Some words by Jonipher Kwong, a poem entitled
They say faith without works is dead
So I worked for equality
Next to my queer friends who wanted to get married
And I worked for religious freedom
Next to my Muslim friends who were accused of being terrorists
And I worked for racial justice
Next to my black friends whose lives were affected by police brutality
Yet I didn’t feel fully alive even after working myself to death
Until I let my work become a spiritual practice
Until I let go of my attachment to the outcome
Until I stopped chasing after political issues, one after another
I still believe faith without works is dead
But works without faith is just as lifeless
I was an activist before I was religious, and those words ring true for me. Without some type of faith, political engagement can really suck the joy out of life. There are always defeats and disappointments, hard fought progress is stopped or, worse, reversed. Despair, frustration, and bitterness can grow until one can forget to treat even friends with kindness. Infighting and misplaced righteousness has torn many a positive movement apart.
I have experienced that, I have seen it and I have lived it. Many of you have lived it too. Sometimes it even happens in churches.
I was worried when I went to New Orleans in June for our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A pattern of white supremacy within our association had been called out by brave Unitarian Universalists of color. There was defensiveness and some serious mistakes by some of our leadership which resulted in some significant resignations, including that of our national President. Our well-respected Moderator was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer and he died within a matter of weeks. Both of our two nationally elected offices were vacant.
What was going to happen? Would our faith be torn apart by the same forces that were tearing apart our country and the whole world? Would we find the courage and wisdom to resist not only the forces of evil that surrounded us, but also the fear that lived inside of us?
So, I was very worried. I knew what was happening within was in part the result of what was going on in the world. After the election, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities of all kinds, people who identify as Jewish or Muslim, immigrants, felt even more vulnerable than they had before. The list goes on to include everyone who is marginalized in some way, even women who are a majority in numbers but not in power, and of course that list includes all of the people that love someone whose very worth and dignity, whose actual life in many cases, is under direct attack.
So no wonder, so no wonder, that folks became more sensitive to instances of white supremacy, of sexism, of all the “isms” that afflict our culture, even the culture of our faith tradition.
I worried, but I shouldn’t have. I should have had more faith that who we are as Unitarian Universalists would help us through even this hard time.
My experience at both General Assembly and Ministry Days was simply amazing, and renewed my faith and my commitment.
Our national board named three African American co-presidents who led with grace, compassion, and courage. The Minister’s association’s worship included voices of ministers of color and other marginalized groups who spoke their truths as clearly as they described their visions. Co-moderators were appointed who led the business portions of our meetings with humor, transparency, and a flexibility that was a real joy to witness.
We tackled white supremacy in numerous workshops and in healing spaces reserved for people of color.
That work is far from done – Let me share an example of something I learned in one of the workshops, something that I don’t think was a part of the lesson plan. The workshop was described as a place to sing some of the music in our hymnal that comes out of the African American heritage. The room was crowded and it was clear there weren’t going to be enough hymnals for those sitting in the back. As often happens, there were plenty of seats up front. The workshop leader asked those in the back to move up front so they could share a hymnal. And then, a white woman in the back questioned this, saying it would be much better if some of the hymnals were handed to those in the back.
It was subtle, it was likely unconscious, but it was a clear example of how white supremacy can function in a religiously liberal setting. I caught the eye of the African American woman sitting next to me who also noticed the sense of entitlement that seemed to prompt that demand. The facilitator simply said no, we aren’t going to do that. Too often white folks think we know better and that our needs and ideas should take priority, even if we are late to the party. Listening, really listening, to the stories and experiences of a very diverse Unitarian Universalism was an important part of that week in New Orleans.
It was a joy that our youth from this church were there to experience it as well. Next week, they will be sharing some of their experiences with you.
I could go on about general assembly, it was a full and fruitful time.
But our world keeps turning, and there is going to be an eclipse of the sun – tomorrow, yes?
What a metaphor a solar eclipse is. Especially for us, who light our chalice each week for the light of truth, the warmth of love and the energy of action. We cannot let that light go out. We cannot let the forces of hate and bigotry, we cannot let fascism, because that is what it is, we cannot let it blot out our sun or dim our chalice. The symbol of our chalice, as most of you know, was created during WWII when we, as a faith, took a stand against the Nazi regime and all it stood for.
Many Unitarian Universalists were in Charlottesville last weekend, including Susan Frederick Gray, our newly elected national president, the first woman to ever serve in that position. Arm in arm with her were other clergy, including Jeanne Pupke, who had run against Susan in one of the pleasantest elections I have ever witnessed. Many were trained, many were veterans of non-violent resistance actions. Facing armed Nazi’s screaming racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic curses at them was a very different experience than they had ever had before. What courage that took. What faith they had.
They were not safe. They could have, and almost were, beaten. They could have been killed. Heather Heyer was murdered that day and many others were hurt.
During WWII no one was really safe from the Nazis, and I believe no one is safe today. They have come for the immigrants already. They have attacked Mosques and synagogues, they have burned down the houses of gay activists as happened in Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
What is happening is frightening; it can be overwhelming; and it can freeze our souls to numbness and despair.
We need to resist this evil with all that is in us, and we can do so with joy, rejoicing in the fact that we are not alone in this struggle against hate. We can do so with faith, knowing that as long as we remain true to our values, with our tradition as a guide, and the power of love as our engine, the forces of evil will not prevail. Our spirits will be renewed and our world restored.
I will end with these words by Anne Barker. She names the pain and she names the love that abides:
When the Unimaginable Happened
When we heard the news, saw the wreckage, felt the paralyzing blow…
Our hearts broke open – and spilled out – into our hands
And there we were
Watching our Love seep between our fingers
Watching our fragile Love pour out all over us.
Watching our Love seem to slip away.
When the unimaginable happened,
The ache we felt-
As if Love was being lost
Was the ache of Love’s despairing truth.
This is the Love that no one chooses,
the loss so out of order, so profound,
the Love we did not ever want to know.
And yet, the source of this despair,
the reason our hearts cleave and flow,
is because they know the fullness.
This is the Love of truth and beauty,
Love that spans the web of being,
Uniting each of us within its timeless form.
When we heard the news,
Our hearts broke open, spilled into our hands
And there we stared at Love, lamenting,
“What am I to do with this?”
And with these raw and tender yearnings
We will – beat after precious beat-
Seek wholeness once again
It will take time to find our balance
To grieve, if we will make the room.
Remember, friends, this is the right thing
This ache within our deepest beings.
Know that all these things are normal
To feel disrupted, empty or undone.
Our hearts broke open and the Love that is still true
Draws us once again together, story by story, step by step,
Into places of tender knowing, remembering
To restore us, mend us, piece by broken piece.
This is the Love that runs between us,
Sustaining force of restoration,
The Love that nourishes and feeds us,
Binds us, each, to our collective core.
We grieve…and march….and weep….and sing
And through the pain – but not despite it –
Love will repair us, not the same, but stronger in some places,
Honoring memories like treasures,
Living out our lives’ potential
In the shadow of the trespass
In the warmth of one another
In the light of what, restored, we will become.
May it be so, Blessed Be.
Sometimes when I wake
I am not sure
Where I have been
Dreams are like that
A soft focus
An imagined universe
Where the rules
Never quite apply
Sometimes when I stop
Doing whatever it was
That kept me busy
I am not sure
Where I am
What kind of world is this?
A harsh light
Batters my eyes
And I awake
To the suffering
All around our world
Hold me in a dream
Bring me home
To that land
Love and justice thrive
Peace at last
A soft focus
A sweet dream
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazerous
Tired so tired
We need another golden door.
Our own poor masses
No longer can breathe
The toxic soup of lies
That spew from factories of hate
Refuse fills our beaches
While children drown
On other shores
Homeless walk the streets
Of every town
In our “good ole USA”
Time to huddle
Time to pray
Time to plot
And way past time
To lift our lamps
Raising our voices
High and clear.
To dry the tears
Of our Lady, Liberty.
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
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
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
The genteel become surreal
When white supremacy is named
Clash and slash
It’s a real whitelash
Why can’t we white folks
Its not about us
Our ideas our feelings
Center on the whole
And remember to breathe
Our advice is not needed
Our opinions are fluff
We can cheer brave folks on
Offer support and yes love
This whole world is a mess
But enough is enough
Resistance is reality
Breaking through at long last.
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
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
Again and again.
Like the earth
Forever and ever
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.
My rage flows boundless
From the molten core of my heart.
Will this go on?
Can one soul take?
Ancient as the earth
The pain of war
Relentless as the wind
The chains that hold us all.
The sea overflows with our grief
For lost hopes
While the ashes of our dreams
Wash up on distant shores.
My rage flows boundless
The fire rises in my throat
Let the lava flow
Let it melt the walls
Release will ease our hearts
And quiet our fears
When the fires cool
Will there be a new land
Children safe at last
We are the ancestors
May we find the courage
To earn the future’s gratitude.
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.
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
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?
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.