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Our Theological House Part 3 – How We Worship

 

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.

 

 

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Our Theological House Part 2 – What Saves us

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.

Our Theological House 9-17-17

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.

 

Welcome home.

Resist, Rejoice, and Renew – UUP 8-20-2017

 

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Some words by Jonipher Kwong, a poem entitled

Faithless Works:

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.

 

 

 

Making Promises @UUP 5/21/17

 

As Unitarian Universalists, we are a promise making people. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one.  What does that mean?

Theodore Parker had this to say:

“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”

His ritual really was works of love, he was an active abolitionist.  Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.

A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith.  Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed.  If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic.  During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.

 

Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and also that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience.

 

Unitarian Universalists believe things, of course we do.

As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately.  There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another.  Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement for membership. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience.  Our creed, if we have one, really is all truth but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.

 

Some people consider our seven principles a creed.  Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!”  Let’s look at them now if you will.  They are in the front of our hymnal.

 

Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the Apostles creed.    It says instead that we covenant to affirm and promote– and what does covenant mean?  Simply, a covenant is a promise.  As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things.  The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals.  Action plans! Don’t you love it?

 

What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet.  It is our promises that hold us together, it is the ways we have pledged to live our lives.  That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.

 

Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect?  Am I fair and just when I deal with others? Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?  If we are faithful to them, our seven principles call us to that kind of reflection and action every day of our lives.

 

And yes, I guess you have to believe that justice, equity and compassion are good things, so beliefs are a part of it.  But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.

 

Has anyone here ever been asked, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It is really the wrong question as we believe a lot of different things, in particular about theology.   A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”

The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith.  We are bound together by our promises.  Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent.  How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world, are what matters.

 

Covenants also aren’t rules or laws.  You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time.  We all break our promises sometimes.  We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions.

But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short.  We can forgive each other and ourselves.  Then, we can we begin again together in love.

 

The point is that we have promised to live our lives in a particular way, affirming and promoting certain principles that we have agreed upon.

 

Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community.

A sample is as follows:

 

“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior.   Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:

 

Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;

Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and
creativity;

Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;

Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;

Practice direct communication.  Speak to the individual –

not about them;

Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;

Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;

Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and
support others on their journeys;

Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration
 and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “

 

The members of our board of trustees are in the midst of adopting a covenant for the board, promises about how they will work together for the good of the congregation as a whole.

They also think it would be good if we can adopt a congregational covenant, something similar to the one I just read. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can sometimes be involved in conflict situations.  Disagreements are inevitable and if voiced respectfully can actually serve to make a community stronger and more committed to its common mission.  They can help refine that mission and make it real.  But nothing will drive people away faster than conflicts that are not discussed openly, respectfully, and directly.

 

Being in a religious community that really lives our values is very hard work.  How many of you have been hurt by an unkind word by someone you thought was a friend?

What if you discover that you have hurt someone else by a thoughtless act or comment?  How did you get back in right relationship?  A covenant can help with that, as it is a reminder of how we have promised to be with each other.

 

Like marriage vows, which are a form of covenant, covenants of right relationship are best if they are created by those who are making the promises to each other.

 

Those of you who have participated in Chalice circles all have some recent experience in creating covenants.

Those covenants vary, but there are some common themes such as listening respectfully, keeping personal information confidential, sharing time fairly, and honoring the commitment to show up.

 

If UUP decides to create a congregational covenant, then each of the members will need to reflect upon what is important to them in creating and maintaining a strong and resilient religious community.  How do you want to handle conflict?  What is the difference between gossip and sharing someone else’s news?

 

Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in any covenant.   What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done!  How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.

 

One clarification on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them.  We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us.  We all make mistakes.  But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.

It is about respect.  It is how most of us would like to be treated.  It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community becoming unsettled by rumors and innuendo.  Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important.  None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance can be very destructive in any community.

 

We also have a culture, both as a nation and as a faith tradition, that tends to be suspicious about anyone in any authority, and that tendency can make it difficult for anyone serving in a leadership capacity.  It is not always just about the minister, although the minister rarely escapes such reactions, and most of us have learned to expect it, even if it is not pleasant.

 

How many of you have served on the board or on a committee and received criticisms that were hurtful? That demeaned your character, ability, or your intentions?  Luckily it doesn’t happen very often here, but when it does it can be very hurtful.

 

A congregational covenant that establishes a practice of acting with respect and humility when we disagree with each other, of treating others with kindness and care, can go a long way in making the inevitable disagreements less personal and hurtful.

 

There are literally hundreds of congregational covenants that have been adopted by Unitarian Universalist congregations.

If UUP wants to create one of its own, a good way to start would be to create a task force of interested members who could look at a number of samples and then develop a draft to propose to the congregation.  If you would be interested in participating in such a task force, please let me or a board member know.

 

I will end with a poem by the Rev. Derrick Jackson

 

We Are Called

In these times, we are called:

Called to step into the mess and murk of life

Called to be strong and vulnerable

Called to console and to challenge

Called to be grounded, and hold lofty ideals

Called to love in the face of hate
We are called

And it is not easy

And we will not always agree

And we will yell, and scream and cry

And we will laugh and smile and sing

We are called to be together

There is so much work to do

And we cannot do it alone

We need one another

Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice

In these times, we are called.

 

Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right.  May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the common good.

Blessed Be and Namaste

Building a New Way – UUP 5/7/17 #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn

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Sermon notes:

A couple more short readings:

From THE INVISIBILITY OF WHITENESS By john a. powell

White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.

So they live in white space and then they don’t have to think about it. First of all, they think about race as something that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos have race; maybe Asians have race. But they’re just white. They’re just people. That’s part of being white.

from the Rev. Karen Quinlan,

But more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.

Culture is simply everything that’s around us. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are other ways of being. Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs.

When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we’re looking.

We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”

She also says, ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start.’ The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’  So that is where I am going to start.  I am going to tell some stories about how I, as a white woman, learned about race and about white supremacy.  Just to be clear, white supremacy is the system we all live in, you don’t have to be a racist to participate in it, or, if you are white, benefit from it.  As I tell my story, you might want to reflect on whether your own is similar or not.

I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a relatively small, primarily agricultural town.  Unlike many white people who grew up in racially segregated suburbs, the town was very ethnically diverse and I was aware of that from an early age.  Many of my friend’s parents were first generation immigrants and English was their second language if they spoke it at all. Our next door neighbor, who took care of me while my mother worked, spoke mainly Portuguese.  I remember my mother explaining, when I was very young, that the town was settled by waves of immigrants who came mainly to work on the farms.  Italians, Slavonian’s, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Okies, and Mexicans were the groups she mentioned.  I asked what we were, and she said Okies.  Everyone had an ethnicity of some sort in my mother’s opinion, and she used it to describe virtually everyone we knew.

Phyllis was my Chinese friend, John was Slavonian, David was my Jewish friend, and I was named after my mother’s German friend, Theresa.

I remember asking her what we were.  She said we were Okies.  She’d moved from Texas to California in the 1930’s to find work as a waitress in Hollywood.

I have been thinking about Jordan Edwards a lot this week.  He was the young African American teenager who was recently killed by the police in Texas.  He was only 15 and had been at a party with his brothers and some friends.  When someone said that the police had been called, they got in their car and tried to leave.  An officer shot at the departing car, and Jordan was killed by a bullet to his head.

I have been thinking about it a lot, partly because when I was a teenager I went to a friend’s party. Some of the kids were drinking and her parents called the cops.  We all got in our cars and tried to get away.  In a panic, my friend David backed his car into a muddy field and we got stuck, but finally managed to get the car out and get away. We were scared, but because we were white, our lives were not at risk.  The worst case scenario would have been a phone call to our parents and being grounded.  That was white supremacy at work although I did not realize it at the time.

I was not totally unaware of racism as a teen, however.  My US History teacher in high school, Mr. Hashimoto, had been interned with his family during WWII and talked about that on more than on occasion.

He also told us that it was because of racism that the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan rather than on Germany.  He taught me to question things.

In college, although I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobbie Seale and other Black Panthers speak during those turbulent times, it was also the first time I was exposed to a pretty monolithic white middle class culture.  Almost everyone in my dorm was white and most of them came from upper middle class white suburbs.  White supremacy became the water I swam in.

I saw the class issues, because I was a scholarship student, but my social life was almost completely white and I was clueless about it. We were all for racial justice, but we didn’t really know any black people at all. One thing I have learned over time, is that while ideas and values are good things, you can’t really know someone else unless you take the time to listen.  You can’t live our first principle without a deeper understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of all, which is so much more complicated than just accepting the sometimes very self-centered individualism of people with a lot of privilege.

I learned so much during my 25 years working for Social Security in Richmond CA.  With almost 2000 employees when I started, it was something like 40% African American with a good mix of other ethnic groups.  White people were not the majority, although something like 60% of the management staff was white.

What that meant is that people of color felt safe enough to talk about race and racism openly.

During the OJ Simpson trial, there was a clear racial divide and people argued about it.  Most of the white folks thought he was guilty, and most of the black folks wanted him to be freed.  When the verdict was announced, the black people cheered.  A black man accused of killing a white woman was declared innocent.  It was an historic event, something that rarely happens when you live under the thumb of white supremacy.  I learned something very real about the reality of black lives

Another conversation:

I shared with a black co-worker, a lay sermon I wrote about how Anne and I created our family as lesbian parents.  (It was my very first sermon.) She cried when she read it, and told me she thought her church was wrong in how they treated gay people.  She then told me of going to a sleepover camp where she was the only black child.  She was 9 or 10 and could not swim very well.  All of the other kids had swum out to a platform on the lake and she was left on the shore.  She gathered her strength and her courage and swam as best she could out to the platform.  She was exhausted when she got there, but when she tried to get on the platform to rest, the other kids wouldn’t let her.  I am not sure if they used the “N” word or not.  She did not say, but she cried again as she told me of almost drowning as she made her way back to shore.  I was so honored that she trusted me enough to share that story. I did not make any excuses for the kids who had been mean to her.  I just cried with her.

That story was a hard one, and I have more like that, but I have a few funny stories too.  My assistant manager Hazel was complaining that I got internet access at my desk before she did. She said it was racist, that all the black managers were going to be last.  I looked at her with a straight face and said, maybe, but maybe they are just giving the internet to all the gay managers first, because everyone knows how good we are at technology.  We laughed for a solid half an hour about that one.

Conversations about race can be difficult.  They can be uncomfortable.

The history is full of pain, and too often white people can get defensive because they don’t want to feel guilty.  The very term, white supremacy, is one that is particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and certainly not racist.

But you don’t have to identify as a racist in order to acknowledge white privilege and that we live in a culture, a system, where white people and white culture is what is most highly valued.  It shows up in all kinds of decisions, including hiring, including within Unitarian Universalism, including in our headquarters, our regions and our congregations. Despite principles and written commitments to diversity, the white candidate is often seen as just the “better fit.”  My friends who are ministers of color know that they are less likely to be called to serve a UU congregation than are their white peers.

Straight white cisgender men are also still the most likely to be called to serve our larger churches.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are unfortunately very much alive within Unitarian Universalism.  It isn’t always blatant, and the specific instance can be complicated, but if we were really who we say we are, who we want to be, the end result would be different.

Driving home to Utah from the Phoenix General Assembly I was stopped at the Arizona border in what was clearly a speed trap.  The state trooper was almost apologetic to this older Anglo woman who maybe looked like his mom.  I got a ticket, but he did not call immigration to see if I could be deported.  I wasn’t shot and killed as so many people of color are during traffic stops. I did not have an Arabic sounding name so I wasn’t a terrorist.  He didn’t ask to search my car looking for weapons or drugs.

I was white, so I was automatically one of the “good people” the “safe people.”  The system of white supremacy took care of me.  Every day of my life I have reaped the benefits of being white.

And every day, I have suffered from it too.  It has kept me separated from other people me so that those moments of sharing across racial lines are as rare as they are precious.  I can’t really be free until everyone else is free too.

This is too long already, so I am going to end by asking you to think some about your own lives and how you learned about and understood racism and white supremacy.  You might want to share those thought with others during coffee hour.

This work will take a lifetime, but it is what will finally save us.   We can all find some of the amazing grace we will sing about in our closing song, one that was written by a man who earned his living as a slave trader. Blessed Be

Rolling Stones UUP 4/16/17

 

easter stone

What an effort it must have been

To climb down from that cross

So many centuries ago

They thought you were dead forever

It certainly looked like that

You’d prayed your last prayer

Healed your last leper

Driven out your last demon.

They even buried you.

It must have felt so good

To lay your head down

The funeral cloths were soft.

The darkness was comforting

So weary you were

Tired, hurt, bleeding.

You’d seen so much

Suffered so much

Done so much

What harm could it do

To give into rest

For a few days

It must have been hard

To hear the weeping

Of those who had loved you

Of those who had betrayed you

The stone was heavy

But you had to push it aside

Rolling away defeat

Banishing hopelessness

Overcoming fear.

What an effort it must have taken

To come back not knowing

What people would think

How they would respond

Would they think the miracle

Was only about you?

Thank you for letting us know

That we each have the chance

The opportunity, the responsibility

To be reborn

Resurrected.

Again and again.

Like the earth

Each spring

Each morning

Forever and ever

Amen.

 

Happy Easter. There are other holidays at this time of year.  The Jewish Passover celebration is one of liberation, of freedom from slavery. The ritual meal, the Seder, recalls the time the Jewish people spent in Egypt as slaves, and tells the story of their escape to the Promised Land.  That holiday can hold deep meaning for those who do not identify as Jewish.  We weren’t able to hold a Seder this year but next year it should happen.

 

Oester is the pagan celebration of spring and fertility, usually celebrated at the Spring equinox.  It is where we get the name Easter, and it is also where the Easter Bunny comes from. Rabbits don’t normally lay eggs, but the Goddess Oester was in the form of a rabbit, an animal known for its fertility.  She is always portrayed with an egg.  The holiday holds meaning for those who do not identify as pagan.  It is also a particularly fun one for children.

 

Easter is the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection.  A Christian story, it too holds meaning for those who do not identify as Christian.

 

The Easter story is a rich one, an important one, and not an easy one to understand.  It has been the source of hope and renewal for millions.  Millions have fought and died over how it should be understood.

It is good to be celebrating Easter this morning as a Unitarian Universalist!

We can dig into the story, ask some hard questions about it, and – best of all – we do not have to agree on all the answers. No religious wars here.

Easter is most simply a story about a victory of life and love over death.

 

If Easter had not happened, Jesus would have likely been remembered as simply one more in a long line of Hebrew prophets.  Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and so many others who called their people back to God, to faithfulness, and back to caring for others, particularly for the poor and oppressed.

 

He was a teacher and a healer, traveling around preaching to ordinary people with a fairly ragtag group of followers.

He made some people mad.  The occupying Romans certainly weren’t happy with him; some of his followers thought he was the messiah, a new king that would free his people and bring Israel back to her glory.

 

The established religious authorities weren’t crazy about him either. He ranted about the money lenders in the temple.  And, just like the pay day lenders of today, I am sure they made a lot of financial contributions to those who had the power.  He healed people and he didn’t charge them for it.  He fed the hungry, also for free.  Yes, he must have made a lot of people mad.

 

So who was Jesus?  Was he a man, a malcontent, a prophet, a lunatic, or a God?  Find your own answer to that question, and cherish the freedom you have to do so.

 

And, who killed Jesus? Was it the Romans or was it the Jews?  Or was his death planned all along by God?  People have died because of the various answers to that question.  Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, but still Jews have been blamed for his death by many Christians over the centuries and even today.  Would the holocaust have happened without that version of the Easter story?  And if his death was God’s plan, why would the Jews or even Judas be blamed?

 

I say it was the Romans, with the strong encouragement of both the religious and secular authorities of the day.  It was the 1% trying to protect their wealth and power from a movement that frankly scared them.   It is the answer that makes the most sense to me, but you get to decide for yourself what makes sense to you.

 

The idea that it was God’s plan is worth exploring more deeply, however, as it raises an important theological issue.

 

The issue even has a name, “theodicy.” The term comes from the Greek and involves the effort to reconcile the traditional characteristics of God as all good, all loving, and all-powerful with the fact of evil in the world.  In simple terms, the question is why do bad things happen to good people?  If God is running the world, then why does God let those things happen?

I handle that issue for myself by understanding God as a force for good, and not as an all-powerful being.  Others believe that even bad things come from God, as lessons, as tests, or as punishments.

It is an issue worth exploring, and the Easter story is a prime example of how the same event can be interpreted in different ways.

 

Jesus was a good person and a bad thing happened to him.

 

It is clear that Jesus despaired.  He felt that his God had left him, forsaken him.  It is an emotion that I think all of us have felt at one time or another.  Even if we have never believed in God, there are times when most of us have been alone and afraid and have felt that there is no help for us anywhere in the universe.  It is not so very hard to identify with the suffering Jesus.

 

We can also identify with his followers and their grief and fear after his death.  Some of us will never forget when Martin and Malcolm were murdered, when the Kennedy brothers were killed, or when Harvey Milk was slain. Many of us wept bitter tears at those times.  I know I did.

 

But Easter, although an upsetting story in so many ways has a miracle at the end. The stone gets rolled away and Jesus comes back to life – or at least his spirit and his message lived on.

 

Easter can also lead us to reflect on what is blocking our own pathway to a more abundant life.

What is the stone that seals us into a metaphorical tomb?  Is it an addiction that has made our life unmanageable?

Is it a relationship that isn’t working, a job that is so tedious that it exhausts you for anything else, an earlier trauma that just won’t heal? Did someone else put that stone in your path? Is it racism, sexism, homophobia, or your social class? What is holding you back from being who you were meant to be?

 

Can you, do you have the courage and strength to begin to roll that stone away all by yourself?  Most of us need some help, because those stones are very heavy and are hard to get rolling.  It is also scary, as it can be comfortable in a tomb, safe and protected from further harm.

 

The resurrection of Jesus can be interpreted as a metaphor, and some see it as a fact.  In either case, what does it mean?  Does it signify hope for all of us?  Did his death save us?  Who do we mean by us?  What do we mean by salvation?

 

Very early in Christianity, there was a lot of argument about this.  OK, there is still a lot of argument about this.

The earliest Universalists, prior to the 4th century even, were divided over some of these issues, but they were in agreement that if the death of Jesus provided salvation, it was salvation for everybody by the grace and goodness of God.  No exclusions.

No restricting salvation to just Christians; it is universal.  Not everyone agreed then and not everyone agrees now.

There is a New Testament verse that is often quoted that deals with some of this.  John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

The conservative interpretation of this text has caused a lot of grief.  It freaked me out when I was younger.  “God loves us, he sacrificed his son, believe this or you will die.”  The book of John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and taking it at all literally doesn’t make any sense to me, and it also doesn’t really do it justice.

Are humans so evil that such a sacrifice would be required?  The verse itself says God gave his son out of love.  Perhaps it was a simple gift, and not a sacrifice.

Maybe the message from God was instead, “Here is this man in whom I have invested my spirit, listen to what he says, believe him, follow him, and life will come to you.”

The Easter story should be one of pure joy, of pure relief.  There was suffering and there was death, but out of it came new life and new hope.  Jesus reappeared after only three days.  The tomb was empty.  He came back to life.  His followers saw him in ordinary people and in each other.

 

Can we listen to this story of hope? Can we find out how to get our own heavy stones rolled away so we can find our way back to life?  Can we learn to do justice and love mercy?  Can we love our neighbor as ourselves? Can we see every human being as both our parent and our child?  How long will it take us?  Are three days enough?  Three years?  Three decades? Three thousand years?

 

Those questions are for each of you to answer, each in your own way.  But as Unitarian Universalists we are called to life, to be born and reborn again and again.

 

You can live with your questions, cherish your doubts, and believe what you must, but don’t let anything keep you shut inside a cold tomb of despair, afraid of trying new things, afraid of trying. Come back to Life instead, rejoice in the springtime, and savor the good that you find around you.

 

Come back to hope and commitment; come back to searching for a better way; roll those heavy stones away.  Blessed Be. Happy Easter.

Your Money and Your Life UUP 4/2/17

Money-Bag

 

Draw the circle wide, that is what our faith is about isn’t it?  We try to welcome all to the circle of this congregation and this faith.  We try to pay attention to those who have been marginalized and we attempt to truly celebrate diversity in all of its manifestations.

 

Just saying something doesn’t make it so, however.  It will take all of us, working together, to live the words from that song and to live the words of our mission statement: Live your sacred, transform through love, act with courage.

 

It will also take money, your money.  We are beginning our annual stewardship campaign, and during this campaign you will be asked to make a financial pledge in support of this congregation and its mission.

 

This year’s theme, created by the stewardship committee with some input from the board is:

 

“Coming Together–Expanding Community–Changing the World!”

 

There are also three specific goals:

–Affirm Our Commitment to Professional Ministry
–Expand Our Religious Education Programs for Children, Youth, and Adults
–Expand Our Leadership for Social and Environmental Justice

 

You will be hearing a lot more about the goals and how they fit into the theme over the next month or so, but today I want to talk about money.

 

Money can’t buy you love, as the song goes, but what is the meaning of money in your life?  How important is it?

 

Say you are walking down a dark alley late at night, and you hear a voice saying, “This is a stick up, give me your money or give me your life.”

 

Some of us may have heard those words and been faced with that actual decision, but for most of us, that stark choice is only something to think about – or maybe worry about.  But the choice is pretty clear; almost all of us would choose life in that situation.   You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes.

 

This isn’t a dark alley.  This is springtime in Petaluma. But I’m going to ask you that same question, “Your money or your life?”

 

A lot of us have lost money over the years and some of us have lost a great deal.  Some of us have never had much money to begin with. There are those that have lost jobs, and those that have lost their homes.  Financial loss or uncertainty can bring an increased tendency to hoard, or at least to be more cautious with our spending.  Some of that is a good thing.

Frankly, almost all of us, even those of us with fairly limited incomes, have gotten into some bad habits over years. Buying more than we need and always getting something new rather than repairing something old.

It hasn’t been good for our pocketbooks, and has been terrible for the environment.   The trash thrown out every day in a typical American household could feed and clothe a whole village for a month in many parts for the world.

 

But when money is tight, we feel insecure.  We are afraid of losing more.  We tend to hold on tighter.

This congregation, like all congregations has experienced financial worry, deferring decisions that might make a difference in how much you can do, both internally and in relationship to the wider world.

 

We need to be careful not to hold on too tight to what money we have, however.  If we confuse our net worth with our inherent worth, we can find we have lost not only money, but also our life.

 

It is actually pretty easy to lose both, your money and your life.  Maybe not easy in the sense that we will literally die if we lose all of our money. That can happen if someone ends up on the street, without food or shelter.  If there isn’t money for medicine or health care, that too can be life threatening.

 

But the real danger, for most of us, is to have hard economic times change us in ways that cause our spirits to die.

 

If we let fear take over, then we can lose all the joy, all the possibilities, all the opportunities for generosity that can still be very much a part of our daily lives.  We can become so cautious that we are always saving for some future rainy day despite the fact that it is already pouring outside and the roof is leaking buckets.  We can let opportunities slip by us because we are convinced things will only get worse.

 

Loss is a funny thing.  It is never fun, but it can also make us appreciate what we have, can help us get our values clarified, and our priorities more in line with who we want to be in the world.  People who have faced a life-threatening illness know this very well.  I have never heard someone on their deathbed say that they wish they had spent more time with their money.  And although some may wish they had more money to leave to their loved ones when they die, most know that it is the love they leave behind that has the most value.

 

Instead, many people who have suffered serious illness come to a realization about what is really important in life.  They treasure more of the moments, they enjoy the sunshine more deeply, and even, sometimes bad weather.

Some, who have lost a loved one to death, also come to take better care of their remaining relationships.

 

Life is indeed short, no matter what we do or don’t do.  A line from one of our hymns says:

“For all life is a gift, which we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad.”

 

Make our own days glad.  Now, you have all heard the saying that money can’t buy you happiness.  Money can’t buy you love.  A certain amount is necessary of course.  Survival needs: clothing, shelter, food. Some money for some comfort items beyond the basics helps.  It is nice to be able to go to a movie, eat out once in a while, or take a trip.  But how much money do we really need?

I found this poem by Kurt Vonnegut, most famous for his book, Slaughterhouse Five.  He wrote it after his friend, and fellow author, Joseph Heller died.   Heller wrote Catch 22.  Those of you who didn’t read the books may have seen the movies.

The poem:

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22′
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough,” we really need to stop awhile and think about what that is, what it means.  The larger consumer culture is always telling us that we don’t have enough, that we need a bigger house, a newer car, the latest fashion, and the most sophisticated electronic device that doesn’t even exist yet.

 

The question, “what is enough?” has been a pretty personal one for me.  As some of you know, I worked for the Social Security Administration for 25 years.  It was a very secure job, and one that paid a fairly good salary.  I could have kept working there another five years and would have received not only the additional salary, but also a much larger pension.

 

My “net worth” would have been much higher than it is today if I had done that.  But I was tired of working there; it wasn’t much of a challenge anymore even though I still loved the work in many ways.  The early retirement pension that was offered seemed like it was enough to get by on.

 

Instead of just staying on the job, I spend four years in seminary and am now been a minister. It is not a decision that I think I will ever regret.

 

Life, my life and your life, is about much more than money.  What makes you feel more alive and what gives your life its purpose and meaning?

I suspect it is not really the size of your bank account, or even of your shrinking stock portfolio, if you were lucky enough to ever have either one of those.

 

Money does have value, but I would maintain that the true value of money lies in how you spend it, not in how much you earn or in how much you have saved.  I had to pay quite a bit of tuition for seminary, but what I learned there and the calling I have found as a result is priceless, way beyond the actual dollar value that could have paid for a very expensive and fancy car.

 

The money I have given to the various good causes I have supported over the years is also worth much more to me than anything I have ever spent on furniture, for instance.  Furniture is nice, nice furniture is even nicer I suppose, but expensive furniture doesn’t have the kind of value that is really important.

 

That gets to some of the questions I am trying to ask today.  Are you spending what money you have on something of real value, either for yourself or for someone else?

 

As I said, you will be getting a lot more information about the stewardship campaign, including an invitation to share some food and talk about what this congregation means to you and what level of financial commitment you are both willing and able to meet.

I want to ask you all of you to consider pledging at the “sustainer level.  It will be in the chart you will receive later, but note that the amount varies by how much income you have.  If your income is around $10,000 per year, you can consider yourself a sustainer of this congregation for $250 a year.  If your income is $100,000 a year, it will cost you $5,000 to say the same thing.

 

The stewardship campaign will be going on all month. Spend some of that time reflecting on how much this community means to you and how much you are willing and even eager to commit to ensuring that it thrives.

 

Is it a matter of your money or your life?  Some churches make promises of a penthouse suite in the celestial kingdom if you pledge generously to their church.

 

I don’t believe what you give to a church will make a difference to you after you die.  But what it just might do is help save your life now, today.

 

True generosity always comes back to the giver. Giving might save your life, give it more meaning.

 

It also might save someone else’s life.

 

Put it all on a scale in your mind’s eye.  Your money or your life, your money or someone else’s life, how do they balance out?  I am not asking anyone to give more than they can or should.  If you are struggling now to meet your basic needs, a token amount is just fine.

But think about what you spend your money on, and what is really valuable in the long run.  Most of us have enough money, much more than we usually realize.  What we don’t have enough of is love, community, and justice.

 

Pat Francis will speak later about how this congregation saved her life.  She isn’t the only one here who has that story to tell.  There are also a lot of other people who need what we have to offer.  Can we draw our circle wide enough to include them?

 

Blessed Be.

 

Why Religious Community? UUP 3/19/17

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The words church and God in the reading may have made some of you uncomfortable. Listen to your discomfort. It can be a good thing.  In the story I told the children, I imagine the person who was asked the question about the purpose of the church was more than a little uncomfortable.

 

So why are we here?  Why are you here?  Why does the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma even exist?  History could be referred to of course; there were reasons this congregation was formed.  We could ask some of the founding members what they were trying to do, what they dreamed, but that isn’t the whole answer.  Congregations are living things, and they change over time as the members change.  New people add something, others leave and we lose their continued contributions, although something of their spirits always remains.  The individual members change as well.  Our founders are not the same people they were when they formed this congregation. Life brings change to the world, to individuals, and to congregations.

 

Think back, if you will, about what you were looking for when you first attended this church.  How has that changed over time, and how have you changed?

 

I love questions. I think most Unitarian Universalists love questions.  One could even say that asking questions is a part of our free faith.

We don’t have creeds, but instead we have guidelines for ethical behavior, which is what our seven principles are about. This is not a faith tradition where everyone can do whatever they might feel like doing, whenever they feel like doing it. It is an accepting tradition; we do acknowledge our imperfection. We aspire to high ideals and know we will still sometimes fail, sometimes dismally.  That is OK, but the demanding part of our faith is that we keep trying.  We have goals and visions of the world we would like to create.  It isn’t an easy task.

 

We have a mission statement here. It says what we are supposed to be doing here together, on Sundays and throughout the week.

 

The mission statement is on the banner behind me.  “Live your sacred, transform with love, act with courage.”

 

It is a pretty great statement, I think. Do you all like it too?

 

But what does it mean?  Sacred means a lot of different things to people, which is why it says “your sacred” not “the sacred.”

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out.

That which dominated our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

 

Some people worship money or success.  Some are dominated by a quest for power.  Some worship beauty or truth, the quest for knowledge, or simple happiness and joy.

 

Some people come to services on Sundays to learn how to be a better person.  Is that true for you? It matters how we live our lives and how we treat each other.  Character also includes other things like integrity and responsibility, practicing compassion and forgiveness, being open minded, curious, inspired to make a positive difference with our lives, both for the people we are close to and for the wider community and world.  Learning to transform through love is part of that.

 

Some people come to enrich their own spirits, to feel whole and to experience joy and sorrow in ways that are real.  A religious community needs to provide comfort to those that are hurting.  Has this community ever done that for you when you were having a hard time?

 

Unitarian Universalism is not a “sit back and enjoy your own spiritual understanding.”  We aren’t navel gazers.  No, we are called to serve, and spiritual growth is what fuels our social action.  We can learn to love the whole world, including ourselves – and we can learn to “act with courage.”

But why do you come here?  Why do we need a congregation like this one here in this town?  Why do we need a religion like Unitarian Universalism in the world?

 

Think for a minute about why you came here this morning. Not why you came in the past, but why you came today. You are here after all, so you must have a reason for coming.

 

What are some of them?  Go ahead and shout them out.  I know some of you are not shy.

 

Robin Bartlett, a Unitarian Universalist Religious educator, in her blog post from which our reading was taken, has heard a lot of people say they come to church for their children, because the children are asking questions about God, or because a neighbor or friend is trying to recruit them into a more conservative religion.

 

Some people say they come to church because the sermons are entertaining.  The crazy preacher can be really funny; you never know just what she will say.  You could find much better entertainment, however, on TV, in the movies.

Maybe you come for the music, but you can find great music a lot of places, at concerts, festivals, and on I-tunes.

 

Some people say they come for the intellectual stimulation, to hear words and ideas that make them think. Of course, you could attend a college level lecture for that. There are a lot of other places you can go to stimulate your brain cells.

 

Maybe you come because you care about social justice.  This community works very hard in many ways to bring more justice, equity, and compassion into our world.

But if social justice action is your only reason, there are literally thousands of other groups you could join that are doing fabulous work for a wide variety of social causes.

 

If you are looking for inspiration here, for motivation, for ideas on how to live in this complex world, you could read poetry, listen to TED talks, or join a self-help group.

If you are hurting and looking for comfort or if you are trying to find yourself, you could go into therapy.

 

Some people come to church to make friends, or even to find a life partner.  You could also do that at a bar, a health club, a bowling league, or through social media.

 

Some people also come to church to find God, the holy, to connect with their inherent spirituality.  There are also other ways to do that.  Go out in nature, watch a sunset, plant flowers, or play with your children. You will surely find the holy there.

 

Did I cover everything?

 

I did forget one, which reminds me of a joke.

 

It’s Sunday morning and the alarm goes off.  A woman turns over in bed and groans.  She turns to her partner and moans.  I don’t want to go to church today.  I know the sermon is going to be boring.

People will ask me to do things I don’t have time for.   I’d rather just stay home and sleep in today.  Her partner turns to her with a sigh.

Honey, you have to go to church today.  “Why? Why do I have to go to church?”

The answer?  “Honey, you have to go to church because you are the minister.”

 

There are many reasons to come to church, but unless you are the minister, there are many other options.  Even ministers can decide on a different career choice.  Almost none of us are do it for the money in any case.

But how many places can you go where all of those reasons can apply?

 

Robin Bartlett tells us to go to church

“for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because (of what) your church …demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people.

Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week.

Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.” http://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/dont-go-to-church-for-your-children/

 

She goes on to say, specifically addressing parents who say they come to church for their children,

“If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children.

You know that old (line) that we borrow from (the) plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–… apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not our (religious exploration) curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not (the) minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and (maybe) you don’t feel up to the task because (few) of us do.

But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.”

She says, “Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you. You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.”

That last line is worth repeating, “This brutal and beautiful world needs you to.”  How important is this congregation, how important is Unitarian Universalism, not just to those of us who gather here each Sunday, but also to others in our town, in our state, in our country, in our world.  I think we offer a vital service by thriving as a faith.  We offer hope to the young person wondering if their life is worth living because they are gay, to the man just released from prison expecting to be shunned by everyone he meets, to the recovering alcoholic, to the person who is homeless, to the eccentric thinker who everyone else thinks is just crazy, to the members of conservative religions who worry that their questions are somehow sinful, and to all the people who are suffering in so many ways from a culture that is far from accepting of differences and difficulties. Even if they never find their way here, even if they never sit in this room with us, if they know about us, we have given them some hope.  We have made a difference.  We have offered an alternative, a radical alternative, a community based on love.

So if you have been thinking this morning about the reasons you come here, I assume you have thought of more than a few.

I have another question for you.

How much would it cost if you went other places to get what you find here at this church?  How much more would you be spending on tuition, on therapy, on concert and movie tickets, or on drinks in a bar, if you did not come to church?

What about the things that are truly priceless?  How could you possibly meet anywhere else the diverse and wonderful people we have here in this religious community?  Where else would you be welcomed with such open and loving arms no matter who you are and how you are feeling?    Where else are tears and laughter both not only acceptable, but treated as precious?

Our theology is about life, about continual new beginnings, second, third and fourth chances.  It is a life-saving, life enhancing theology.

This congregation is at a point of transition and there are some decisions to make about your future. There will be plenty of time to explore the options, but as you do so please keep in mind not only why you are here, but why others might be here, and why this faith is so needed in our world. Amen, As-salāmu alaykum, and Namaste.

Islam and Unitarian Universalism @UUP 2/26/1

peace_be_upon_you_fb

 

Asalom aleikum

Greeting means peace and blessings upon you in Arabic. Good morning!

Today, I am going to talk about Islam, but you need to know that I am far from an expert on the Muslim faith.  I took two classes on Islam while in seminary. I have had a few Muslim friends and colleagues and have participated in Muslim prayer and Sufi chanting. This gave me the gift of a glimpse into a different faith, a glimpse that moved me and filled me with wonder.  I hope to share some of that wonder with you today.

There are somewhere around 1 billion Muslims worldwide and as many as 8 million in the United States.  Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. The rate of growth of Islam in the United States is also very high.   40- 60% of American Muslims have African-American heritage.

 

Those two statements make some people nervous.  Racism and Islamophobia can be a powerful combination if fear is what you are looking to inspire. This fear is actively encouraged by our current national leadership, but even among liberals, there is a certain almost dumbfounded lack of comprehension, a confusion even, about why anyone would freely chose a religion that is perceived as monolithic, extreme, and oppressive.

 

I had some of that same confusion myself before I had the privilege of working with and studying with actual Muslims.  The media portrayal of Muslims tends to focus on the extremes.  Women certainly were oppressed in Afghanistan under the Taliban.  The so called Islamic state is frightening, but those are the extremists among Muslims, just like the Westboro Baptist Church promotes an extreme interpretation of Christianity.

 

It was interesting to learn that Islam, when it first began, brought many new rights to women, including education.   Gay and lesbian people are still oppressed in much of the Islamic world, but it was interesting for me to learn that while the Qu’ran has the same old Sodom and Gomorrah story that Christians have misinterpreted for centuries, those ugly Leviticus verses are not repeated in the Qu’ran.  It is important to not judge any religion by its extremists.  The term “Progressive Muslim” is not an oxymoron.

 

First, a little history.

Remember learning about Christopher Columbus and his brave voyage?  I do. Columbus and the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, he discovered America, right?  Later I learned, as you probably did, about the Norse explorer, Leif Erickson.  Still later, there was a little bit of discussion about how the American continents weren’t exactly empty when Columbus and Erickson came.  I learned tidbits about the complex civilizations and cultures that flourished in this hemisphere prior to the invasion of the Europeans.

What I didn’t learn about until I took a class is that there were African Muslims who traded with the peoples of the Caribbean and Central America for hundreds of years before Columbus.  It is well documented, just not well known.

 

It was not a coincidence that Columbus sailed from Spain, a country that had been under Islamic rule for 700 years.  Trade and travel throughout the Muslim world was common in those times and Africa was a center for Islamic study.  One would guess that Columbus was actually pretty darn sure what he would find by sailing west, since so many African Muslims had already made similar voyages.

 

Then there were the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.  Estimates vary, but approximately 30-40% of the people captured and transported to the Americas as slaves were practicing Muslims.

 

Quite a number were literate and could read and write in Arabic and recite large portions of the Qur’an from memory.

One of the more famous Muslim slaves was Job Ben Solomon who was able to win his freedom and return to Africa in 1734.  He was highly literate and knew the Qu’ran by heart.

 

This history shows that Islam was part of the religious landscape of America from the very beginning.

 

Many of you may have heard of the five pillars of Islam.

The first pillar is Shahadah, or witness.  It is an affirmation.  La ilaha il Allah – Muhammadun Rasul l’Allah: There is no God but God and Mohammad is the prophet of God.  Muslims are decidedly NOT Trinitarians.

They believe that Jesus was an important prophet, but not the literal son of God.  Sounds a lot like the original Unitarian theology doesn’t it? We could also do a bit better on witness, sharing with others what we love about our faith.

 

The second pillar is Salat, or prayer.  A devout Muslim prays 5 times a day in praise of and in gratitude to God. There is an old joke that most Unitarian Universalists are very opposed to prayer in schools and a few are not terribly fond of it in their churches either.  Still, even for a devout atheist, it is hard not to be impressed.  To spend several minutes, 5 times a day, every day, focusing on gratitude and on something larger than yourself is a pretty awesome spiritual practice.

 

The third pillar is Zakat, or alms.  Once a year, a Muslim is supposed to give 2 ½ % of his or her assets, or capital – not just income, capital – to the poor.  Talk about a culture of generosity!  In the Qur’an the giving of alms is associated with worship since faith in God is expressed by good deeds.  Deeds not creeds.  That sounds pretty familiar too, doesn’t it?

Our stewardship drive is coming up soon, so start tallying up your assets so you can calculate the 2 1/2 percent.  If you prefer, you can follow the Christian practice of 10% of your income. Or maybe the UU practice of 5% to the church and 5% to other causes.

 

The fourth pillar is Sawm or fasting, which is done worldwide in the month of Ramadan.

Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed.  Like the daily prayers, this is a very personal and intense focusing on God.  It involves sacrificing for your faith.

 

The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or Pilgrimage. Muslims from all over the world gather in Mecca during the last month of the Islamic year.  It is the largest annual assembly of people in the world and dates back to the days of Abraham.  It is a profoundly religious experience.

 

It is interesting that four out of the five pillars of Islam involve a spiritual practice or discipline.  It is a religion of doing and being much more than it is a set of particular theological beliefs.  This is even truer for the Sufi tradition within Islam which focuses on a mystical relationship with the divine.

 

Let’s look now at some of the traditional theology of Islam as contrasted with traditional Christian theology. There is some overlap of course.  Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition along with Christianity and Judaism.  Followers of those three faiths are often called People of the Book.

I also stress the word traditional because there is a lot of diversity among Muslims just as there is among Christians and Jews – and of course, Unitarian Universalists.

 

First, there is no concept of original sin in Islam.   People are born essentially good and not deserving of punishment.

How similar to our Unitarian Universalist principle about the inherent worth and dignity of all!  The original sin concept has been used to keep the downtrodden in their place, from the peasants in the middle ages to the slaves in the Americas.  If the theology is such that people are evil then why bother to treat them humanely on earth?

 

Human suffering is, in fact, a very bad thing, and Muslims are called to work to end it.  They are not asked to “turn the other cheek” and to suffer oppression and injustice as the cross that God has somehow sent to them to bear.

I quote from Malcolm X:

 

There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion.

Let me be clear, however, Islam is NOT a religion that glorifies aggressive violence.

The Qur’an is very specific in saying that violence is only justified as a defensive measure, and that it should be used at the minimal level required for that defense.

 

Most Christian imagery has pictured Jesus with white skin and God as an old white man with a beard. Muslims do not make images of God at all and God is described as containing all genders.

 

All genders and all races included.  From the beginning, Islam was racially integrated.  The Qur’an says quite explicitly:

Among other signs of His is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variety of your tongues and complexions. Surely there are signs in this for those who understand. All those who are in the heavens and the earth are His.

 

There is also an important historical connection between Islam and Unitarian Universalism.

Back in the 15th century, the Unitarians in Transylvania were vulnerable during the religious wars in Europe and so they formed a partnership with the Islamic Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. They were brought together by their shared conception of God as one. Turkish soldiers protected the only Unitarian King in history, and supported his claim to the throne.  At one point the Sultan sent a gift of 1000 Turkish prayer rugs that were hung in Unitarian churches throughout Transylvania.

 

The connection in Transylvania is an important and powerful one.  It was a significant part of how our tradition survived in that part of the world.

So we can celebrate, in gratitude, our history with Islam.

 

I am not going to stand here and pretend I like everything about the Muslim faith. I don’t like everything about any faith other than my own.

That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist. And as a Unitarian Universalist, I try to learn what I can learn from other religions.

 

Islam got it right, from the very beginning, about racism.  The Qur’an has never been used to justify racial discrimination like the Bible has.

 

And Islam also got it right about religious freedom.  A quote on this from the Qur’an,

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks.”

Unitarian Universalists can certainly celebrate “no compulsion in religion” as it is very close to our own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

As we are gathered today, in this religious community, we know how much it means to us to have found this space.  Our religion is one of practice too.  How we live in the world, with each other, with the whole of creation is what is most important to us.  For many of us, finding Unitarian Universalism has been a coming home, a sanctuary from a sometimes not very life affirming world.  Our principles guide us and hold us to the hope of making the world a better place, building a world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all.

 

 

For many people of color in particular, discovering Islam has been a similar coming home:  a sanctuary from a racist society, a religion that affirms the humanity of all races, one that is filled with hope for a better world.

Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.    How can we not celebrate these principles of ours wherever they might be found?