Read any good books lately? I have one to recommend, but like any good book, it is important to read it with a questioning mind and an open heart. What does a particular book tell me about my own life? Are the characters and situations believable? Most important, from a religious standpoint, is the message of the book uplifting? Does it contain something that has at least the potential for making me a better person for having read it?
Jewish and Christian scripture, the Bible, is one of the six sources from which our living tradition of Unitarian Universalism is drawn. There are references to Biblical stories everywhere in our culture, including in our music. If we don’t understand those stories, we can be at a cultural disadvantage.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.
Have you ever cried in church? I have. Sometimes the tears are good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when our hearts are touched, and we can cry when we feel like we have found a place to belong, where all of all we are is welcomed and embraced. Rev. Marcus spoke about that a few weeks ago.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They may be told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. All that is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some common misunderstandings about the Bible. I hope you learn something new and I hope it might help you resist anyone who may be wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture. We are going to open up that good book and take another look and see if we can find the Gospel there.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek and means quite literally “good news.” It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned.
If you study it, you will find that while the Bible may contain some good news, especially for the poor and oppressed, and much human wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news.
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club.
The Bible, he said, is simply a collection of the stories of a particular people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of many stories, most of which were originally oral traditions, and almost all of which were edited and changed over time.
And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the Protestant version; containing 15 additional books. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
Most of those individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions.
Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, to the genealogy of Jesus, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church. If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
It is also important to read the Bible from a historical perspective. Human sacrifice was common in the ancient desert world. First born sons were often sacrificed and sometimes murdered.
It was one of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians, and King Herod was said to have killed Jewish babies trying to murder the infant Jesus. If you read the story of Abraham and Isaac with that understanding, maybe the point wasn’t a test of Abraham’s obedience to God, but instead was a message that God values life. Don’t kill the children. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Divine. Leave your arrogance behind. That is the message I like to take from Scripture.
There is so much in the Bible, ancient as it is, that can have relevance for our modern lives. If you grew up in a large family, or if you have more than one child of your own, maybe you know about sibling rivalry. Starting with Cain and Abel, there are so many stories about this. Joseph and his jealous brothers when he got a new coat, Jacob when he stole Esau’s inheritance, and the older brother who is hurt when the prodigal son returns and is celebrated. Those stories can help illustrate the challenges of parenting. How can we treat all of our children both fairly and as individuals? It isn’t always simple.
There are also stories in the Bible of alcoholism and abuse. Noah, of the ark fame, after the flood, was drunk and naked and his son Ham saw him and told his brothers. For telling, Ham was cursed and exiled. So many secrets we are asked to keep, and when you have the courage to tell them it is a risk and we may be punished.
Ham is the hero for me in that story. He told the truth and in fact was set free from that dysfunctional household.
Then there is the story of Judith. It is in the Catholic Bible, but not in the modern Protestant or Jewish scriptures. Holofernes was an evil and abusive conqueror who brought Judith to his tent to rape her, but he passed out drunk first. Judith then took his sword and cut off his head. I am not for capital punishment, but in those times, it was a fitting response to a drunk who wanted to commit sexual assault. Today, we seem to make them Supreme Court justices instead.
I just mentioned that the Book of Judith is only in the Roman Catholic Bible. There was much controversy in the early Christian church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around as well as some very different oral traditions.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which Anne read a portion earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, they were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings reflect the incredible diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible, maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to listen to Mary.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them. Many men are still trying to silence women, especially those who are saying #metoo.
I haven’t gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that translations are, at best, approximate.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version, the favorite translation of conservative Christians. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about modern biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some more questions. What is yourholy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is also helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true.
But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some really good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do? Amen and Blessed Be.
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.
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.
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.
The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
Is anyone else stressed out about the election? I know I am. The changing poll numbers and the “October Surprises” have made it hard for me to stay centered and hopeful.
As a minister, I am pretty much a professional optimist. Sometimes that is one of the hardest parts of the job.
Democracy is just stressful at its core. I have been nervous before every election I can remember. Who knows how the votes will turn out in the end? And the issues are much more significant than flavors of ice cream. What if our country elects a president that would be as life threatening to some people as peanuts are those who are allergic? Peanut butter looks kind of orange, so don’t laugh, it could happen.
As scary as elections can be, part of my religious practice is to carefully study candidates and issues and then to vote my values in every single election.
I have opinions about methods and policies, about what might work better than something else, but bottom-line, it is values I care about. Does a policy or a candidate promote the inherent worth and dignity of all? What about liberty and justice for all or world community? Is there an element of compassion contained in the plan? Is there some respect for diversity as well as the realization that we are all connected? How do our religious values relate to the death penalty? To the plastic bag ban? To support for schools and libraries?
Those are the questions I asked myself before I voted.
You might consider asking yourself some similar questions.
Please note that I am not telling any of you how to vote because I really do believe in our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” People should have a voice, a say, in what affects them. You all need to make up your own minds about how to vote.
Mark Twain said that, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”
Mark Twain was not a member of a Unitarian Church, but he did have a lot of Unitarian friends. He clearly thought that people should examine their beliefs and convictions for themselves, and not take them on second hand authority. It is what our faith asks us to do. Our principles call us to examine our beliefs, to test them against our reason, our experience and our hearts. This is true in matters of politics as well as religion.
We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote that first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology. There should be room in this congregation for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition.
To be comfortable here, however, most folks find that it is important to at least be open to the idea that spiritual traditions and practices other than their own just might be very valid for other people.
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion, but that doesn’t mean we are all liberal Democrats. There are many thoughtful and faithful Republicans in our churches.
A little history: Unitarian Universalism is deeply rooted in American cultural values. There is a reason most people agree with our seven principles the first time they hear them. Liberty and justice are words contained in the pledge of allegiance after all.
There have been 5 US presidents who either attended Unitarian churches or professed Unitarian beliefs: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Taft. While he did not specifically identify with any organized religion, Abraham Lincoln had Universalist leanings. Some of you may also know that our current president, Barack Obama, attended a Unitarian Universalist church as a child.
But let’s talk about William Taft for a minute. He was president between 1909 and 1913, and he was a Republican.
His great-grandson, John Taft wrote an article a few years ago where he said he was a genetic Republican, claiming that 5 generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans.
In his article he also says this:
“Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room.”
He went on to say:
“The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.”
The Republican values he speaks of are quite consistent with Unitarian Universalism.
But here is where it gets a bit more complicated. Clearly, there have been, and are, a lot of politically liberal Unitarian Universalists. If we did a survey, I suspect most of our members vote for Democrats most of the time. I also suspect that the number of Democrats among us is increasing over time and the number of Republicans is declining.
I don’t think it is anything that we are doing, however. Instead, I think the right wing of Republican Party has been systematically driving religiously liberal people away.
Marriage Equality should not be a partisan issue, but it has become so. A plan for compassionate immigration reform should have nothing to do with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. How to deal with global climate change is a scientific problem. Science is not a left wing conspiracy. The right of a woman to control her own body should have nothing to do with whether or not you are a fiscal conservative.
It started years ago, when economic conservatives began wooing religious conservatives. They became the “family values party,” but they were very restrictive in how they defined a family.
When you have agreed to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it becomes difficult to demonize others, no matter who they are. Immigrants, gays, poor people, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, have all been demonized or mocked. This is in clear conflict with our values.
But listen to me now, many on the left have cast all Trump supporters as racist sexist bigots, – it isn’t a moral equivalent as angry white men aren’t an oppressed group, but it still isn’t OK.
It is hard not to hate your political opponents. It is hard not to hate those you are afraid of. I do think fear is at the root of much of the political discord these days.
“America as we know it will end if the other party gains control of the presidency and gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court.” Both sides are saying that. Some people really hate Clinton; others hate Trump. Very few people are really completely evil; they just have very different views of the world and sometimes serve different interests.
This is where liberal religion can help begin a dialogue. Open hearted, open minded, curious as to what the other thinks and feels. It doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Listen for the middle ground, listen for where you might agree, or at least have something to learn. Speak with bravest fire, but hold love at the center of it all.
It is how we try to do theology here. We listen to each other. Christians, pagans, and atheists really can get along, and form an awesome religious community together. So why can’t Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians get along in the political sphere?
In this congregation we need radical visionaries willing to take some risks, but we also need fiscally conservative financial stewards. Our country needs more people willing to listen to others, whatever their party affiliation.
I believe there is an important role for religion in politics. Gandhi said that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Gandhi was a Hindu, but the Judeo-Christian tradition is also full of calls for the faithful to be engaged in social and political issues. To love all of creation, but in particular to be concerned for those who have the least power in the wider culture.
Virtually all of the Biblical prophets spoke out for justice for the weak, for the poor, and for the oppressed.
From the prophet Amos who said let justice roll down like waters, to Isaiah who said that the spirit of God sent him to bring good news to the oppressed, to the prophet Jesus who told us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and to, in modern times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led a faith based movement against racial discrimination, the religious voice has been a powerful and important one.
That is the prophetic tradition, and one that I think Unitarian Universalism identifies with very strongly. We have always spoken out against unjust laws and argued for just ones. From opposing the fugitive slave act to working with Black Lives Matter, we have been a tradition that championed the rights of the oppressed. Respect for the inherent dignity of all is our first principle. The key here is that this prophetic tradition is about religion and religious people working to protect the weak, to enhance life, to care for all of creation. This type of religious activism serves democracy well because it is fundamentally about caring, respect, and love. It is not about restriction and punishment.
There is another Biblical tradition, however, one that most of the prophets I listed above were in direct opposition to. There is also a priestly tradition that focused on religious laws. The scribes and Pharisees that took Jesus to task for violating the law were a part of that tradition. Leviticus, with its long list of rules, many of which are a little weird to our modern sensibilities, is another example.
This priestly tradition is very dangerous to democracy, I think, especially when it argues that religious laws should be enforced by the state.
Some Muslim countries follow Sharia law, and most Americans find that appalling, but Leviticus is the primary reason that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people still do not have full civil rights in this country.
It is one thing to follow your religious values by asking for help for the vulnerable, and it is quite another to ask the state to promote your religious values over those of others and to create legislation to ensure that it is your rules that are followed.
So what do we do? How to we hold on to hope?
I love the following poem by ee cummings.
It is called “dive for dreams,”
Dive for dreams
Or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)
honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)
Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart. Live by love though the stars walk backward. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there will be work for us to do. Love can guide us on our way. Amen and Blessed Be.
We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
We welcomed new members today. Becoming part of this church community will change them. It will also change us. Our sacred water is a symbol of this. We collect it each fall from whoever attends worship that Sunday, just as has been done each year since this church was started. We add the new water to what we had before, creating an ongoing link from the past and to the future. During our offering, we drop stones into this water, also symbolizing that this living community holds us each, no matter who we are, no matter what gifts we bring, or what burdens we carry.
There is more than one thing about our faith tradition that sets us apart from many others, but one important characteristic of Unitarian Universalism is that we are always changing. Change can be difficult for people. Crash helmets really are a good idea.
Let’s go back to our reading for a minute:
Unitarian Universalist Minister, Tom Schade, named four different conceptions of our churches. (For reference: Click here)
One – our churches are places where smart people gather for the intellectual exploration of life issues, in an atmosphere freed of religion dogma.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. You are all smart people, by the way. I don’t care how much formal education you may have had.
Two – our churches are places to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in society, a place to meet more radical, committed and interesting people there than anywhere else in town.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. Interesting.
Three – our churches serve as a place for community, a community perhaps more welcoming and supportive than you have found anywhere else.
I think Rev. Schade was wrong to label these “stages” as if they are something that we move through and leave behind. Instead, they are not only part of what we once were, but they are part of what we still are today and part of who we will be in the future. They are in the water, so to speak.
But, what of his fourth so-called stage? Do you have your crash helmets on? Should we issue them to our new members in addition to a flower and a book?
How many of you come here to be challenged, to wake up, and to be a little off-balance? How many of you want to discover a way to change and improve your own life and also the world around you?
OK, if that rings true for you, please raise your hands. We have some brave souls here!
There is a lot of conversation going on right now about where Unitarian Universalism is going. Are we the religion for our time or are we going to fade away like most of the mainline denominations seem to be doing?
The Reverend Christine Robinson talked about this a lot as the keynote speaker at our regional assembly last month. You can find her full address on-line. Her main point was that the religious landscape of America is changing, that the fastest growing group of people in America are those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
People used to come to us because “We honor your religious freedom,” but that is not bringing many people any more. Now, when people decide that they don’t believe what they were raised to believe, they often go for years without belonging to any congregation, and in the new religious ecology, there’s no pressure to join one. When they decide they want to go to church again, it is not because they want freedom; they’ve had freedom. They come looking for something that they can’t get in the secular world. They want spiritual instruction, not freedom. They want a safe place to explore what happens to them when they start to deepen their lives.
They come to us because they know their beliefs are not orthodox and because they would feel hypocritical in an orthodox church…. in this they resemble their elders. But once here, they want to do very different things.
Here’s my guess at a slogan for this part of the religious ecology; a place we can call our very own and serve with integrity and thrive: “Spiritual growth in a theologically diverse community.” (For reference: click here)
She also called it, “Spiritual not dogmatic.”
Rev. Robinson did not go into it in detail, but an important part of spiritual growth is sharing that larger spirit into the world, serving others and creating a more just world. Yes, we should be issuing crash helmets.
Another thing we need to be clearer about is our theology. This congregation handles our religious diversity well, but in our larger association a debate is going on about how we use religious language in our congregations. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell tried to define a common Unitarian Universalist theology and listed the following: (For reference: Click here)
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
We believe that God is One.
We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.”
Now, those work really well for me. I agree with them. But then again, I believe in God, although my understanding of God is nothing like the understanding of clergy from more orthodox traditions. Some of the atheists had a huge problem with her use of the word God. They felt like they were being excluded from what was stated to be a theology held in common. I think if her ideas were simply rearranged, and a small phrase added, then there would not be the same level of controversy about them.
Listen again, and see if they work for you.
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.” Agree? Raise your hand. It is our fourth principle somewhat restated.
“We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.” Raise your hand.
Then for the next five, let’s add the words, “if we believe in God or if we were to believe in God,” The addition of those words should be helpful for the atheists and agnostics among us.
“We believe that God is One.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.” Raise your hands.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.” Raise your hands.
And finally, and this one is I think the most important of all:
“We believe that love is more important than doctrine.” Raise your hands.
None of that was 100%, but it was pretty close, and it really is a distinctive theology, particularly among denominations that are part of the Christian tradition, as we have been and still are in many ways.
Those of us that believe in God believe in a merciful loving God, not a judgmental or punishing one.
Those of us that believe in an afterlife do not believe in a hell where people are punished after we die.
I could go on, but being a Unitarian Universalist, is not a “believe whatever you want,” kind of religion.
So my hope for our new members, and for our longer-term members as well, is that you find here not only what you are looking for, but also what you might need.
I hope this church makes you think, and I hope you find the ideas and the other people here interesting. I hope you feel welcome and supported in this community. And I hope that you sometimes feel challenged, surprised, and maybe even a little off balance. I hope you discover ways to improve your own life and to make this world a better place for all who share this planet with us.
What do you want? What do you need?
Feel it. Imagine it. Make it so.