homophobia, greed and arrogance have led them to forget the greatest commandment.

Matthew 22:36-40

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Excluding people from full inclusion in a faith community  based upon their gender and or their sexual orientation does not follow that commandment.  Jesus also did not say the church should build high-end shopping malls.

My marriage to my beloved partner is a blessing not a sin.  The LDS church’s naming it a sin, is the real sin.

So keep praying guys (and you are all guys). Start listening to the God that lives outside your moldy doctrines.  Start listening to the women who could lead you home.

Summaries of the conference talks are (here)

Haunting Church

To watch a video of this sermon, click here.

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host, praise father, son, and Holy Ghost.  Those are the traditional words to the doxology that I grew up singing every Sunday in church.  I still like them better than all the variations that are available in our hymnal.  The choir just did a fabulous medley of them – I think it was a medley and not a mash up, but maybe there is another word.

A religious path can take many twists and turns.  It is a journey that I think never ends but continues for our whole lives and perhaps even beyond death.  Those that believe in reincarnation believe that.  Personally, I am not sure what happens after we die, but I believe that if our souls do live on that they will continue to change and grow, that we will arrive at new and different understandings. Isn’t that part of the definition of living?

But even if our path toward spiritual understanding has no definite end, it has a beginning.  Most of us can remember a time when we had some sense of the divine, of mystery, a time when we began looking for answers, for something that would give our lives meaning, something that would help us make sense of all the chaos, of all the pain and confusion that we saw around us. We may have been struck with awe at something in the natural world; we may have gazed in wonder at the stars or a new born baby’s face.

We all have a religious past, even those of us who did not grow up in any faith tradition.

Just out of curiosity, how many of you here today did not regularly attend religious services before you entered your teens?

In many parts of the country, it would be closer to a majority of the congregation raising their hands in answer to that question.

Most of us here have experienced other faith traditions.  We have memories of them. Some of those memories are good ones, but others might be haunting us in ways we might not even understand.  Particularly for people who were hurt by a religion or by a religious community, anything that reminds them of that can be incredibly painful.  I have heard stories from people whose religious leader mentioned them specifically in a prayer in a way that made them feel sinful and wrong.  Our community prayers might make them nervous as a result of their past.  Others have been judged, shamed, and shunned by their religious community when they expressed disagreement or doubt.  Reciting a congregational covenant, even one so benign as our covenant of right relations, might be upsetting to them. Some people, even though they may have rejected the concept of an angry God, still feel some fear when the word God is used.

How can we honor our diverse religious pasts, care for those among us who have been wounded, and move forward together as a community of love and acceptance?

First, I think we need to acknowledge the pain.  The hurt some of us knew in other communities is real and it was wrong.  There has been abuse, physical and sexual, and perhaps the most damaging of all, spiritual abuse.  Too many times our innocent hopes, dreams, and spiritual yearnings have been shattered by the actions of humans and, yes, by demeaning and damaging theologies.

So, if you have been hurt in any of those ways, please know that it was wrong.  Please know that you are loved just the way you are, by God, and by those who really do try to love their neighbors as themselves.

Please know too, that others here can relate to those feelings and fears.  For myself, I avoided all churches for almost 30 years and even after I found a Unitarian Universalist church, I still freaked out some if God or Jesus were mentioned in the service in a positive way.

I am not in that place anymore.  Part of what I did was to consciously reclaim the good things from the religion I grew up in.  It wasn’t a terribly coercive one in fact, so maybe it was easier for me than it has been or will be for some of you.

I was raised in the First Christian Church, which is now known as the Disciples of Christ after a merger. Interestingly enough this building was originally built to house a congregation of that denomination.  I still get mail sometimes addressed to the pastor of the First Christian Church of Ogden.  Talk about haunted houses!

I was baptized in a font just like the one behind this curtain, saying yes when I was asked if I took Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. But as mainline Christian Churches go, there wasn’t a lot you had to believe in order to belong; no creed but Christ was their motto.  I did not have to worry about the virgin birth or literal interpretations of the Bible.  Sunday school was Bible stories, singing songs like “Yes, Jesus loves me”, and memorizing Bible passages and other things.  We got prizes for doing so. I was the only one in my class to memorize all the books of the Bible in order.  The prize was a small glow-in-the-dark cross. I was very proud of it and kept it by my bed at night.

I left the church in my teen-aged years. One turning point was when some missionaries from the Billy Graham crusade came and showed our youth group a film.  I don’t remember it very well, I know it had cowboys in it and that one of the young men was very troubled, accepted Jesus, and was saved.  After the film, one of the missionaries asked us to come forward if we too were willing to accept Jesus.  No one moved.  I wanted to, I really did, but I had already been baptized, I had already been saved, so what would it mean if I went forward again?  Was the earlier act a lie?  Was I somehow so fundamentally flawed that I needed saving again? It seriously creeped me out and I began drifting away.  Somewhat later, although still in my teens, when I realized I was a lesbian, I knew the church would not accept that part of me. I felt somewhat relieved that I had left before they decided to kick me out.

But as I have grow in my Unitarian Universalist faith, I have reconciled that experience, and come to understand that I also received gifts in my childhood church home, things that were more important than a glow-in-the-dark cross.  I heard of a loving God and a gentle Jesus.  I learned about the quiet comfort of prayer.  I leaned about service to the church as I helped my mother prepare the communion that we shared each Sunday.  Grape juice and unsalted crackers, tiny little cups and paper doilies, it represented the Holy and once baptized, I too was allowed to participate. We washed all the little cups afterward by hand.  It felt like important work.  I think it was.

It is also important work to reclaim the good things in your personal religious history.  Yes, acknowledge the bad things, the things that moved you to leave.  Those were real.   You can feel good about your decision to try something different, just as you can feel good about sticking with your childhood faith if that is what you have done.

Cherish your doubts as it said in the responsive reading that Gabriel led us in this morning.  Doubt will help us walk in the light of growing knowledge and understanding.

But cherish your history as well because if nothing else it has brought you to where you are today.

Two weeks ago, two members of this congregation, Renee and Mary, shared with us what they learned from growing up Catholic.

It was the first of what will be a series where our members share what they have learned by growing up in different faith traditions.  I want to include those who grew up Unitarian Universalist and also those who grew up without any faith.  There is only one rule.  You can’t say anything bad about your prior faith.  That was the charge we gave to Mary and to Renee, and I think we all learned something from their words.  I suspect they learned something as well.

If you think you might want to participate, to speak to us all about your childhood faith please talk to me or to one of the worship associates.  It is OK if you still have some unresolved issues because speaking of the positives can be a way to begin some healing of old wounds.

So I love the doxology again, although I have reinterpreted it in a way that makes it even more meaningful to me.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise the sun, the rain, and the snow, praise the night and the day, praise the mountains and the sea, praise the desert and the plains, and praise all that is, has been and will ever be.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, praise mother, daughter, friend and foe.  Praise all who live and breathe.

And the words of one of our hymns speak to me, “Come spirit come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole, Let inward love guide every deed, by this we worship and are freed.”

They remind me of the yearning I felt as a young teen, standing in the back of a sanctuary, one not unlike this one, wondering if I dared go forward, wondering if I could possibly be worthy, my spirit was longing to be made whole.

During the offering time, as you light a candle, drop a stone in the water, or just sit quietly, I invite you to reflect some on your own religious history.  Acknowledge the bad if there has been hurt there, but also try to see what good you might have put aside in order to avoid pain, things that could still have positive meaning for you.

Our closing hymn will be about laying some of the burdens we carry down.  The song makes me feel like dancing.  I hope it does the same for you.

Maybe

It doesn’t take

A lot of thought

Or anything much

To just say no

Shake your head

Walk away

Turn your back

No one will notice

If you don’t say yes

If you don’t show up

No one will miss you

 

But yes now

Yes is the thing

A possibility unfolding

A nod a smile

An outstretched hand

Open to receive

Whatever gift

Might be on its way.

 

Maybe we

Should say yes.

Just maybe

Yes.

 

 

Who Should Really Be Essential? The IRS

I remember well the government shutdowns in the 90’s as I was working for Social Security at the time.  It was terrible for morale.  We were declared “essential” but weren’t sure when or if we would ever be paid.  This caused a lot of stress as did being told we could not process any new claims.  It really hurt.  We really cared about the people we served.  The Oklahoma City bombing was also still very fresh in our memories.  A lot of federal employees died in that terrorist attack from a right wing anti-government nut, and now the right wing nuts of Congress in the person of Newt Gingrich were attacking us again.

I do understand the frustration that many people feel in this country with our government.  But it is our elected official that are responsible for all of it.  All of it, because our government employees are the best in the world.  No one should blame people who are just trying to do their jobs for the mess that we are in.  The nuts are now running loose again, causing the shutdown the government that they seem to hate and attacking the federal workforce and the people they are trying to serve.

The latest plan from the house GOP is to cherry pick which government programs to fund.  They probably have relatives that want to visit Yellowstone.  But it gave me an idea.  If the issue is really fiscal responsibility, why not declare all the IRS employees essential?   After all, the IRS is the only government agency that brings in the money which we desperately need to pay our other bills.  Maybe we should even staff them up in this crisis, do some more audits, collect some more taxes, close some more loopholes?   I believe the president can make the decisions as to who is essential.  Go for it, I say.  Fund the IRS because we need the money.  Hey, and we could fund the EPA because we need to breathe.  We could fund WIC and Headstart, unemployment insurance, and food stamps.  Let’s declare as essential every single program the Tea Party hates. Let’s pick the real cherries for a change and fund the programs that serve the most needy and vulnerable in our country.

It really would be an example of justice, equity and compassion in human relations, the second principle of Unitarian Universalism.   We would then be fulfilling both our moral and our responsibilities.