Reflections on Ferguson MO, Two Weeks In

“There isn’t only one story here, anywhere, not among the law enforcement, not from the Ferguson community, not from Black Americans, not from other people of color, not from white people, not from our politicians, not from the media, and not in this church. There are many many stories, and we need them all.”

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Chesterfield MO, a western suburb of St. Louis, on Sunday, August 24, 2014.  Any portion of this sermon may be quoted or adapted provided the author is credited.  

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This past Thursday, I went down to Ferguson with 7 other Unitarian Universalist ministers, all of us members of the Bi State Unitarian Universalist Ministers Society, who wanted to make sure we did our part, to make sure that Unitarian Universalists were present to our city and to our people. We let the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition know we wanted to come and they let us know that we would be made useful when we got there.

When we showed up at the Delwood Recreation Center, there were lines of people waiting for food, waiting to speak to someone about help with their utilities, waiting for emergency supplies like diapers and toilet paper. I noted the patience of the crowd, even for those who had been standing for hours in the heat. The United Way coordinator asked me to stand outside, watching for signs of anyone getting overheated and dehydrated. Be there to talk. There were lots of opportunities to do that. Some people just needed someone to listen.   Others had run out of things to say, except that they wanted it all to be over. But not “over” in terms of forgetting everything that happened and just moving on. Rather, “over” in terms of having their community back, “over” in terms of seeing some real change in their lives and in the community.

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the news every night, watching my twitter feed and facebook posts, thinking deeply, and wishing for change. This isn’t just about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson anymore. It never really was. We don’t know what happened that Saturday afternoon. That remains to be seen and my hope is that we will see justice, especially given the involvement of the FBI, although I realize even as I say that, one of those men has a future of some kind, and the other one doesn’t. And I think that’s what sets off the people of Ferguson. They won’t get Michael Brown back, just like they won’t get back the many other young men who have died too young.

What I think is most important is what the death of Michael Brown set off in the Ferguson community and in the psyche of our nation. Whether that particular shooting was justified or not, the anger and the pain that sparked up told a deeper truth.   It brought to the surface in such a painful way the daily reality of living with a deep unfairness that affects your life every day. What’s happening is really about the racial realities of the American nation. It’s about the truth of how separated the races are from each other, and how that separation is reinforced by things much bigger than us, that we created but are also beyond us . It’s about the day to day conscious and mostly unconscious ways we all decide who our people are and who counts. It’s about the differences in power we have to determine who gets in our private world and who doesn’t, and who has influence over our private life, and who doesn’t. And who the pays the price for that.

So many thoughts have swirled around my mind these past two weeks. I’ve thought about how I have changed, for instance, since moving to this city. I lived for ten years in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Now, I’m beginning my 10th year here, and I notice everyone who isn’t white, when I go to the grocery store or the gas station, or when I drive by the bus stop or pull up to a car at the stop light, I notice. I’m self-conscious about the fact that I notice, and sometimes I’ll overcompensate to make it look like I didn’t notice.  How did this happen to me? Is this what happens to you when you live in a place where 95% of the population is the color you are? Is this what happens when you live in a former slave state? Is this what happens when you start to learn more about how race works and you start questioning, and noticing stuff you maybe didn’t notice before, and being uncomfortable with what you notice about yourself and about other people and then wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to go back to not noticing? I think part of being an ally is to have the courage and maturity to notice, and then to admit what that noticing means. For me, it’s been about noticing, in a very uncomfortable way, my own privilege. And then working not to be become paralyzed by my guilt about it, and instead trying to figure out what that asks of me. How do I change who I come to see as my people? And how do I invite other people into that same place?

I know these have been a very very difficult weeks for all of us.   It’s been so hard for the people of Ferguson, hard for African Americans, hard for white people. Hard for people of color who aren’t black but can relate to some of the experiences they’re hearing about. It’s been exhausting for the clergy who stood every night between the protesters and the police, trying to diffuse the tension. What has it been like for those who know their loved ones are down in that mess, and wondering, when they see on the tv screen or twitter feed the tear gas spreading through the streets, if that’s what their people are breathing?

I can’t imagine how hard and frightening this time has been for those in law enforcement and for their families who send them off every night wondering what could happen.   Whatever your position on how the police have engaged the protesters, can you imagine being pelted with water bottles, shot at, splashed with body fluids, can you imagine facing the anger of that crowd night after night, an anger that is actually directed at you, and then to become the focus of so much criticism across the nation and internationally? If there was a time when an officer could crack, this might be one of those times.

One of the things I’ve learned is that no one grows and no one learns from being shamed. If we want law enforcement to change, we have to affirm the common humanity and noble intentions of those who commit to protect the safety and security of all of us. This is one reason so many Black leaders are trying to reaffirm the teachings of Martin Luther King, that non-violence is the only path to freedom.

On Thursday after we finished our time of service, we ministers decided to have lunch in a local restaurant because so many have lost business.  We wanted to leave some of our money in the Ferguson community. Our waiter, a young black man, saw our clergy collars and introduced himself as a youth pastor. We told him where we had been, and asked him how this has been for him? Was he part of the protests? He said that every night he thought about it, but as he prepared to walk out the door, God spoke to him and said that going into those protests would give Satan control. In his theology, there is an ongoing war between Satan and God, and he saw Satan in the violent protesters and the police. He also saw Satan in the anger in him that wanted to get out. The anger in him was Satan and he had to find love. So he stayed home, stayed out of trouble, made sure the youth in his church had somewhere to be. And prayed for peace and justice for, as he said, “my brother Michael Brown.”

I am also trying to imagine what this time has been like for those who are doing the looting. These are the ones it has been easiest for us to judge, and that judgment has come from blacks and whites, towards those who are taking advantage of the unrest.

I’m reminded of something Martin Luther King once said, that rioting is the tool of the truly powerless. It is all that is left to do with your anger. King spent much of his last years trying to hold back the anger of the young men, who then as now absorbed most of the violence that came into the African American community and had the least experience and maturity to deal with it. He begged them not to give in to their rage, to choose instead non-violence, and when he was assassinated, the lid popped off. When you have lost hope, when you see no future for yourself, there is nothing left to lose. All you know is that you’re angry. People with no hope take that anger and self-sabotage. That’s what I see happening. This is the kind of self-sabotage you see in addicts and abuse survivors. It’s the kind of self sabotage you see in those trapped in systemic poverty. I believe that to simply write them off as thugs is too easy. We’re walking from somewhere we need to do. And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to justify the violence. I’m trying to understand it, to not run from it. To stay present to it and to see the pain behind it.

Do we have the courage to look into the pain that has been simmering under the surface for decades and to stay with it? One of the biggest criticisms black civil rights folk will lob against white people is that we run from black anger.   As soon as it gets real, we ask everyone to play nice, and it’s really about us trying to stay in control.  They encourage us to stay present, to not run, and to not judge because we have no idea what it’s like to live with that anger day after day. I think about that a lot.

I read an article this week by George Ciccariello-Maher that made me really uncomfortable.  In part of the article,   he talks about black rage and white misunderstandings of it.  He talks about how often white people will say that they want peace and justice, but really they want the kind of peace that allows them to feel comfortable with themselves again, the kind of peace that allows them to turn away from the uncomfortableness of black anger.  He talks about the power of that anger.  If the demonstrators, he said, had not become aggressive, who would have paid attention?  If a few peaceful protesters showed up quietly with signs, there would be no media, there would be no world wide attention, there would be no politiclans showing up to make sure they are seen by their constituents as being present to what is happening, there would be no white people following up with their moderate demands.  Black anger has changed the playing field, drawn white attention to a problem that is so old.   http://roarmag.org/2014/08/ferguson-protests-institutional-racism.  I have to admit I did not like some of the article.  I did not want to consider the truths in it, that the only reason I’m paying attention is because things are getting hot under the collar.  And what he said about the looters, I’m uncomfortable with it.  But I think I want to stay with that discomfort.  I think we have to.   

Those looters have made it easy for many white people to walk away and say, “Well, they’re just doing it to themselves. There’s nothing for us to do here.” I really disagree. I think we owe it to ourselves and to this nation to understand this rage.   This isn’t about giving a pass to violence. It is about being in a place of compassion so that we aren’t continuing the violence by writing off those young men and women. We can’t afford to write anyone off anymore, and I know it’s not easy, but it’s what we are called to do, especially as Unitarian Universalists who have covenanted to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

There isn’t only one story here, anywhere, not among the law enforcement, not from the Ferguson community, not from Black Americans, not from other people of color, not from white people, not from our politicians, not from the media, and not in this church. There are many many stories, and we need them all.

In fact, that is the essence of our faith, Unitarian Universalism. This is a faith tradition committed to diversity, and it’s easy to say that when things are quiet and when it looks like we agree on most things. But when the stakes get higher, like they are now, that’s when it gets harder, because the urge to be right is so strong. And I also think that deep down we are afraid that if we have real differences in our community, and real conversations about those differences, we’ll lose what we have, that we will be divided.

Well, welcome to the real world.

There’s something I read this week that really helped me.   Sister Simone Campbell, she’s the nun that you see in the news a lot from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, those nuns who had their hands slapped by Pope Benedict because they focused more on poverty than opposing gay marriage and abortion.  Well, this Sister Simone talks about something called “Walking into Trouble.” This is what she says:
“Holy doubt is an essential element of holy faith. If we do not reverence our doubt, then we become the measure of control. Of God, of … trying to hold on and control everything that’s happening. …

It is critical in our world at this time that we have the courage to walk into doubt, as much as we walk into faith. Walking towards trouble means we’re willing to open ourselves to the surprise. To the 100% who has a different story. To different perspectives. So the importance of being uncertain means that I live a life that is slightly disturbed.” (http://www.uua.org/economic/ga/295423.shtml)

I hope that my words today have left you slightly disturbed. I hope it’s offered some confirmation for you of your own thoughts and feelings. I also hope that it has caused you to doubt some of your certainties. I hope that as a community, together, we can walk into this trouble. I hope that when the TV cameras go away, which they already are, that we won’t go away, that we won’t, as a predominantly white community, walk away from the anger the first chance we get. I hope that this is just the beginning for us, and that we’re willing to walk into trouble, with each other, with our community, and with the world.

Amen and blessed be.

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A response to the shooting of Michael Brown

Last night, I attended a Community Action Meeting at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant MO on behalf of the congregation I serve, Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) . On Saturday afternoon an unarmed African American teenager was shot dead by a police officer in North County. Witness accounts of the incident vary, but the circumstances are very familiar to this largely African American community. Once again, a young black man is killed.   There will be one more funeral for a young man who should have had his whole life ahead of him.

 Since Saturday afternoon, there have been demonstrations and protests night and day, some peaceful, some not. Looters have destroyed some local businesses. The police have responded with riot gear, dogs, and tear gas. From the beginning, local clergy have played a very visible role, hosting prayer vigils, peace walks, and community meetings.

 Regardless of the particular circumstances of the shooting of Michael Brown, something is not right and most of us know it. The systemic poverty, the school to prison pipeline, racial profiling, the disparity between the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs, the segregation of our city – these patterns are prevalent in every American city and they are prevalent in ours. The shooting of Michael Brown has become like a bolt of lightning in a dry forest. It has set something off.   It remains to be seen whether this situation will bring about true healing, reconciliation and justice, or if it will be lost in the 24 hour news cycle, with the status quo taking hold as soon as the TV cameras go away.

 That, my friends, is where we come in.

 I have been asked by many of my congregants what they can do.  These are my thoughts so far:

 

  • Given that most members of our congregation are white, we should accept that we cannot be in the drivers seat in terms of how this situation is responded to.   We have to take our direction from the community that is in turmoil. This means listening more than speaking and sometimes staying out of the way, literally and spiritually. It is our place to be open and receptive.
  • Keep educating yourself about the way race works in this country. Read everything you can. Learn as much as you can about the reality of being black in America. Learn how to identify racism in the 21st Avail yourself of any opportunity to engage in multiculturalism and diversity training, especially if you can do it in community and in a multiracial context because there is more accountability that way. Welcome that accountability.
  • If you are white, your job is to be a witness to racism, even and especially when it’s risky.  Don’t be afraid to say what you see, especially to other white people. This could mean a one on one conversation, speaking up in a group, writing a letter to your elected politicians, signing petitions, and posting on social media. Because of the way race works in this country, many white people (even liberal white people L) will be able to hear from you what they couldn’t hear from a person of color. This will help other white people to understand what they are seeing. And maybe, it will give them the courage to speak out as well. White silence, white denial and white ignorance gives systemic racism a lot of power.   You have to model a different way and do your part to create the critical mass needed for real change.
  • There are tentative plans for a prayer vigil and walk at the Canfield Apartments in Ferguson MO on Saturday at noon, the neighborhood of Michael Brown. Keep an eye out on social media for any updates.
  • Come to church this Sunday. Lauren Lyerla, Mark Fish, Jake Lyonfields and Mary Murphy, members of our congregation, are dedicating the service to racial justice. Lauren, Mark, and Mary were all facilitators in Building the World We Dream About, a program curriculum that our congregation engaged last year on multiculturalism and diversity. It is important to be together during difficult times. Come connect to your community.
  • Come to the Love First Meeting on Wednesday, August 20, 6:30 p.m. at the church office (16233 Westwoods Business Park, Ellisville MO 63021). Love First is Emerson Chapel’s social justice team. We will talk about what has happened this past week and how we as a community will witness to our values of compassion, equality and justice at this time and become allies to those who are hurting so much and need justice so badly.

 

Let us hold Michael Brown’s family as well as the office and their family in our thoughts and prayers. While the damage and the pain is more acute and feels closer in their circles, we are all damaged by the poison of systemic racism. It remains to be seen if we are strong enough to feel the truth of how close this pain is to every one of us.

 

Yours in faith, Rev. Krista.

 

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Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

America has hung its identity on freedom of the individual, and that is a wonderful and amazing thing. But what’s happened is that we have focused on freedom from rather than freedom for. Freedom has become its own end without an overarching sense of purpose or accountability, and that has left many of us really vulnerable: vulnerable to consumerism which twists our yearning for freedom and independence into the compulsion to go shopping; vulnerable to making the fulfillment of our desires the central meaning of our lives; vulnerable to being arrogant and self-centered; vulnerable to being intensely lonely. Americans are the loneliest people on the planet, having fewer close friends than any other nation on earth. It’s hard for us to cooperate, to trust. That has lead to a nation that lives as if danger is around every corner.

 This sermon was delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Chesterfield MO on Sunday, August 3, 2014.

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Whenever I use scriptural stories in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, I try to be really clear about how I use scripture, because so many Unitarian Universalists have been wounded by earlier religious experiences, often involving the use of scripture.

I believe that scripture is true because truth has a diversity of forms. There’s objective truth, like, “My car is black.” Or “I am the oldest of four siblings.” It doesn’t have to be interpreted. It just is. But, there are other truths that need more explaining, like, “Being the oldest of four siblings means that I was always the babysitter.” Or “My car is black because it was the only car of the make and model I wanted at the price I could afford.” These are truths that you have to get to. They aren’t just waiting there for you.

Scripture is that kind of truth. There’s nothing objective about scripture. Who wrote it and why? What has it meant to the people who claim it as theirs? Who is reading it now and what questions and assumptions do they bring to what they’re reading? You can’t just open the Bible, pick a verse, and say, “It’s truth is obvious,” because it’s not. There is a diversity of truth in every single word of what we call Scripture.

I know that every time I use scripture, some people get scared that they’re going to get hurt again.   I can’t promise you that you won’t get hurt again, but I can promise you that it’s not the scripture that will hurt you. It never was. It was the people using it.

When a Unitarian Universalist uses Scripture, it will be through the lens of our values, through the guidance of our questions, and our hopes for what life should be. Part of being a Unitarian Universalist is to take risks on behalf of our individual and collective spiritual wellbeing, and part of healing is developing a new relationship with what hurt us.   Then, we’re the ones in the drivers seat, not our wounds.

That’s how I come at any scriptural verse. I’m in the driver’s seat and the scripture and the history that it carries with it, is a gift that I get to explore to find freedom and new life and true community. It helps me with that age-old universal question, “To whom do I belong? And who belongs to me?”

Today we are beginning a month-long focus on the meaning of covenant, what it means to live in covenant. Who do we belong to and who belongs to us? Our Unitarian Universalist understanding of religious community as centered in covenant rather than creed or doctrine has its roots in the myth of the Exodus that I shared with our children today, of a people who became enslaved, entered into a covenant with the God of their understanding who promised them freedom if they promised him faithfulness. He then ushered in their freedom, and then it was their turn.

That covenant is rooted in these two passages from the Torah, one in the book of Shemot (shmot) , the other in the book of Vayikrah. (va-i-krah) If your background is Christian you will know them as Exodus and Leviticus.   Shemot tells the story of the Exodus, of how the Israelites got out of Egypt and went into exile in the desert searching for the promised land. Vayikrah is the book is where God through Moses sets out the laws by which the Israelites will live into their newfound freedom.

Shemot 6: 5-8. “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage.”

This verse takes place at the time that God is starting to send all those nasty plagues to the Egyptians, trying to force them to set the Israelites free. While he was doing this, some of the Israelites begged him to stop because they were afraid of getting the Egyptians mad. What if God’s plagues didn’t work? What if that left them still slaves, but not owned by people who were really mad at them? In this verse, God is basically saying to them, “Heh, chill out! I have heard your suffering and I’ve been moved by it. I AM going to set you free. I AM going to get you out of this. And when I do, you know that you’re my people.”

Then there’s the next set of verses, which take place after the Israelites have been freed, and now they’re wandering in the desert until they find home. He’s responding to the fact that they keep complaining. Complaining about not having homes, about not having reliable water sources, about having to wander in the desert. Sometimes, even saying that they wish they could just stay in Egypt. At least then they knew what the deal was. Here, they didn’t know anything. And God says to them

Vayikah 26:11-13.

“And I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be My people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye shall not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and made you go upright.”

God is saying to them, “Look, I’ve freed you. And not only have I freed you, but I am living amongst you. And guess what! You are no longer bent over with the weight of your enslavement.   You are free. So who cares that you are wandering the desert, and having to haul wood and look for food and set up your tents every night. You are free!   And in covenant, we will claim the fullness of your freedom. You will have a land to call your own!”

What I see in these verses is that God needed them as much as they needed him. They both needed the covenant that he extended out to them. So when he said “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” he got to be more whole too. He was taking a risk on behalf of his own spiritual growth.

The purpose of this covenant was to protect the Israelites freedom. After centuries of enslavement, they had forgotten how to be free. Their whole identity as a people was wrapped up in their collective suffering. In fact, the first time he offered them this covenant, in the book of Shemot, they didn’t believe him and turned away. This is how deep in despair they had fallen. It took a whole series of miracles to win their trust, and even then, they would doubt him, over and over again. Once they had their freedom, they didn’t even know where to start. They had to learn how to be upright, not stooped over. So God started at the basics. Moses went up Mount Sinai and got those Ten Commandments, and said here, follow this. Then God called him back up again and again, and according to those who wrote the story down, this is what brought the Vayikrah, or Leviticus, into being, the book of laws. And what I see in those laws, are instructions for how to live into their covenant. The most important thing that God wanted to share with the Israelites was how to create a nation that did not put them back into slavery, because that would not be honoring him.

This was a people who were so damaged. And when you’ve been oppressed, you often internalize your oppression, deep down believing that it’s all you really deserve. To use a turn of phrase from Vayikah, “Our souls abhor us.” We often see this with people who have experienced some kind of abuse or oppression. In the gay community, we often say that each of us has our own internalized homophobia. We have internalized the message that we are less than. You often see people of color with internalized racism. Women have internalized sexism. And people who are victims of abuse, you’ll often see them making choices that keep them in the abuse.  Even when they have the chance for freedom, they will often make choices that put them right back into an abusive situation. When that happens, it’s their wounds that are in the drivers seat, not them. And I’m not saying to blame anyone, but to hold up a pattern of how we can undo ourselves.

The God in this story invited the Israelites into a covenant where they were in the drivers seat, a covenant that affirmed their self-value and offered them freedom. God knew that humans are really good at internalizing their wounds and building new hierarchies that damage the next generation, and he did not want that. They’d just escaped from one form of slavery, they didn’t need another one. The purpose of covenant is to put us in the drivers seat towards right relationship and right living with all that is.

So what does this have to do with us?   Here we are, a small Unitarian Universalist congregation in suburban St. Louis in the 21st century. Most of us are not Christian anymore, and those of us that are tend to focus on a God who presents as quite different from a traditional God. We are unified in our values but diverse in the ways we experience and talk about the divine or the sacred. We are humanists and atheists, agnostics, spiritual, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and more. Most of us aren’t fleeing for our lives. Most of us have homes, food in the fridge, a bed to lay in, transportation to get to a church that is not accessible by public transit. We don’t seem much like those ancient Israelites.

But still, there is so much here for us. For the last 40 years or so, many deep thinkers, religious leaders, some politicians, and even ordinary people, have been sounding an alarm, that we have our own wounds that are in the drivers seat. Many of us have forgotten how to be a people.

America has hung its identity on freedom of the individual, and that is a wonderful and amazing thing. But what’s happened is that we have focused on freedom from rather than freedom for. Freedom has become its own end without an overarching sense of purpose or accountability, and that has left many of us really vulnerable: vulnerable to consumerism which twists our yearning for freedom and independence into the compulsion to go shopping; vulnerable to making the fulfillment of our desires the central meaning of our lives; vulnerable to being arrogant and self-centered; vulnerable to being intensely lonely. Americans are the loneliest people on the planet, having fewer close friends than any other nation on earth. It’s hard for us to cooperate, to trust. That has lead to a nation that lives as if danger is around every corner.

People who are disconnected from each other tend to overreact, to demonize others, to presume bad intentions, to throw out ultimatums, and ultimately, to close off. Why does this happen? We’ve bought into the illusion of our separateness, and yet at every turn the ways of the world show us we are not, we are radically interconnected. To someone who has bought into the illusion, those reality checks feel like assaults and we either lash out or close off to protect ourselves from the blow we imagine is coming. When that happens, our woundedness is in the drivers seat.

Covenant for 21st century America, in my opinion, is about providing a roadmap away from the kind of rabid individualism that we are stuck in, to the kind of individualism that supports each person living into their fullness, so that as a people we are stronger. I really think this is the challenge of our time. We can’t afford to live like we’re the only ones on the planet anymore. Ecologically and socially, politically and spiritually, the wounds of this illusion are in the drivers seat and they are doing so much damage.

Now whether for good or bad, we don’t have a God or a Moses who can meet at the top of a mountain and come up with a set of laws that show us how to get there. We have to be God and Moses for each other.

 A few years ago, the Board of Trustees of this good congregation and the Committee on Ministry, along with myself, realized that this congregation had nothing to guide it when relationships got difficult, which happens in a church. It happens everywhere. The Committee on Ministry is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the ministries of the church. They aren’t a working group so much as an evaluating group. These are the people I often use as a sounding board. They are the people who conduct my performance reviews as well as the performance of the congregation as a whole in living its ministries.   They were charged by the Board with developing a process for how to address conflict. The first thing they did was ask, “Well, what’s our covenant with each other? Who are we to each other?” Over the next year, they developed the document that many of you hold in your hands this morning, our Behavioral Covenant.

Here’s the opening statement:

We build our church on a foundation of love and covenant with one another,

To freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength,

To accept responsibility for our individual acts and promote justice and peace,

To celebrate the joys of discovery, embracing the fullest measure of our humanity,

To communicate with kindness and support,

To serve with compassion and commitment,

To openly share our laughter and tears and,

To show reverence for the divine in all that is.

Can you see how these words draw us into resistance against the kind of individualism that is tearing apart the fabric of our society? The individualism that separates and isolates us, that pits us against each other?

I love the whole thing, but my favorite is “to freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength.” In Unitarian Universalism we don’t create unity by stifling diversity, we honor it, believing that it is in our diversity, and the embodiment of our freedom, that we become one people. That’s what we believe we are heading towards. And just like the Ancient Israelites, what we’re struggling against is the power of wounds that can easily get in the drivers seat. Our wound is the relentless pull towards a kind of individualism that takes us all down. It’s doing too much damage, and our responsibility is to model a different path to a truer freedom, one that heals and validates and unifies.

This is an ageless process, the process of becoming a people, of holding up our radical interconnectedness. We are on a trajectory that started before the Ancient Israelites grasped at their freedom and will continue long after us, and maybe someday our experience will become a story that is told to children when they ask who they are and who they belong to.

Amen and blessed be.

These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.  

 

 

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Moving Physically, Moving Spiritually

 

 

This sermon was delivered to Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on July 13, 2014, on the first Sunday that we worshipped in our new location on Wild Horse Creek Road in Chesterfield MO.

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We live in a highly mobile society. Americans seem to move more than anyone else.   It’s about the restless culture and size of this country. It’s about the economy and probably a lot more.

  • How many of you have moved 1-5 times in your life?
  • How many of you have moved 6-10 times in your life?
  • How many of you have moved more than 10 times in your life?

I’ve moved 15 times as an adult and spent seven years living between two cities. When you have to be that mobile, you learn how to be ready.   I knew how to descend on a new city with cash in my pocket and find a place to live in a day. I could pack everything I owned into a little compact car in 4 hours and be ready to go. Once I arrived, I’d roll out my bed, get out my blankets and pillows, and hang up my posters, the same posters I had taken down just the day before, and then I was home.

I’m glad I don’t live like that anymore. It became very exhausting. By now it would take me a month and a moving van! But, you learn something about the transitory nature of life, and you learn what stays the same, and what doesn’t, and you learn how to reinvent who you are and how to find your new people, because you always need to find your people.   Living a life on the move means always looking past the horizon to where you hope to land.

Moving is much more than about packing things and unpacking them when you get there. Moving is a state of readiness, and it has its own wisdom that applies whether you’ve lived in the same place for 50 years, or if you’ve just recently unpacked the boxes.

I want to tell you a story about moving, and at first it might not feel like it’s about moving, but it really is about moving.

Back in 1992, Nick Hanauer’s family business sold pillows to retail stores across the country. And it was a pretty successful business. Nick was really good at selling pillows.   But in 1992 he learned about something new that was coming over the horizon.

It was called the internet. In 1992 it was a slow and clunky thing, beloved by geeks, barely understood by anyone else. Nick could see that that once the internet worked out its kinks, and realized its potential, once an ordinary joe could use it and have confidence in it, the way he was running his pillow business would no longer work, because people were going to shop online like no one’ business.   Nick has always been the kind of guy who can see just over the horizon, and he saw that companies like his would have to radically restructure to make it. He probably also saw that many other businessmen and women had their heads in the sand. They just couldn’t imagine doing business any other way than bricks and mortar. He didn’t want to be one of those businessmen who got caught behind the curve ball playing catch up. So, he kept his eye out for an opportunity to step into the game. He wanted to be there, ready to cash in, when things got going.

Then one day he met Jeff Bezos and Jeff Tauber, other businessmen like him that seemed to have the ability to see just over the horizon, and they saw the same thing he did. They were planning for the dot com boom.   Nick told both Jeffs that he was ready to invest. Jeff Tauber never called him back. But Jeff Bezos, the Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon, did. Amazon started out selling half price books, and unlike to many other of the early dot com companies, it survived the dot com bust of 2000 and went on to become the online shopping giant that we know today.

Whatever you may think about the impact of Amazon on the book industry, or the bricks and mortar stores that have gone under because they can’t compete, you have to admit that Amazon has changed our lives. How many of us have purchased something on Amazon in the recent past? Because of us, Nick Hanauer no longer needs to be into pillows and Jeff Bezos no longer has to beg for investors.

Now, I don’t know Nick Hanauer personally. I don’t know how his mind works. I don’t know how fast his heart beats when faced with a challenge. But, I know that people like Nick Hanauer have dramatically shaped my life and yours, and not just because he invested in Amazon, but because he is the kind of person who looks over the horizon.

This is the thing about moving. We humans are creatures of habit. We like patterns and we like to know where we belong.   This is why I hung up the same posters for ten years, because then I knew where I was. But we’re also creatures of invention. We’re restless, always yearning for just a bit more, for that place beyond the horizon where earth and sky meet. We are not made to stand still. If we were, Nick Hanauer would still be traipsing from store to store marketing his pillows.

If you are with us for the first time today, what you couldn’t possibly know is that there is something very important missing from this sanctuary. There are two quilts that hung in our old sanctuary, the one we just sold. Two beautiful quilts. They were made by members of the congregation, so many people, young and old, each making a block of the quilt, and then sewn together into two beautiful quilts – one with spring colors, the other with fall colors to symbolize the constant turning of the seasons and the circle of life. They hung in our old sanctuary for 12 years.   Last month, in anticipation of the move, they were carefully taken down and are now in the process of being cleaned and framed so that we can bring them here. There are many wonderful people sitting here this morning that will be so pleased when those quilts will hang once again, because it will be a symbol that we’re home. Just like me hanging my beloved posters in my new bedroom.

However, if all we needed is to be home, we wouldn’t be sitting in this sanctuary today. None of us would be, even those of you who are with us for the first time. Every one of us is here because part of our human nature is to always be looking over the horizon and searching for the place where sky and land become one. That’s why we are here. We want more out of life than selling pillows.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but for me, the decision to sell our old property and move into this space is because I had a vision of what lay beyond the horizon.

I know that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. This is a religion that asks us to think for ourselves, to ask questions, to open our eyes to the injustices right in front us and to see our part in the problem and commit to being part of the solution. Unitarian Universalism asks us to walk with open eyes into the complexity of life and let it teach us everything it can. It asks us to trust our intuitions while being humble about our ability to deceive ourselves through pride and ignorance and fear. Our progressive faith tradition assures us that we are not alone, that we are connected to everything that is, and that in this crazy life, there are no points of no return. You always get another chance to be in right relationship with yourself and others.   We don’t promise you paradise. We don’t promise you eternal life, although some Unitarians Universalists believe in that. We don’t promise you a life free of suffering either, because even in suffering, sometimes especially in suffering, there is wisdom and truth. What we do offer, if you are open to it, is a life that is deeper and wider and filled with compassion and understanding, and that means being both very brave and very humble about our human fragility. In that kind of vulnerable honesty lies a great deal of power, power that we can use to make a real difference in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, and in the world.

So what does this have to do with moving here, to Chesterfield, into this private Catholic high school that has been so generous in hosting us? It’s about looking over the horizon, like Nick Hanauer did when he knew that his pillow business was going to need to change, and being willing to take advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself.

In my opinion, and it is only my opinion, the opportunity to sell our former property and move here was like Nick Hanauer meeting Jeff Bezos and saying, “I want to invest in you.” We are no longer located on a quiet residential street far from the interstates.   We have so much room now for our children’s programs. We aren’t asking our kids to tuck themselves away into small musty cramped rooms. We have lots of room now for coffee hour, which is pretty much like communion for Unitarian Universalists! Our beloved St. Charles County members and friends can now get here easily. And, all of this means that we can better fulfill the calling of our progressive religious tradition, which is to share the blessing of what we have received from it, share the blessing of how it has transformed us.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t value the 24 years we spent in Ellisville. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t deeply appreciative of those of us who dedicated time and money and vision to the building and property we used to own.   In fact, that blessing brought us to where we are today, and we as a covenantal community need to carry with us what that home gave us. That’s what it means to live truthfully and faithfully within the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

And that’s why this sanctuary will not be complete until those quilts hang on both sides of the chancel, just like my move was never complete until the bed was made and the posters hung on the walls. Just like Nick Hanauer got where he did because of his family’s pillow business.

I want you to think of all the places you have lived in your life. You may have lived here in St. Louis your whole life, maybe even in the same house. Or, you’ve come from somewhere else, maybe many somewhere elses. Whenever we arrive somewhere new, it’s never completely a new beginning. We always carry with us the legacies that make us who we are, just like I carried those posters from city to city, and that becomes the blessing that we use to continue the journey of transformation, transformation of ourselves, our community and our world.

Think of all the ways the places you’ve lived have shaped you. I’m sure you have your own posters and your own quilts, those things unique to you that tell you’re home, that tell you who you are. They may even simply rest in your heart. And when you have that, and can trust in that foundation, what horizon is out of reach? Once you have that, there is no turning back. You have exactly what you need to keep on moving forward.

So in the weeks and months to come, we’ll put up our posters, and hang our quilts, and we’ll make adjustments and figure things out and find our way in this new reality. So have faith, have patience in yourself and in others, let’s embody the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, which is mutuality and trust and compassion, a deep willingness to learn from each other, to live in gratitude for what we have been given, and for the opportunity to see over the horizon to that fine line where heaven meets earth. May the spirit be with you and yours, amen and blessed be.

 

 

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Religious Terrorism meets Religious Liberalism

This past Sunday, something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (First UUNO).  Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-abortion organization that is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going, chose to land in one of our congregations.  Several members of OSA showed up at First UUNO as if there to attend worship, and during the service stood up and began verbally accosting the worshippers and pushing anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands.

I don’t think they were prepared for what followed.  That Sunday, First UUNO was commissioning the College of Social Justice youth leaders who had been gathering all week.  The youth leaders immediately circled in and began singing.  Rev. De Vandiver, a New Orleans-based Community Minister who was leading worship that morning, asked the protesters to please respect the worship space and if they couldn’t, to relocate to the front steps of the church.  As she spoke, church leaders began to carefully guide the protesters towards the front door.  Some protesters respected her request and remained silently behind.  At the same time. Rev. Jim VanderWeele of Community  Church Unitarian Universalist called the police who gathered a block away in case things got violent.  The Director of Religious Education did a sweep of all points of entry, ensured they were locked, and discerned that OSA had indeed surrounded the church.  OSA had identified the rooms where the children met for Religious Education and were pressing disturbing pictures against the windows.  The children were moved to an interior room, with a note left on their classroom doors to inform parents of where they had been moved to.  Back in the sanctuary, Rev. Vandiver preached about how fundamentalism offers only one path of truth, whereas liberal religion recognizes a diversity of paths, and that this offers us a significant way to engage the challenges of our world.  After the service, Rev. Vandiver called Planned Parenthood and within ten minutes escorts arrived at the church to help parishioners return safely to their vehicles.

First, let me say that I’m extremely disturbed that this has happened.  This protest was a violation of our sacred space, and when I say “our” I mean it.  We Unitarian Universalists are in sacred covenantal relationships of mutuality.  When one congregation is violated in this way, we are all violated.

But unfortunately, I’m not surprised.  I have been active in the reproductive justice movement in the United States for the last nine years.  The anti-abortion movement has become increasingly radicalized, willing to use violence to achieve its goals, from intimidating women as they enter clinics to murdering the doctors that serve them.  I’ve stood outside the entrance to Hope Clinic in Granite City IL, allowing anti-abortion protesters to hurl insults at me hoping to deflect some of their venom away from the patients on their way in.  They hate clergy who are pro-choice.  We drive them crazy because we use the same scriptures they do and pray to the same God.   They take pictures of us and our vehicle license plates and post them online.  We get hate letters in the mail.  It’s very intimidating.  But heh, we aren’t the ones trying to get an abortion.  So if just by standing there in a clergy collar, holding a sign that proclaims a love bigger than their hate, we drive the protesters a little crazy? Crazy enough to direct their venom at us?  May it make one woman’s day just a bit easier.

But we don’t take chances either.  We always register with the clinic so they know we’re there, and escorts always take us back to our cars.

This summer, anti-abortionists got a big pass from the Supreme Court to escalate the level of bullying they can legally get away with.  They no longer have to respect the buffer zone that used to keep them away from the entrances of abortion clinics.  This gives anti-abortion protesters the right to get up close and personal.  Just like the protesters who took their place at First UUNO, they can shout their judgments and push their pamphlets into the eyes and hands of women who just need a break, who need some respect and some space to access the health care that they have decided is best for them and their families.

It makes my blood run cold…..

I am incredibly relieved that there was no physical violence or bloodshed at First UUNO.

But let’s reflect a bit about how First UUNO responded.  First, they responded with respect.  No one yelled back at the protesters.  No one pushed back.    The response was non-violent.  This did not mean that the good people at First UUNO simply took it on the chin.  They claimed their sacred space back from those filling it with hateful words and pictures by responding with music.  They claimed it by establishing the expectations for those who wished to occupy it.  They then enforced the expectation by gently and respectfully removing those who refused to meet the expectations they had set.  They also didn’t take any chances.  Doors were locked.  Kids were relocated.  Police were called.  Planned Parenthood was contacted for help.

The ministers, the youth leaders, the Director of Religious Education, and all the good people attending that morning lived into their faith in every action that was taken that morning.  They witnessed to our values of respect and diversity every step of the way.   We can learn a lot from them.

Actually, we have to learn from them because what happened to First UUNO could happen in any of our churches.  I’m not saying we should expect it.  Most of our churches will never face this kind of sacred violation, thank the spirit, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  In fact, given the increasing legal challenges to reproductive justice, and the fact that many Unitarian Universalist leaders are publicly active in the women’s reproductive justice movement, we need to be ready.  Radical anti-abortionists don’t play fair.  Rev. De Vandiver called it right.  These are religious terrorists.  These are strong words, but let’s call a spade a spade.  By standing up for freedom, for respect, for the true complexity and diversity of life, we could be made targets.  This means we have to have safety procedures in place and practice using them.  It also means becoming skilled in non-violent passive resistance when others would violate us for the purpose of furthering their political goals.  We can turn that violation on its head and proclaim our values, healing values that we believe will usher in true justice and peace.

OSA crossed a big line on Sunday and I think it could turn around and bite them.  Americans have a deep respect for religious freedom and for the sanctity of religious houses of worship.  No matter what you may think about what goes on inside any specific house of worship, violating sacred space is a big deal.   Sunday’s violation is a direct mirror of the kind of violation that religious fundamentalist terrorists would like to enact legally in this country against all women.

New Orleans Unitarian Universalists are now planning a media outreach to respond to what has happened to them, to use this awful experience as a tool to continue changing the hearts of this nation, to show that religious people have diverse ways of being pro-child and pro-family, and that religious liberalism might just be where we see the clearest embodiment of what it means to be, dare I say, pro-life in its truest sense.

Thank you New Orleans Unitarian Universalists for your proud witness.  May the rest of us be worthy of it.

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Moving Physically, Moving Spiritually

Our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition assures us that we are not alone, that we are connected to everything that is, and that in this crazy life, there are no points of no return. You always get another chance to be in right relationship with yourself and others. We don’t promise you paradise. We don’t promise you eternal life, although some Unitarians Universalists believe in that. We don’t promise you a life free of suffering either, because even in suffering, sometimes especially in suffering, there is wisdom and truth. What we do offer, if you are open to it, is a life that is deeper and wider and filled with compassion and understanding, and that means being both very brave and very humble about our human fragility. In that kind of vulnerable honesty lies a great deal of power, power that we can use to make a real difference in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, and in the world.

This sermon was delivered to Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on July 13th,  the first Sunday that it met in its new worshipping space at 17815 Wild Horse Creek Rd. Chesterfield MO.

****

We live in a highly mobile society.  Americans seem to move more than anyone else.   When I moved here from Canada, it seemed like everyone I met had lived in 2,3, 4 or more different states.  It amazed me, and I wondered, “What is that about?”  Is it about the restless American culture?  Is it about a frontier mentality?  Is it just about the size of this country?  Maybe it’s just about the economy.  Probably.  And much more.

1)   How many of you have moved 1-5 times in your life?

2)   How many of you have moved 6-10 times in your life?

3)   How many of you have moved more than 10 times in your life?

I’ve moved 15 times as an adult and spent seven years living between two cities. When you have to be that mobile, you learn how to be ready.   I knew how to descend on a new city with cash in my pocket and find a place to live in a day. I could pack everything I owned into a little compact car in 4 hours and be ready to go. Once I arrived, I’d roll out my bed, get out my blankets and pillows, and hang up my posters, the same posters I had taken down just the day before, and then I was home.

I’m glad I don’t live like that anymore. It became very exhausting. By now it would take me a month and a moving van! But, you learn something about the transitory nature of life, and you learn what stays the same, and what doesn’t, and you learn how to reinvent who you are and how to find your new people, because you always need to find your people.   Living a life on the move means always looking past the horizon to where you hope to land.

Moving is much more than about packing things and unpacking them when you get there. Moving is a state of readiness, and it has its own wisdom that applies whether you’ve lived in the same place for 50 years, or if you’ve just recently unpacked the boxes.

I want to tell you a story about moving, and at first it might not feel like it’s about moving, but it really is about moving.

Back in 1992, Nick Hanauer’s family business sold pillows to retail stores across the country. And it was a pretty successful business. Nick was really good at selling pillows.   But in 1992 he learned about something new that was coming over the horizon.

It was called the internet. In 1992 it was a slow and clunky thing, beloved by geeks, barely understood by anyone else. Nick could see that that once the internet worked out its kinks, and realized its potential, once an ordinary joe could use it and have confidence in it, the way he was running his pillow business would no longer work, because people were going to shop online like no one’ business.   Nick has always been the kind of guy who can see just over the horizon, and he saw that companies like his would have to radically restructure to make it. He probably also saw that many other businessmen and women had their heads in the sand. They just couldn’t imagine doing business any other way than bricks and mortar. He didn’t want to be one of those businessmen who got caught behind the curve ball playing catch up. So, he kept his eye out for an opportunity to step into the game. He wanted to be there, ready to cash in, when things got going.

Then one day he met Jeff Bezos and Jeff Tauber, other businessmen like him that seemed to have the ability to see just over the horizon, and they saw the same thing he did. They were planning for the dot com boom.   Nick told both Jeffs that he was ready to invest. Jeff Tauber never called him back. But Jeff Bezos, the Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon, did. Amazon started out selling half price books, and unlike to many other of the early dot com companies, it survived the dot com bust of 2000 and went on to become the online shopping giant that we know today.

Whatever you may think about the impact of Amazon on the book industry, or the bricks and mortar stores that have gone under because they can’t compete, you have to admit that Amazon has changed our lives. How many of us have purchased something on Amazon in the recent past? Because of us, Nick Hanauer no longer needs to be into pillows and Jeff Bezos no longer has to beg for investors.

Now, I don’t know Nick Hanauer personally. I don’t know how his mind works. I don’t know how fast his heart beats when faced with a challenge. But, I know that people like Nick Hanauer have dramatically shaped my life and yours, and not just because he invested in Amazon, but because he is the kind of person who looks over the horizon.

This is the thing about moving. We humans are creatures of habit. We like patterns and we like to know where we belong.   This is why I hung up the same posters for ten years, because then I knew where I was. But we’re also creatures of invention. We’re restless, always yearning for just a bit more, for that place beyond the horizon where earth and sky meet. We are not made to stand still. If we were, Nick Hanauer would still be traipsing from store to store marketing his pillows.

If you are with us for the first time today, what you couldn’t possibly know is that there is something very important missing from this sanctuary. There are two quilts that hung in our old sanctuary, the one we just sold. Two beautiful quilts. They were made by members of the congregation, so many people, young and old, each making a block of the quilt, and then sewn together into two beautiful quilts – one with spring colors, the other with fall colors to symbolize the constant turning of the seasons and the circle of life. They hung in our old sanctuary for 12 years.   Last month, in anticipation of the move, they were carefully taken down and are now in the process of being cleaned and framed so that we can bring them here. There are many wonderful people sitting here this morning that will be so pleased when those quilts will hang once again, because it will be a symbol that we’re home. Just like me hanging my beloved posters in my new bedroom.

However, if all we needed is to be home, we wouldn’t be sitting in this sanctuary today. None of us would be, even those of you who are with us for the first time. Every one of us is here because part of our human nature is to always be looking over the horizon and searching for the place where sky and land become one. That’s why we are here. We want more out of life than selling pillows.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but for me, the decision to sell our old property and move into this space is because I had a vision of what lay beyond the horizon.

I know that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. This is a religion that asks us to think for ourselves, to ask questions, to open our eyes to the injustices right in front us and to see our part in the problem and commit to being part of the solution. Unitarian Universalism asks us to walk with open eyes into the complexity of life and let it teach us everything it can. It asks us to trust our intuitions while being humble about our ability to deceive ourselves through pride and ignorance and fear. Our progressive faith tradition assures us that we are not alone, that we are connected to everything that is, and that in this crazy life, there are no points of no return. You always get another chance to be in right relationship with yourself and others.   We don’t promise you paradise. We don’t promise you eternal life, although some Unitarians Universalists believe in that. We don’t promise you a life free of suffering either, because even in suffering, sometimes especially in suffering, there is wisdom and truth. What we do offer, if you are open to it, is a life that is deeper and wider and filled with compassion and understanding, and that means being both very brave and very humble about our human fragility. In that kind of vulnerable honesty lies a great deal of power, power that we can use to make a real difference in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, and in the world.

So what does this have to do with moving here, to Chesterfield, and meeting for worship in this private Catholic high school that has been so generous in hosting us? It’s about looking over the horizon, like Nick Hanauer did when he knew that his pillow business was going to need to change, and being willing to take advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself. In my opinion, and it is only my opinion, the opportunity to sell our former property and move here was like Nick Hanauer meeting Jeff Bezos and saying, “I want to invest in you.” We are no longer located on a quiet residential street far from the interstates.   We have so much room now for our children’s programs. We aren’t asking our kids to tuck themselves away into small musty cramped rooms. We have lots of room now for coffee hour, which is pretty much like communion for Unitarian Universalists! Our beloved St. Charles County members and friends can now get here easily. And, all of this means that we can better fulfill the calling of our progressive religious tradition, which is to share the blessing of what we have received from it, share the blessing of how it has transformed us.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t value the 24 years we spent in Ellisville. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t deeply appreciative of those of us who dedicated time and money and vision to the building and property we used to own.   In fact, that blessing brought us to where we are today, and we as a covenantal community need to carry with us what that home and the people who loved it gave us. That’s what it means to live truthfully and faithfully within the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

And that’s why this sanctuary will not be complete until those quilts hang on both sides of the chancel, just like my move was never complete until the bed was made and the posters hung on the walls. Just like Nick Hanauer got where he did because of his family’s pillow business.

I want you to think of all the places you have lived in your life. You may have lived here in St. Louis your whole life, maybe even in the same house. Or, you’ve come from somewhere else, maybe many somewhere elses. Whenever we arrive somewhere new, it’s never completely a new beginning. We always carry with us the legacies that make us who we are, just like I carried those posters from city to city, and that becomes the blessing that we use to continue the journey of transformation, transformation of ourselves, our community and our world.

Think of all the ways the places you’ve lived have shaped you. I’m sure you have your own posters and your own quilts, those things unique to you that tell you’re home, that tell you who you are. They may even simply rest in your heart. And when you have that, and can trust in that foundation, what horizon is out of reach? Once you have that, there is no turning back. You have exactly what you need to keep on moving forward.

So in the weeks and months to come, we’ll put up our posters, and hang our quilts, and we’ll make adjustments and figure things out and find our way in this new reality. So have faith, have patience in yourself and in others, let’s embody the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, which is mutuality and trust and compassion, a deep willingness to learn from each other, to live in gratitude for what we have been given, and for the opportunity to see over the horizon to that fine line where heaven meets earth. May the spirit be with you and yours, amen and blessed be.

N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended

conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.

 

 

 

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Birth Control and the American Revolution

The struggle for liberty can no longer be fought only in the courts, for the courts have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. The struggle has to be fought in the heart. We are called to change hearts and minds. That is why the gay rights movement is succeeding while the reproductive justice movement faces blow after blow. The gay rights movement focused on changing hearts along with laws. The reproductive justice movement is called to do the same.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on Sunday July 6, 2014.  

Reading.  “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Song.   “This Land is My Land”  Woody Guthrie.

Sermon

It may or may surprise you to know that Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere is not very accurate! He took a lot of poetic license. Paul Revere did not work alone. He was in a large network of resistance. There were two other men who worked with him that night to alert the people of the incoming British army. And, there was also a woman who went knocking door to door. The men just rode through town yelling that the British were coming! She made sure everyone actually heard the message. Furthermore, Revere was actually arrested that night! Longfellow doesn’t mention any of this. In his poem, Revere singlehandedly is responsible for helping the colonies avoid complete surrender to the British.

Longfellow’s goal in writing the poem was not to preserve history. He knew he was massaging the facts to suit his poem, but that’s because poems aren’t history. Longfellow wrote this legendary poem because he had an ulterior motive, and to understand that motive, you have to understand a bit about Longfellow’s story.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born to a Unitarian family in 1807, 30 years after the American Revolution, just about the time that Unitarianism was becoming its own denomination. His father attended Harvard, which is where he met William Ellery Channing, often considered the first leader of the fledging Unitarian church. Henry’s brother, Samuel, became an influential Unitarian minister. There are 7 hymns written by Rev. Samuel Longfellow in our hymnal. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife was also from a Unitarian family.

Unitarianism in its earliest days was about cultivating virtue. This liberal Christian denomination proclaimed that all of humanity could become what Jesus was with the right intention. This was mostly accomplished through study of the arts and sciences – philosophy, literature, poetry, biblical criticism, theology, geology, biology. As you honed your mind and deepened your understanding, you developed the virtues of patience, open-mindedness, reverence, a respect for science, generosity, reason, and rationality. You would attain that godliness that Jesus represented.

For many of the early Unitarians, this honing was not just about becoming a better human being, but about becoming an American in the fullest sense. In these early years of nationhood, and there was a real sense, especially among the educated upper class (and that’s where Unitarianism emerged from) that America needed the same kind of honing that the individual did.

For Longfellow, his contribution to this honing was poetry. He yearned for an American culture that could match the immensity and vastness of its geography.   He wanted a refined American culture that could hold its own against Europe. His poems were about holding up the ideas that he felt were uniquely American, ideas that were also, not surprisingly, very Unitarian. The early Unitarians felt certain that their values were the embodiment of America’s values.

But, there was one big problem that came to consume more and more of their energy, and that was the problem of slavery. Many Unitarians became convinced that the presence of slavery in the United States was a national shame. It didn’t help that many Unitarians were also businessmen who struggled to compete with Southern slave labor. The institution of slavery turned Unitarianism away from its singular focus on study and internal introspection, and out into the world. It kept Unitarianism from being an intellectual exercise.

Being Unitarian, at least in the North, came to mean being against slavery. This resistance cemented in many Unitarian minds the conviction that Unitarian virtues were synonymous with the virtues of the American nation.

In 1860, Longfellow was asked by an abolitionist friend to write a poem. It seemed like the nation was heading to civil war. By this time Longfellow was seen as the quintessential American poet, he was famous and influential and identified with the heart of the nation. Could he write a poem that would inspire Americans to understand what was at stake?

Longfellow dug into America’s past and looked for a hero, and he found that hero in Paul Revere. He crafted a poem about a lone man who loved his nation, who lit the lanterns and galloped through the night, warning the good people of America of the impending threat. So this poem isn’t really about the American Revolution. It’s really about the looming Civil War.

Longfellow’s intention was to sound the alarm, to rally around the best virtues of the American nation and to be ready to stand for truth and justice. But this time, unlike the American Revolution, the threat came not from an outside enemy, but from within.

Longfellow urged the American people to never forget what the American Revolution was about – paving the way for liberty. It was time to enlarge that freedom once again, to forge a more perfect union. As long as some were kept out of the dream, the aims of the Revolution had not yet been realized. The end of slavery would bring America closer to its noble endeavor.

So what did it matter that he twisted the facts and made a few changes? He had a nation to save from itself.

At every turn in this nation’s history, there have been critical points where this country has moved towards the greater realization of liberty. The American Revolution was about the right of self-determination. The Civil War was about ending slavery. The Union Movement that Woody Guthrie was part of was about ensuring that working people, common people, had the ability to share in the promises of the American Dream. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. Each of these movements were about fulfilling the vision of what this country has said it is – a land of liberty, where each person has the right of self-determination.

If there was a mythical Paul Revere, riding through the streets of modern America in the dark of night, what would he be warning us about today?

I’m imagine I am not the only one who was devastated on Monday because of the Supreme Court Ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby’s right to decline insurance coverage of birth control for its female employees. I have a hard time imagining that Paul Revere or Longfellow or Guthrie would, in their day, have understood the right to affordable birth control as a civil rights issue, but times have changed, and we, like Longfellow, have the moral responsibility to use poetic license to take the icons of American liberty and find in them a path into our modern sense of justice and fairness. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can have religious beliefs, and that the religious beliefs of an employer are more important than the basic health care needs of their workers. Longfellow and Guthrie both held up the right of self-determination as an anchor of American identity. So I imagine that if Woody Guthrie was standing amidst the protests this week with his guitar, and if Paul Revere was wondering which lantern to light and which roads to race through in the dead of night, and if Longfellow was to choose to write another timely poem, I imagine that they might choose this moment as a moment when our nation has fallen short of the aims of the Revolution.

In our day, birth control has become a form of self-determination. We no longer ask women and their families to bear child after child after child. We no longer make abstinence the only option to stop that cycle. We have achieved the ability, more than ever before, to determine for ourselves when our bodies will bear children and when they will not. And what is this, if not the exercise of our liberty, that we should be enslaved by nothing, especially our bodies?

But that’s not what the Supreme Court decided on Monday. The Supreme Court decided that our employers have the right to withhold a benefit that we have earned. In this ruling, our nation took a step away from the aims of the American Revolution.

For me, this has reinforced the sad conclusion that there are still those in our society who are as deeply threatened by a woman’s right to self-determination as there were those in Longfellow’s time who were threatened by the thought that human beings of all races could be free citizens of their nation. It offends their sensibilities, and obviously they still have the power to impose their fear on the rest of the nation. This ruling was not about freedom of religion. It was about the fear of women’s self-determination.

Like many of you, I have been wondering, what now? How do we move forward from this blow to freedom and liberty?

I turn to our history, the history where Unitarianism and American identity are so closely intertwined. They still inform each other. Self-determination is the cornerstone of both, and that right is as much about standing up for our own freedom as it is about getting out of the way for others to live theirs.   We cannot impose our version of morality on others.

This struggle for liberty can no longer be fought only in the courts, for the courts have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. This struggle has to be fought in the heart. We are called to change hearts and minds.   That is why the gay rights movement is succeeding while the reproductive justice movement faces blow after blow. The gay rights movement focused on changing hearts along with laws. The reproductive justice movement is called to the same.

Longfellow got that. He sought to sway the heart of a nation through poetry. We are now called to sway the heart of a nation in a similar way, knowing that there are no guarantees, that we have no way of knowing exactly how our actions will be perceived or the impact they have.   But Longfellow didn’t have that guarantee either, nor did Revere, nor did Guthrie. But, this is the moment to sound the alarm, to sing the songs, to the ride through the streets and to knock on the doors, embracing the challenge of this time with courage, faith and hope.

May the spirit of this nation, a spirit of liberty and justice for all, be with all of us for now and forever more.

Amen.

This sermon is copyright of Rev. Krista Taves.  

 

 

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