How to Answer Yes to Truth

Most of us want to believe we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes!   We all want to be the good guy, but if we want to be that person we have to prepare and strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, and our arms can embrace the truth. We will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.

This service was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in March 2019.

Wisdom Story The Emperor Has No Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson.

Reading: T’hillah by Rev. Mark L. Belletini

Barukh atah, Emeth!

Blest are you, o Truth.
Like the fabled Moses,
I too can never claim to have seen you
“face to face.”
Too often, I’ve hung my own face on you
and pretended that I know something I do not.
Indeed, my most honest heart confesses
that at most,
I have only caught the briefest glimpse of you
at the very edge of my eye,
and only when I get out of my own way,
my own rush, my own fury.

I sense your cool shadow on me
when I grow hot from the tears
I’ve been holding back,
or when I notice the sadness or whimsy
hiding in the silent eyes of those around me.

I sense your closeness when I gaze
at a star suddenly unveiled by a toreador cloud,
or catch at an early yellowness
in the leaves of the oak.

It’s then I feel a brush of wings nearby,
and realize that I am only a small part of it all.
Then I know that I am not the
great high power of the world,
but only a puff of breath hidden amid the
mighty blasts of the great whirlwind
called the universe.
Like a lacewing barely floating
on the tip of a small blade of green grass is my life
from beginning to end, a short footnote to
a vast essay of stars and space unbounded,
an essay neither signed nor finally symbolic.
And yet this truth, your truth,
is no sadness, but a joy,
no lack but a blessing,
like the sight of a child at play,
totally absorbed in the moment, and glad.
Blest are you, O Truth, who plays in this silence
like a child in the waves of an infinite sea.
Barukh atah, Emeth.

Source: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/poetry/thillah

 Message

In 1660, the Arians, who built the first organized Unitarian movement in Europe, invited the Roman Catholic leadership of Poland to a conference to prove that their differences were small enough to be of no consequence. Now, in case you think I’m talking about white supremacists, I’m not. Arians, spelled A-R-I-A-N not A-R-Y-A-N, named themselves after Arius, the 4th century Libyan scholar who argued for a non-Trinitarian Christianity at the Council of Nicea. He lost the battle, but his teachings lived underground for centuries.

Arianism came to Poland in the 1550s, especially in Krakow, among the Catholic Humanists. It was in this group that anti-Trinitarianism, the belief that the doctrine of Father Son and Holy Ghost was wrong, found a home. They were not alone in asking new questions and finding the room to ask them. The right combination of open-minded Kings and nobles meant that Poland had become more tolerant. In 1573, the Polish National Assembly passed the Warsaw Confederation, the first European act granting religious freedom. Arians came out of the woodwork, from all over Europe, and even founded their own town, Rakow, which became a center of Arian schools, libraries, churches and publishing houses.

In 1576, Faustus Socinus arrived from Italy. He was a fantastic theologian, writer, and debater. His Arian theology provided a grounding for the new Arian movement. In fact, many Arians soon called themselves Socinians. His theology denied the doctrine of original sin, which said that humans are born in a state of sin, and the doctrine of atonement, which said that Jesus died for that state of sin. Socinianism was pacifist; you could not take any human life. You were also not to pursue wealth, rather accumulating only what you needed. Jesus was a man without a divine nature. The Holy Spirit was not God, but a divine spirit working on people’s hearts. God was simply God, and you achieved eternal life through knowing God in acts of kindness, humility, generosity and prayer.

Socinianism grew until Socinus died in 1604, but even before he died the winds of intolerance starting blowing again. They’d actually never left. There was a deep uneasiness with a whole town being Anti-Trinitarian, even among other Radical Protestant groups who found refuge because of the Warsaw Confederation. Catholics and Protestants argued its protections were never meant for Arians. In 1611 Iwan Tyszkiewicz was executed because he would not swear an oath to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Arian homes and churches were often ransacked. Arian graves were disturbed. In 1638, the Polish Senate ordered the destruction of Rakow, and especially its schools and printing presses. Rakow’s people fled to Kisielin, Ukraine, another Arian center, but the Catholic Church was not far behind. They did the same thing in Kisielin– closed the schools, burned the churches, and destroyed the presses.

In 1658, Poland decreed that all Arians had to renounce their faith. Those who refused had 3 years to leave Poland, or they would be executed.

You would think that this would be the time for the Arians to start considering their options, like where they were going to go, but when you look back at this 100-year movement, they consistently had one answer. Whenever they faced intolerance, they proposed a conference. They would go to those who judged them – Calvinist, Anabaptists, other Protestants, Catholics – and say, “Hey, there’s been a misunderstanding. Let’s get together and talk. You get to tell us the Scriptural basis of your doctrines and we’ll tell you ours. Maybe we can find some common truth!” They would do this after an execution, after a school burning, after mobs tore up their town, when their graves were desecrated, or when they got beat up on the street. “Let’s get together and talk,” someone would say. There was this deep trust and hope that when people heard the truth of what they said minds would open and hearts would change.

That is how the Socinians found themselves at the table with Catholic leaders in 1660. The decree to renounce their faith had been issued, and this was their last stand. According to Unitarian Universalist historian, Charles Howe, it was a momentous event. The grandson of Socinus defended Socinianism with everything he had, and there are reports that he did soften the hearts of many who heard him. But do you think anyone changed their minds? Not one. The decree stood.

Hundreds of Socinians renounced their faith. Those who refused scattered across Europe, seeking tolerance – Transylvania, East Prussia, Germany, Holland. Arianism in Poland was dead.

Now, why am I telling you this depressing story in a message about truth? The Socinians consistently held onto their belief that the truth would literally set them free. The truth is that the deck was stacked against them. They had no political power and less economic power, but they would go into these conversations convinced that if they just made their case well enough, if they chose the right scriptures and the best turns of phrase, the people who persecuted them would say, “Oh my goodness! We were so wrong! OK, we’ll stop burning you at the stake and smashing your presses! You were right all along!”

How often does that happen?   How often have you had the experience of meeting with someone, or with a group that was fundamentally opposed to something you believe in, and when you presented your case everyone just changed their mind?

Today, I want to focus on how hard it is to change our assumptions, to change our minds, and think in new ways. Last week, I talked about how truth is the most powerful thing in our theology besides love, and how we as Unitarian Universalists, the descendants of the Polish Socinians and Arians, still proclaim that the truth sets us free. When we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds we will be transformed by this truth, our actions will change, and we can bring healing to our hurting world.

This is what the Polish Socinians were trying to do with that conference. Now that time it didn’t work, so my question is, what were they not able to see? Not that I would ever blame them for what happened to them, but I’m wondering why they had this tunnel vision in terms of what options they had. If you consider the intersections of identity, politics, class, education, ethnicity, and the shifts that were going on in wealth generation in the mid-1600s, there was a lot at play that went far beyond the simple assertion that Jesus was not God that kept the decision makers around that conference table from considering anything that was said.

Let’s think about our children’s story, a story that many of us grew up with, The Emperor’s New Clothes. What kept all those people from believing what they saw or saying the truth that was right in front of them?! The clothes rack was empty! The Emperor was almost naked, and not he or any of his attendants said a thing. They kept on playing along, even doubting their own eyes!

What was at stake? Reputations. Relationships. Identities. Histories.   Power. Influence. Maybe even the giving and receiving of love itself. Everyone who extolled the beauty of the invisible clothing was protecting something they considered precious.

Every one of us, in every minute of our lives, is making choices about what we believe to be true. We could be sitting around a work table trying to make a decision, explaining a boundary we’ve set for our kids, struggling to get through a disagreement with a loved one, reading the morning paper, or weighing choices at the grocery store. It would be nice to think that we always make decisions from a place of strength and intellectual certainty, but we know that’s not true. However, sometimes we choose what’s easiest, what brings the most immediate satisfaction, what seems to be the least harmful option, what will protect our job, what will protect a relationship, or what will get our kids to bed on time so we have a bit of peace and quiet. We just make our choices and hope that the roof doesn’t fall in!

There’s a lot at stake in how we sift through the raw material of our lives and land on what we settle as the truth.

In 2011, Psychological Science published a study about how people responded to evidence that was different from what they wanted to be true. They brought together a group of people who were preparing to start families, and all of them believed that it was better to keep your kids home until kindergarten than send them to daycare. Half of the group knew that they would need to send their kids to daycare because they would have to go back to work. The other half would be able to take care of their kids at home. Each group was then presented with evidence that it is better to send your kid to daycare than to keep them at home. What do you think happened? Those who knew they were going to have to go back to work welcomed the new evidence and most changed their minds. Those who were planning to keep their kids home challenged the evidence and remained as certain as ever.

What motivated the different responses? Each group wanted to believe that they were making the best choice for their children. They wanted to see themselves as morally and ethically solid, and they accepted or discounted the evidence to stay in that place. (1)

You could make a similar case to what is happening with vaccinations. We have a growing measles epidemic and there’s a push for parents to vaccinate their kids; that it is the moral thing to do. This push is supported by overwhelming evidence that vaccinations are safe and effective, yet the anti-vaxxers are not budging. It doesn’t matter how many studies are released. To be anti-vcxx is an identity. It’s a many layered worldview. I have no doubt that, to someone who is deeply within that worldview, to question their stance on vaccinations could feel like being compromised beyond redemption. So the scientific evidence is rejected over and over, but there are consequences. Parents with immune-compromised children or infants younger than 6 months are keeping their kids home if they can out of fear that they’ll come in contact with unvaccinated kids who are sick.

I have no doubt that most of us want to believe that we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes!   Right? We all want to be the good guy. However, if we want to be that person we have prepare ourselves, strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, our arms can embrace, and we will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.

If you go back 350 years ago, to our Polish Arian and Socinian ancestors, and the theological positions developed by Faustus Socinus, there’s actually some nuggets of wisdom that can help us do this.

In his ethical theology, to be a good person was to be kind, humble, generous, and prayerful.

To be kind is to stay in a place of love. When you are faced with inconvenient truths remember, you are not alone. Everyone around you at some time has the same experience. If you can stay in a place of love for yourself and for whoever may be bearing this inconvenient truth, then you are less likely to feel shame that what you thought was true might not be. You are more likely to forgive yourself for the anxiety that is inevitable when in front of a truth you don’t want to believe.

To be humble is to decenter yourself. You are not the center of the universe. You are not the final arbiter of what is true. Your perceptions are tinted, just like everyone else, so we need each other to find truth. We can’t do it alone.

To be generous is to have enough room in your heart that giving up something becomes an opportunity. At first it may feel like a loss. You may need to grieve for a while, but think of the freedom when you let that thing go and allow something truer to take its place. To be generous is to trust in the abundance of life, and that to lose a truth is not to lose life.

Lastly, to be prayerful. I know some of us are uncomfortable with the word, but prayer is but one form of spiritual centering where we try to align ourselves with the cycles of life and the mysteries of our universe. If we can be assured that we are held and loved in that interdependent mystery of life, then inconvenient truths are no longer dangerous. We will be alright.

Truth when met with kindness, humility, generosity, and spiritual centering, is a powerful thing. The truth does set us free, and when we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds to it, we will be stronger, wiser, more resilient and move loving. We can be transformed along with all that we love.

Sources:

Charles Howe. “For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe.” Unitarian Universalist Association: 1997.

Art Markman.  “You end up believing what you want to believe.” Psychology Today:  June 1, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201107/you-end-believing-what-you-want-believe

This sermon is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves.  You may use this material provided credit is given.  

Many thanks to Betsy Westlund in La Crosse who edited this message for publishing. 

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Nothing is Settled. Everything Matters.

We are called to be beacons of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this.   We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life.

This message was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in October 2018.

Wisdom Story

There was once a rich and powerful king who had a large and very unusual ruby that was beyond price. This jewel was the basis of his renown, wealth, and power. Each day he would look at it with great pride, turning it around and around to see how the sunlight sparkled through it. But one day, he was horrified to see that the ruby had upon it a scratch. How did this happen? And what could he do to get rid of that scratch?

He called each of his palace jewelers to come and examine the scratch and see what could be done to get rid of it. They all told him that nothing could be done without damaging the ruby even more.

The king was very upset and he offered a huge reward to any jeweler who could repair his ruby. Several jewelers came and tried, but all of them said the same thing. Nothing could be done.

Some days later, one of the king’s servants said she had heard of an old retired jeweler who lived in the country who was said to be very experienced in working with damaged gems. So he was sent for, and a few days later he arrived – a little, bent old man, dressed pretty shabbily. The king’s advisers looked at him and told the king he was wasting his time.   But the king insisted that the old man be shown the damaged ruby.

The old man looked at it for a long time and he said, “I cannot repair your ruby, but if you wish, I can make it more beautiful.” The king was desperate to have something done, so he agreed. The old jeweler set to work, cutting and polishing. Days later, he came back. Upon the king’s precious ruby he had carved the most delicate rose, its stem being formed by the scratch.   (Folk tale. Author unknown.)

Video. Beyonce’s Formation. (This video was not shown in the service but recommended for home viewing the week prior) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ

Message

Our theme this month is formation – how we are formed, composed, built, strengthened, nourished, guided.   Every one of us is like that ruby, priceless and beautiful, but with that inevitable scratch, and we’re always making choices about what we do with the hard things that happen to us. How do we, in spite of the many scratches, become good people and stay good people? It can be so hard not to give in to hatred, fear, resentment and vindictiveness when faced with so much pain and injustice. So how do we recover our hope, recenter in our convictions, and continue the struggle?

In preparation for our service today, I suggested watching Beyonce’s video, Formation, which was released in 2016, because I think it has a lot to say to us in this time.

If you don’t know much about Beyonce, she is an incredible singer, dancer, and composer. She’s been on the American pop music scene for more than 20 years, and she’s only 37. Born in 1981, she’s from Houston Texas, and it became pretty clear when she was a child that she had a gift. With her father as her manager, her first breakthrough on the national scene came as a member of Destiny’s Child, a girl group dancing and singing songs about teenage love and boys and heartbreak. They kept churning out the music until they were the most successful girl group ever. Then in her mid 20s, Beyonce went solo, and really started to develop her unique voice. Already famous, already financially secure, she kept singing songs about love, but now she was singing about men instead of boys. Her fame grew, but there was also criticism that she had erased her blackness to be successful. She was the safe black female singer with safe meaningless lyrics. And it worked, her critics said.

But about 10 years ago, she started being a lot less safe. She wanted to break out of that mold where singers and dancers are women and musicians are men. She wanted girls to see strong female musicians. So she let go of her band. Ten were chosen from the 10,000 women who applied. And then there were her dancers. She shifted away from the industry standard of super skinny dancers, all the same height, same hair, copy cat images of each other. Her new dancers have all kinds of body shapes and heights and styles.

Beyonce’s music has taken on a political edge where she brings her politics, her black identity, her feminism, her history, and the scratches on the ruby. The song that really made this shift was Formation. It was released in 2016, the day before Superbowl New Orleans, and she was center stage in the Halftime Show. Formation is informed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reality of being a woman of color in the United States.

The video starts not with her voice, but with Messy Mya, a well-known New Orleans rapper who predicted that he would die too young. And he did. He was gunned down leaving his fiancée’s baby shower, and his murderer has never faced justice. Those who love him blame the New Orleans police for that. So at the beginning of the video, there’s his voice, “What happened in New Orleans?” he asks, and there’s Beyonce, kneeling on top of a police car that is going under water in the flooded city.

This is an in-your-face song of resistance, rebellion, and dignity. In a culture that values whiteness, she proclaims that she will love her daughter’s black hair and wide nose. In a culture that sees only black or white, she claims her black, Creole, and Native American roots. She is a creation of the south, with a mother from Louisiana and a father from Alabama. They raised her in Texas, and she will always have hot sauce in her bag. There are scenes of a magnificent New Orleans home, where she and her ladies pose in crisp suffragette white dresses, fancy hats, and parasols, typical of high fashion in the south around the time of the Civil War, but now they are no longer cleaning the houses, they own them.

What Beyonce draws together, frame by frame, are all the things that have formed her as a black woman.   She is unapologetic about the fact that she’s wanted power and wealth and found a way to get it. “I see it, I want it,” she sings. “I dream it. I work it. I grind ‘til I own it.” And then she names what it takes as a black woman to claim what’s hers. “I twirl on them haters. Albino alligators.” And then she turns back to who she’s really speaking to. “I might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she croons. “You might be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

And there’s this line that she sings over and over, “I slay.” The phrase “to slay” emerged from within gay drag culture, and it means “I’m awesome.” It was a way for people to claim dignity, worth, and achievement in a society that would rather they didn’t exist. The phrase has become heavily in used in young black circles. So when Beyonce makes “I slay” the dominant phrase of the song, she is using lingo developed in one oppressed community to claim power in her own. She’s slaying it.

And then she calls all her ladies into formation, and together they dance. They are dancing for their lives at the bottom of an emptied pool in a community center. Now here is where some understanding of history is important. There were a lot more public pools in the US before desegregration. But after desegregation, a lot of whites wouldn’t go to public pools anymore. This is when the private pool industry took off and a whole lot of white people put pools in their back yards. When whites stopped going to public pools, somehow the tax money wasn’t there anymore to keep them up and many pools were closed. So by filling the bottom of a empty community pool with their strong bodies, dancing and singing “I slay,” Beyonce and her Ladies make a statement.

The video is filled with images of New Orleans life – parades, church services, people on the streets, in front of their homes. At the end of the video, we see a young African American boy, dancing. We see the spray-painted words “Stop Shooting Us” and he’s dancing in front of a line of police officers in riot gear. Beyonce keeps saying, ‘Ok Ladies, let’s get in formation. I slay” as the boy dances. Suddenly the police officers put their hands in the air, as if surrendering.   The video ends with the New Orleans cop car also surrendering to the water, and Beyonce with it, sacrificing her black body to bring down the structures of systemic racism and injustice.

The day after the video went live, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her 10-piece band showed up in Black Panther costumes and performed a child-appropriate version of Formation during the Super Bowl half time show, in the Superdome where thousands of New Orleaneans, mostly black, sought shelter during Hurricane Katrina and were then stranded with no food and water, no medical care, no bathrooms, and with police officers who aggressively contained them rather than take care of them. In a Superdome that had been quickly rebuilt while bureaucracy and land grabs prevented many people from returning to their homes, in this symbolic place, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her band, slayed.

Today the Black Panthers are often portrayed as terrorists, but in truth, the Black Panthers emerged as a response to police brutality. Because California had open carry laws at the time, young black men armed themselves and hung out in groups on the streets. If a police officer showed up, they would simply stand and watch while the police did their work to ensure that any police brutality was witnessed. Not surprisingly, police brutality declined. That is, until the Black Panthers were deemed a terrorist group and the full might of the federal government was brought in to take them down.

So what does this video have to do with what we’re going through now? What’s happening today in our political systems, and what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and racial profiling and police brutality, are grounded in the same system of white supremacy, the painful scratch on the ruby that is this nation. They are painful manifestations of the intersection of patriarchy, racism and authoritarianism which is part of this nation’s formation story.

What stays with me is that there is no attempt to soften her message, to make it safe, nice, there are no apologies. She and her ladies have channeled their anger and pain and transformed it into a power that is taken rather than asked for.

There are millions of us in this nation wondering how we are going to take back our power. We need to be strong. We need to slay. We need to be in formation.

On a personal level, each of us can claim our story. There are scratches on our rubies, and the circumstances of those scratches are often hard experiences we have tried to forget or minimize. And yet they have formed us, both in the thing itself and what we are doing with it. Each of us finds our own unique way of moving through. And some of us have been able to carve the rose and some of us are still figuring it out.

And while we’re on these individual journeys, we can figure out how to be in formation.

This congregation is a formation.   We are individuals who have come together into covenant because we know that we are stronger together than apart. And our shared mission is to fill with love and compassion what has been emptied with hatred and fear, just like Beyonce and her Ladies filled an empty pool with music and dancing. We do this in two ways:

1) We can offer refuge to those who are tired, fearful, and demoralized. We should be able to bring our true selves here and find comfort and hope in the bonds of beloved community. This is not a place where you should be expected to bear a stiff upper lip in order to be deemed enough. This is place where we can claim our anger and regain our strength, and carve a rose around the scratch.

2) We are called to be a beacon of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this.   We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life.   They form life.

So let’s get in formation, and let’s slay.

Amen and blessed be.

This message is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves. This material can be used provided that credit is given.

 

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Motherhood: From Mystery to Majesty

“We are all called to be heroes for our children, parents of the world. We have to promise to find our children, over and over again. We have to find them when they are hungry, when they are poor, when they are threatened by gun violence, when they are separated from their parents at the border, when they are forced into one of two genders, when they are told they aren’t worthy…..

For all of us who nurture, and we all nurture, may we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits into the service of the eternal renewal of life.”

This service was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse on Sunday, May 12th, 2019.

Wisdom Story. “I Promise I’ll Find You” by Heather Patricia Ward. Illustrated by Sheila McGraw.  (To watch a reading of the book, click here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qow0vrmSYs

Reading: Mother To Child – A Poem by Unitarian Suffragette and Maternal Feminist Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman (1911) https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/mother-to-child-4/

Message

 Today is Mother’s Day. It’s the day when you don’t have a prayer of getting a table for brunch without a reservation. The price of flowers has skyrocketed, and will drop tomorrow morning.   Pastel colored cards with flowers, birds, and warm fuzzy pictures fill a whole aisle at Walgreens.

For some of us it’s a great day. Maybe your kids made you breakfast, or they tried to make breakfast and you pretended it was fantastic! Maybe your grown kids will call today. Or you got one of those cards and it was just right. Maybe your kid made an art project for you, and it’s hanging on your fridge.

For some of us, it’s a mixed day. If you’re grieving a parent, this day can magnify the grief. If you have lost a child, had an abortion, or offered your child for adoption, if you are estranged from your children, this day can be tender or raw.

If you couldn’t be a mother, or chose not to be a mother, or became a mother under complicated circumstances, weren’t the mother you wanted to be, if your mother wasn’t the kind of mother who could promise to find you, Mother’s Day can stir things up.

I am very fortunate to have a mother that I would celebrate 365 days of the year if I could. She’s not the perfect mother, but she is a good enough mother in most ways and a fantastic mother in some really important ways. But the way Mother’s Day is messaged hasn’t worked for either of us because she wasn’t that kind of mother, this idealized image of motherhood that has been packaged and put on a pedestal and we’re all supposed to fall in line with it or we’re not good enough.

And you know whose fault that is?   Do you know who started Mother’s Day? The Unitarians! It’s our fault! We created Mother’s Day, or to be more specific, a white Unitarian woman by the name of Julia Ward Howe established Mother’s Day as a political statement and we went for it! Julia Ward Howe, a 1st wave maternal feminist, the woman who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic after she visited the front during the Civil War, she proclaimed Mother’s Day in 1870. Her vision of Mother’s Day had nothing to do with flowers, cards, breakfast in bed or brunch! It was a response to a life where women had no right to vote, no right to own property, no right to a bank account, no legal right to their children, no right to bodily autonomy.

Mother’s Day was an attempt to take motherhood out of the shadows of the home and raise up mothers as heroes who deserved to be publicly revered, treasured, respected. Many of the idealized forms of motherhood that feel forced today were created out of this intense need among growing numbers of women to develop public esteem for mothers so as to advance a whole host of political agendas. The most prominent were the end of slavery, an end to war, ending poverty, legalizing access to birth control, women’s right to vote, and prohibition, which was the movement to make the production and sale of alcohol illegal.

All of this was part of what today we call 1st wave feminism, or maternal feminism. It was a very particular kind of feminism that started before the Civil War and was pretty much done by 1929. It strongly influenced Unitarianism and Universalism because women in both denominations were often its leaders and its most ardent followers.

Maternal Feminism had an essentialist understanding of womanhood. To be a woman was to be a mother. That was the primary role intended for women.  Before our 21st century feminist eyes roll into our heads at the suggestion, we have to understand what it was like for women before there was access to birth control. Being a mother was pretty much guaranteed to happen to you unless by some circumstance you didn’t marry or escaped being sexually violated.

Raising kids was your present and your future and most women had children all the way through their fertile years. You’d have many miscarriages and stillbirths, you probably had some of your children die before the age of four, and if you didn’t die during labor or from complications from labor, you might have 3-4 kids who made it to 18. And because you probably wore your body out having all those kids and raising them, you might not live to see your grandkids. So raising kids was your life. Maternal feminism came out of this reality.

What it said, basically, is that the experience of bearing a child, nursing a child, and raising a child changed you. When your whole being is in the service of creating and nurturing life, there grows in you this mystical oneness with life, this unconditional love that is stronger than anything, and you will be among the most committed to peace, community, justice, equality, and social well being.

So women had this transforming experience but no political power to protect the ones they gave life to.

Here are some other realities they dealt with.

It is estimated that 75% – 80% of men in the 19th century were alcoholics. To be a man was to hold your drink, and to be able to hold a lot of it. Most women and children lived in homes deeply affected by men who drank. Domestic violence was rampant and accepted. It was what men did and what women endured.

Then there was the Civil War, which most Northern women supported because they were the cornerstones of the Abolitionist movement. Women pushed abolitionism before men did. Northern men dragged their heels as long as they could, including Unitarian men, because the North depended on slavery for cheap raw materials that were processed in northern factories. But the women kept pushing until public opinion started to shift and then the men found themselves having to catch up. Northern women, like Julia Ward Howe, were on board with the war, at the beginning, but as the war dragged on, and hundreds of thousands of people died, some women started wondering if men were the cause of war, if men were the cause of slavery, if men were the cause of most of the suffering in the world.

Maternal feminism harnessed all this discontent, especially among white middle class women who were searching for ways to increase the power women had to protect themselves and to raise their children. Maternal feminism moved motherhood from this private thing that happened in the family home and made it something mystic, majestic, sacred, essential.

The writer of our centering reading this morning is a case in point. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 and she was a maternal feminist utopianist. She had a very abusive husband and she escaped that marriage after much suffering but it cost her a relationship with her only child.  Like most Unitarians, she believed that human kind had the ability to rise into a perfection intended for them by God. Unfortunately, only men had been allowed to strive for this perfection, with women confined to the home, thus depriving the human race of its full potential. She advocated for women’s economic independence, for egalitarian marriages, and for the professionalization of childrearing so that everyone shared the responsibility. In 1915 she published a feminist utopian novel, Herland, in which women have separated from men to create a perfect society. There is no poverty, no suffering, no squashed dreams, no violence. When two men stumble upon this utopia, they are allowed to stay only if they agree to subject themselves to the teachings of women so that they can unlearn patriarchy and learn how to live ethically.

Lots of maternal feminists dreamed up these utopias, and even tried to establish a few in real life, but a most of them just wanted to make life better in the here and now. Prohibition was part of it. They believed that men would be better human beings if they did not have access to alcohol. Prohibitionist women were ridiculed as judgmental busbody uppity women, but for them, prohibition was an anti-poverty anti-domestic violence program.

Maternal feminists also pushed for birth control. Their goal was to lessen the economic burden of large families and give women the ability to space their children so their bodies weren’t ravaged by continuous pregnancy and childbirth.   They also supported the unionization of women’s work, and hence, songs like Bread and Roses were born.

Their main tool for all of this was the vote.   They wanted the political power to choose leaders who would best protect women and children. When their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons argued that women didn’t have the intellectual capacity to vote, maternal feminists ramped up the “mother as sacred superhero” trope: the all knowing Mother, infinitely loving, mystically intuiting her children’s every longing, feeling their suffering as if their own, tirelessly working from morning to night to grow these beautiful human beings. This is when maternal feminists developed the Mothers of the World idea. Mothers loved all the children of the world and held them in their loving reliable arms.

There’s a few things about maternal feminism that aren’t so pretty:

Maternal feminists were white and like all whites in that time, believed in white superiority. Like many white abolitionists, they saw Black people as childlike and themselves as mothers protecting them. Most maternal feminists were from well to do families and saw working class women as inferior. Some maternal feminists were part of the eugenics movement, which supported the forced sterilization of women deemed unsuited to motherhood, and often targeted poor white women, Black women, and Indigenous women. Women who didn’t have children were pretty much left out of their superwoman thinking. Women who adopted had a partial experience of the power of motherhood, but not the complete one. That took pregnancy and birth.

Maternal feminists were also very naïve in believing that criminalizing alcohol and alcohol consumption would end it. We know now that it was a dismal failure and bolstered organized crime in a way that still impacts us today.

And yet for their time, these flawed women, both products of their time and trying to push beyond it, were expanding what was possible. Some of their accomplishments include Planned Parenthood, child labor laws, public education, public libraries, unions for women, addiction programs, access to contraception, and women’s right to vote.

So here we are today, it’s Mother’s Day, the day that Julia Ward Howe proclaimed in 1870, this complicated commercialized day where you need a reservation for brunch, where pastel colored cards fill an entire aisle at Walgreens, the price of flowers skyrockets, and art projects cover the fridges of mothers everywhere.

We’ve had two more feminist waves since Julia’s proclamation. Second wave feminism emerged in the 1960s predominantly among white babyboomer women who fought for the right not to be mothers, where mothering is not destiny but choice. Then came 3rd wave feminism from among Gen X, Y and millennials. We learned the hard way that you can’t have it all. This 3rd wave is more multiracial, actively engaged in the intersectionality of oppressions and more effectively centers the lived realities of women of color and transgender women.

Then there’s the issue of what is gender. For 1st wave feminists this wasn’t a question. Second wave feminists stayed within the gender binary but expanded what was possible within it. Third wave feminists are asking what makes a woman, and how many ways of living gender are outside that male/female binary which is a social construct and an illusion. Your biology does not determine your gender or your life’s choices. Whether we have children or not, every one of us has an inner parent, an inner nurturer. There are many ways to manifest that in our very complicated world. We need to be humble and affirming of the rainbow of the human experience.

If there is one thing we could carry with us from those maternal feminists, it’s that fierce opposition to equality and empowerment is to be expected and it will be sustained. Those who identify as women are still seen as dangerous when we embrace our power. Our bodily autonomy and right to question the roles that have been expected of us is still under threat. There is still judgment of women who are not mothers and often subtle judgments about women who are mothers by adoption. And then as now, until those who identify as a gender other than male are truly free, those who identify as male are also imprisoned in hurtful expectations of what it means to be a man.

Then and now, those who advocate for children are still diminished, ridiculed, ignored and underpayed. So we are all called to be heroes for our children, parents of the world. We have to promise to find our children, over and over again. We have to find them when they are hungry, when they are poor, when they are threatened by gun violence, when they are separated from their parents at the border, when they are forced into one of two genders, when they are told they aren’t worthy.

For all of you who identify as mothers, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope it’s a wonderful day for you.

For all of us who nurture, and we all nurture, may we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits into the service of the eternal renewal of life.

Amen and blessed be.

This sermon is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves.   You are welcome to quote or use any portion of this sermon provided credit is given.  

 

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A Defiant Easter

The resurrection is God’s response to the crucifixions then and now.  It is a brave-love God saying, “Not so fast, Roman Empire! You think you are all powerful? You think you can destroy what was created here? You think you can silence, coerce, torture, and literally destroy the bodies of those who would challenge you? I have the last word here. Those people you are crucifying? They are mine! I am the one who gives life through them, and my love, the love that they are professing and embracing, is more powerful than anything you will ever be! So go ahead, you keep filling those tombs with their bodies and I will empty them all!”

 

This sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Today, all over the world, Christian churches are packed to the gills. The parking lots are full. Choirs are singing jubilant anthems!   Everyone is wearing spring colors! There are roasts slowly baking in the oven so they finish just as everyone gets home. It is a day of celebration and renewal.

And we Unitarian Universalists often have a difficult time knowing what to do with Easter. Despite the fact that, for the first 450 years of our existence, we identified primarily as Christian, we struggle with Easter.

We struggle for two reasons:  as a people committed to reason, many of us don’t want to be asked to believe in anything that demands we suspend our thinking minds. There’s a pretty big miracle that happens at Easter, and many of us have experienced a form of Christianity that demanded that we believe in the resurrection as a litmus test for our faithfulness.

We may also struggle because of the doctrine that is so often used to shape Easter, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It’s the “Jesus died for your sins theology.” I would hazard a guess that for many of us who left Christian churches to become Unitarian Universalist, this doctrine may have been part of why we left. Who wants to worship a blood-thirsty God who needed a part of himself to die a horrible death for us to be reconciled to him?

So these two things – an awkwardness with the resurrection, and frustration at the doctrine of substitutionary atonement are two reasons that some UU congregations just ignore Easter or water it down into a nice little celebration of bunnies, daffodils, egg hunts and the return of spring. And while I completely understand this, many of us have been very wounded by Christianity and are fearful when anything that looks like it gets close, I would say that we have lost something in the way we have run. We lost a connection to our history, and we also lost track of what was happening in Christianity after many of us left. Some of us are locked into a rigid almost fundamentalist belief about what Christianity is and what it expects of its followers. We say that we are an open minded religious tradition, that we welcome people with diverse beliefs, but the truth is that Christians in our tradition, and 10% of Unitarian Universalists identify as Christian, often experience a continuous stream of prejudice and judgment in our congregational life. UU Christians experience a disconnect between who we say we are and how some of us live our values of hospitality, generosity and open mindedness.

So I’m resurrecting Easter this morning to reacquaint ourselves with a celebration, anchored in our own history and theology, that doesn’t need either a literal resurrection or a cruel death to mean something. In fact these are the most uncreative aspects of Easter, and in the cast of substitutionary atonement, the most dangerous.   Many progressive Christians left it behind years ago. What Easter is, is one more magnificently creative human attempt to claim new life in the face of utter bleakness and the organized systemic cruelty that can emanate from human society.

What we see in the different approaches to Easter is a struggle between a religion of Empire and a religion of liberation. When I say religion of empire, I mean a religion that is used as a tool of the powerful and the wealthy to oppress the poor and the powerless and to justify the status quo. What many of us experienced in Easter is rooted in the religion of Empire and it feeds into the very systemic violence that Jesus was all about resisting and dismantling. Substitutionary atonement is a betrayal of Easter because it justifies violence as sacred, violence as cleansing, violence as restoring what has been broken, and violence as redemptive. This is what religion as empire looks like.

So this morning I want to spend some time reimagining Easter through the lens of liberation theology, which has sought to restore Easter to its roots of radical love and resistance. Liberation theology has something to offer us, whether we are Christian or not. We are in a time in our faith tradition and in our nation where we are going through a house cleaning, exploring how we are complicit in systems of oppression (often despite our best intentions), and how we are co-opted into systems that betray our desire for beloved community and a covenantal relationship with all of life.

So liberation theology. What’s that about? Liberation theology emerged in Catholic Latin America in the 1970s among the poor and it was championed by a Roman Catholic Priest, Father Gutierrez. Liberation theology was a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analysis, meaning that it focused on a social concern for the poor and their political liberation. The basic principle of Liberation Theology is that God has a preferential option for the poor, that God takes the side of the powerless.

Now I know that some of us don’t believe in God or a higher power so I would invite us to envision God as a character in a story, and like all characters, they receive the projections of human beings in order to become useful and empowering to the human heart and mind. For those of us who are convicted of the presence of a higher power, we know that it is a mystery shrouded in human attempts to be in relationship to it, so we are responsible for what we project onto the higher power we believe in.

There were growing numbers of ordinary people in Central America who were done with their church being an arm of the powerful and they were determined to take their faith back. So this God upon whom they projected their deepest love and desires was on their side and Jesus was his manifestation, who came to offer the oppressed a set of teachings and resources to find dignity, to recover a sense of hope and love, to believe in themselves, and to survive against overwhelming odds. This Jesus, the Jesus they could follow, was persistently a thorn in the side of Empire, often through civil disobedience.

To give you an example. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are filled with stories of Jesus healing people. Today it’s easy to dismiss these miracles as wishful figments of the imagination, but in Jesus’ time, with no scientific understanding of illness, disease was something that stained you morally and could only be cured by turning the favor of God towards you. In this time of Roman occupation, the only legal way you could seek healing was by going to the Temple, paying a lot of money, and having the priest pray for you and sacrifice an animal for you on the altar. But remember, the Temple priests were collaborators with the Romans, and those fees you paid, most went straight to Rome.  What this meant is that your only legal access to health care funneled money to those who oppressed you.

Where else do we see this kind of health care system?

So what did Jesus do? He publicly healed on the streets, in defiance of the law, in defiance of the Temple priests, and to add insult to injury, he accepted no payment for his services. And even worse, he taught his disciples how to heal. And what did he say every time he healed someone? “Your faith has healed you.” He didn’t say, “I healed you, with my great powers as the Son of God!” He was teaching people how to find their own power. And in the process, he was growing a resistance movement that was literally redirecting money away from the coffers of the Temple and Rome by keeping it in the pockets of ordinary people. Who needed the priests when their own faith could heal them? His final act of resistance, the one that landed him on the cross, was marching into the Temple and overthrowing the money tables.

Liberation theologians looked at Jesus’ ministry as a model for how to shape their own resistance against oppressive governments, some of which were funded by the United States. Is it any wonder that the Catholic Church declared liberation theology a heresy and threatened to excommunicate anyone promoting it?  Is it any wonder that the religious right, which has allied itself with America as Empire, also condemned it?

So how does liberation theology look at the crucifixion and the resurrection? Gone is the idea that God needed Jesus to suffer, that humanity was so depraved that only a gruesome sacrifice could save us. Just as God’s heart opened to the suffering of the Jewish people under Egypt, just his heart opened up to their suffering under Rome, now it opened to the suffering of all people in oppressive political systems. The crucifixion was not God’s answer to the suffering; it was the Empire’s answer to holding on to power.   The crucifixion was supposed to get rid of Jesus and to terrify those who followed him back into submission and silence. His ministry of empowerment would be destroyed, the status quo would remain unchallenged once again, and money would flow back into the coffers of the Temple and Rome.   The crucifixion had nothing to do with a blood-thirsty God and everything to do with a blood- thirsty empire.

The resurrection is God’s response to the crucifixions then and now.  It is a brave-love God saying, “Not so fast, Roman Empire! You think you are all powerful? You think you can destroy what was created here? You think you can silence, coerce, torture, and literally destroy the bodies of those who would challenge you? I have the last word here. Those people you are crucifying? They are mine! I am the one who gives life through them, and my love, the love that they are professing and embracing, is more powerful than anything you will ever be! So go ahead, you keep filling those tombs with their bodies and I will empty them all!”

For many oppressed people, this spoke to their lives and their struggle. It said that no matter how bad things got, how many losses, how many defeats, they were not alone. Ultimately, justice would prevail and they would find freedom.

Liberation theology was brought to the United States and took root first in the Black church, with theologians like James Cohn, who saw the crucifixion in the lynching tree and the criminal justice system. We have American Latino/Latina/LatinX communities who experience the crucifixion in the immigration system and in detention centers and in a border wall. Among Indigeneous people the crucifixion happened in residential schools and now happens in pipelines and in sky-high suicide and addiction rates.   In the face of genocide, terror and state sponsored violence, the fact that they have not succumbed, that they still live and fight, this is the ongoing resurrection.

The Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter are a manifestation of the ongoing resurrection. The Sanctuary Movement is the resurrection. Standing Rock and the Water Protectors are the resurrection. And in response, the water cannons came out, the riot police came out, the tear gas came out, and the  Mueller report did not exonerate but did not convict, but nothing can stop the resurrection. It may seem to go underground, it may have to find a new form, new people, new ways of organizing, but you can’t stop it.

So how has this impacted us as Unitarian Universalists, with our amazing diversity of spiritualities, with our profound respect for reason, with our unceasing love for this planet, with our understanding that all of life is intertwined, and with our hope that love always wins?

Honestly, it’s been a mixed bag. Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister Paul Rasor, who wrote Faith Without Certainty, says that we are pulled in two directions – by a liberal theology that puts the individual at the center, and a liberation theology that places our collective well being at the center. The challenge for us is that historically, our religious tradition, especially the Unitarian side, emerged from the economic and political elite. Some of us had a lot of status quo empire power and some of us still do.  This is in the DNA of Unitarian Universalism.

But there has been this hunger, always, for a way to love more bravely, especially as Unitarian Universalists from historically marginalized communities call for a deeper embrace of reconciliation and justice making. For the last several decades, we have witnessed the development of a more nuanced way of being that asks us to welcome the same kind of power analysis that you see in liberation theology.

For instance, what if we used Easter as a roadmap to see ourselves in every character of the story? We are the Romans and we are the priests. We are the disciples and we are the ones in the crowd clamoring for healing. We are the ones who take the 30 pieces of silver.  We are the ones who stand underneath the cross and watch the one we love die. We are the ones who go to the tomb and find it empty.  We are the ones who don’t believe the women.  We are the ones who ask to touch the wound of the one who has died  We are all messily striving for resurrection, seeking reassurance that love will prevail in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities, and in this broken country. We try to raise our kids to love and live generosity, to be responsible, and we make mistakes doing it. We try to love our families and we aren’t always successful. We try to side with love and end up siding with empire.  Then, we then try again.

What I find most compelling about Jesus’ return is that he adjusted how he showed himself to his disciples.  I wonder if he was trying different approaches to see what stuck. For the women, they just needed an empty tomb and an angel. The disciples on the road to Emmaus needed conversation and time. Thomas needed to touch him.  By the time of Pentecost, the disciples found him in their own words.

I wonder if that’s how it works with us, that this all powerful brave love that we try to understand and trust and channel, that we barely know how to name, this brave love is so creative, so persistent and so stubborn that it keeps working on us, seeing what sticks. When that love does break through, in those moments when we finally get it, we become the resurrection.  All the ways that we have died to love come back to us and the tomb will be empty.

Maybe that’s how it works.

May you and yours have a blessed Easter.

 

 

 

 

Sources

Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem.

James Cohn. The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Paul Rasor.  Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.

Rev. Christine Robinson “A Tennebrae Easter Service.” Celebrating Easter and Spring. Eds. Seaburg and Harris.

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Waging Peace

If we truly want to wage peace, we have to be very aware of when we are tempted to cling to a scarcity mentality, when we become afraid that there isn’t going to be enough, or that we are losing our place. This is when we become vulnerable to doing harm to others. This fear can happen in our homes, our marriages, our families, workplaces, school, and here at church. And when we become aware of our own vulnerability, then we begin to build the inner personal strength to wage for peace.

This service was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in December 2018.

Wisdom Story

Planting Peace by Megan McKenna

“There was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. She would read the newspapers and get depressed. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus because he looked just like the pictures she’d seen on holy cards and devotional pictures. She looked again and again at him, and finally she got up enough nerve and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Jesus?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Do you work here?’ ‘No,’ Jesus said, ‘I own the store.’ ‘Oh, what do you sell in here?’ ‘Oh, just about anything!’ ‘Anything?’ ‘Yeah, anything you want. What do you want?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ Well,’ Jesus said, ‘feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is that you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.’

“She did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up and smiled, ‘No problem.’ And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out the packets. She asked, ‘What are these?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seed packets. This is a catalog store.’ She said, ‘You mean I don’t get the finished product?’ ‘No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds. You plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them to grow and someone else reaps the benefits.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. And she left the store without buying anything.”

Source: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/13648

 

Meditation on Hope and Love in a Time of Struggle by Rev. Alice Anacheka-Nasemann 

In a world so filled with brokenness and sorrow
It would be easy to lose ourselves in never ending grief,
To be choked by our outrage
To be paralyzed by the enormity of suffering,
To feel our hearts squeeze tight with hopelessness.
Instead, this morning, let us simply breathe together as we hold our hearts open.
Breathing in as our hearts fill with compassion
Breathing out as we pray for healing in our world & in our lives.
Breathing in, opening ourselves to the transforming power of love
Breathing out as we pray for peace in our world & in our lives.
Breathing in as we hold hope in our hearts
Breathing out as we pray for justice in our world & in our lives.
May we know our strength
May we be filled with courage
May our love flow from us into this world.
Breathing in, we are the prayer
Breathing out, we are the healing
Breathing in, we are the love
Breathing out, we are the peace
Breathing in, we are the hope
Breathing out, we are the justice
May we know our strength
May we be filled with courage
May our love flow from us into this world.
Amen, blessed be, may it ever be so.

Source: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/meditation-hope-and-love-time-struggle

 

Sermon

This sermon is about how we keep planting the seeds of peace, in our hearts, in our families, in our communities, and in our nation.

In 2009 and 2010, two boatloads of Tamil refugees, fleeing ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, showed up off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. They had somehow made it all the way across the Pacific in boats so old and rusty it was a marvel that they survived. Each of the refugees had paid everything they had to smugglers who promised them they would be welcomed into Canada. When Canadian Border Patrol boats and helicopters came towards them, they stood on deck, exhausted, filthy, hungry, but filled with hope, waving and smiling.   They had arrived.

What they did not know, or ignored because of their desperation, is that the Canadian government didn’t want them. At that time, the federal government was in the hands of anti-immigrant Conservatives. This is the party that has repeatedly suggested, in the face of a nation that is becoming less and less white, that immigration should maintain the current ethnic balance of the country. That is code for keeping a white majority, which is going to end in a few short years, 2036 to be exact, 10 years before whites will become the minority here in the United States.

Everyone on those boats was imprisoned immediately, unlike the normal procedure of quickly processing and releasing them with a series of dates to meet with the Refugee Board to determine eligibility. However, the government was aware that it couldn’t risk looking cruel and heartless because a general election was on the horizon. So what did they do? They developed a sophisticated PR plan to turn the Canadian public against these Tamil refugees. They were a national security threat. They were terrorists with fake ID, trying to get into Canada to funnel money to Tamil terrorist groups. They were liars. Tamils were not a persecuted minority, there was no cultural genocide because the Sri Lankan military activity in Tamil areas was to protect the nation from Tamil terrorism. And this PR plan seemed to work. In a nation of immigrants, poll after poll showed that the majority of Canadians wanted these refugees turned away. And the next year, when some of these refugees were still in prison and many had been deported, the Conservative government won the 2011 federal election.

I imagine that as I’ve been speaking, some of you are making a connection between what happened in Canada and what is happening here. Over the last several years, thousands of Central American refugees, many of them families, women and children, have been making their way to our southern border. Just as the Conservative Party of Canada created a public relations plan to generate fear about the Tamils, our administration has nurtured a fear of these asylum seekers, identifying them as national security threats, as criminals, as liars, as lawless animals, as single dangerous men. Nurturing this dehumanizing hatred and fear was an election tactic to stave off losses in the midterms. And in some places, it worked.

Just the other day, I had a conversation with a neighbor who would not consider that these people are fleeing unstable unsafe countries and they just want to be safe and want their children to have a chance of a secure life. My neighbor is convinced that this migrant caravan is no good, that showing up at the border is illegal and they need to be turned back. If they die, that is on them for daring to try and cash in on the American dream. Those were his exact words.

And I found myself flipping back and forth between absolute rage, frustration and sadness. What is it about human beings that we can so easily dehumanize each other?

The theme of this month is peace, and it’s always a fitting theme for the holiday season because both the Christian Christmas story and the Jewish Hanukah story center on the experience of an oppressed people desperate for liberation and trying to achieve it in different sometimes competing ways. In both stories, the Jewish people are occupied by an outside power. In the Hannukah Story, Jewish lands are occupied by the Greek Empire. In the Christmas story, those same lands are occupied by the Roman Empire. Both Empires are harsh and brutal. The Greek Empire established control through cultural genocide, depriving the Jewish people of the right to practice their faith and speak their language, with a threat of death for those who refused. The Roman Empire used buyoffs and brute force. They offered limited power and influence to the Jewish priests and political leaders in exchange for their support and compliance, including crushing any resistance.

Both the Christmas and Hanukkah stories offer different paths towards peace.

In the Hanukkah story, peace is pursued through war. The Maccabees, a fierce Jewish tribe, arm themselves and rise up.   The key story that is held up is a battle in which they take control of a temple that had been ransacked. They light the temple flame, a symbol that God has returned to them, and even though there is almost no oil to keep it lit, the flame keeps burning. That is the miracle of Hanukah, that even against all odds, justice will prevail.

The Christmas Story offers a different path to peace. The Christmas Story plants the seed of peace that is yet to come. A child is born, said to be foretold by the prophet Isaiah, and it will be the Messiah, the one who brings the people into peace and justice out of their oppression. Even in Jesus’ time, there were multiple understandings of how that peace was going to happen. Some of those who followed him were not unlike the Maccabbees, an underground militia fighting a guerrilla type war against the Roman Empire. Others saw a different way, saw healing as a matter of faith and hope, of being exceedingly compassionate with each other, and trusting in the promise of abundance. And you have to know how awful things were in that time to understand how hard it could be to trust in each other and to trust in abundance, that if you didn’t hold on as tight as you could to what you had, you would have nothing.

So what we have in both the Christmas and Hanukkah stories are complicated approaches, even conflictual approaches to peace. What is peace. How do you create it? How do you maintain it?

I will admit that I’m very uncomfortable with looking at the Hanukkah story as a path to peace. I’m a pacifist. I don’t think that armed struggle can create peace, or that the military can create peace, it can only hold violence at bay by threatening violence in return. I don’t believe that military capability creates freedom or protects, it only keeps violence at a safe enough distance so that you can live, and I know that is probably a minority opinion but that is where I stand. You may stand somewhere different.

And yet, most of us have never lived in a war-torn country. I have never feared for my life because of political instability. I have never starved, or been beaten because I spoke my mother tongue, or watched my children torn away from me, so who am I to judge that the Maccabees turned to violence to pursue freedom and peace? What other option did they have?

In fact it was the reality of living in a war-torn country that made things difficult for the Tamil refugees, because some of them had served in the resistance, some chose to fight freely, some were forced to take up arms, and regardless of why they fought, these refugees were deported. The nuances of why one would take up arms were rejected by Canadian refugee officials.

We have competing understandings of peace today, too. Do you create peace by protecting what you have, insulating it from threats perceived or real, or do you create peace by ensuring that everyone has enough to live with dignity. Is peace the absence of war? Is peace created when you have high walls and strong borders to keep out danger? Is peace when the walls come down?

Last month, our theme was gratitude, and I talked about how gratitude is a powerful tool of resistance because gratitude urges us to live with an abundance approach to life. When you live in the spirit of abundance, you will be immune to manipulative appeals telling you that there is not enough to go around, that if one group is taken care of, there will be less for you. I would argue that an abundance mentality is also a tool of peacemaking, because it helps us to resist the urge to close off, to dehumanize others and see their yearning for security as a threat to our abundance.

I can understand that if you have lived in a place where you could never take your next meal for granted, or where you were going to lay your head at night, or if your kids were going to be able to go to school, that you would consider barricading off what you own in any way possible. But here, we are the wealthiest country in the world. We have more than enough to go around. We aren’t the greatest at making sure that it is equitably shared. We are also the developed country with the highest rate of poverty.   We have been trained to compete with each other, told over and over there isn’t enough to go around. This makes us as a people very vulnerable to having our insecurities manipulated, it encourages us to grasp our perceived piece of the pie lest it be the only one we’ll ever get.

Peace, in a nation like ours, is about resisting this insecurity and anchoring in an abundance mentality, that there is more than enough for us, that there is always room in the harbor for another rusted out  boat of refugees.

Our faith, Unitarian Universalism, has from its inception been about unraveling a scarcity mentality and compelling us to embrace the abundance of life. Unitarianism challenged the Calvinist theology of predeterminism, that God had already decided, at our birth, that some were saved and some were damned.   The doctrine of predeterminism allowed us to decide that some people were worth valuing and others weren’t. It created a divinely ordained pecking order and it’s really anti-democratic. Unitarianism challenged this, saying it wasn’t right. All of us had equal access to goodness. That Unitarian assertion is the basis of our first principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Universalism did away with the concept of hell altogether. God was large enough and strong enough that all could be reconciled to love. This Universalist proclamation has been the foundation of our historic commitment to equity and equality ever since. There is more than enough room for everyone. To say that there isn’t, this is an act of violence, it is an act of war against humanity.  It is in violation who we were intended to be for each other. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to wage peace, not war.

This is the thing about what happened in Canada and what is happening here. With the exception of Indigeneous people and those brought here as slaves, we are all immigrants. Most of us are here because something went wrong in our country of origin.   Some kind of tragedy or hardship pushed us or our ancestors out. War. Land shortages. Political instability. Rigid class systems. Religious persecution. Famine. The inability to find work. And it’s not like most of us or our ancestors were simple victims; sometimes we were complicit in the very things that ousted us, we were part of the system. We brought all that complication with us to this new land, which really wasn’t new except to us. And when our people got here, most of our immigrant ancestors experienced prejudice and discrimination from those who had come earlier. Everything that is being said about Central American asylum seekers, everything that was said about the Tamil refugees, was said about those ancestors.

I believe the trauma of losing your homeland while experiencing prejudice and discrimination does real damage, and if those ancestors weren’t careful, it closed something off in their hearts, closed them off from abundance, and this closing off made it possible for them and their children and their grandchildren to repeat the pattern with the newest immigrants. So this immigrant nation imposes upon new immigrants the same trauma.

The work of waging peace is to stop this cycle. First and foremost, so that people stop dying. Canada sent back many of the Tamil refugees, and most were killed when they returned, just as they predicted. That blood is on Canadian hands, and especially on every Canadian who said “Send them back.” Many of the asylum seekers today have said repeatedly that if they try to go home, they might not make it. We need to believe them.

If we truly want to wage peace, we have to be very aware of when we are tempted to cling to a scarcity mentality, when we become afraid that there isn’t going to be enough, or that we are losing our place. This is when we become vulnerable to doing harm to others. This fear can happen in our homes, our marriages, our families, workplaces, school, and here at church. And when we become aware of our own vulnerability, then we begin to build the inner personal strength to wage for peace.

Some of the Tamils who arrived in those rusted old boats did gain refugee status and have built new lives. It is still hard to trust that they are safe, and it remains to be seen how the trauma of their arrival will manifest in the generations to come.   My sincerest hope is that we, together, will break the cycle, that we will wage peace by opening our hearts and minds to each other and to those who have asked for our help.

 

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Grace Rules

This service was preached to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in January 2019.

Wisdom Story

Muddy Children Hosea Ballou by Janeen K Grohsmeyer

From A Lamp in Every Corner: Our Unitarian Universalist Storybook.

Over two hundred years ago, in a small house in a small town, on the edge of a forest of very big trees in the state of New Hampshire, there lived a small boy. His name was Hosea Ballou.

Hosea, just like other children, liked to learn and do new things. He was always asking questions, about what and why and how. And, just like other children, Hosea liked to play. He liked to play hide-and-seek with his nine older brothers and sisters. He liked to play word games inside when it was rainy, and he liked to play tag outside when it was sunny. In the winter, he liked to jump into snowdrifts. In the summer, he liked to jump into the creek. In the fall, he liked to jump into leaf piles. And in the spring — why, spring was Hosea’s favorite season of all — because in the spring, it would rain and rain and rain, and then Hosea could jump into mud.

Hosea, just like other children, loved mud. He liked it when it was soft and squishy, and he liked it when it was thick and sticky. If it didn’t rain quite enough, that wasn’t a problem. Hosea would carry water to the dirt and create glorious mud puddles all of his own. He liked to poke sticks into puddles and see how deep the mud was. He liked to make mud pies and to build mud dams. He liked to jump in puddles hard with both feet and make the muddy water splash really high, so that the mud splattered all over his brothers’ and sisters’ clothes, and he loved to step in puddles v-e-r-y slowly, so that the mud oozed up just a little bit at a time between his toes.

Yes, Hosea loved mud.

Now, you can imagine that not everybody in his family liked mud quite as much as Hosea did. His mother had died when he was not quite two, so his older sisters took care of him. His sister, who did laundry and scrubbed the family’s dirty clothes in big washtubs, didn’t like having to scrub all that mud off Hosea’s clothes — or off everybody else’s clothes, either, after Hosea had stomped in a mud puddle extra hard.

His other older sister, who kept the little children clean, didn’t like having to scrub all that mud off Hosea. And Hosea (just like other children) didn’t like having baths, either, especially when it meant he had to stand in a washtub in front of the fire and have water dumped over his head. But his sisters loved him, so they took him home and washed him and dried him and made him clean.

Then Hosea’s sisters went to their father and said, “Father, please tell Hosea to stop playing in the mud.”

“Hosea,” said his father, very sternly, “you should not play in the mud.”

“Why?” asked Hosea, because (just like other children) asking questions was another thing he loved to do.

“Because,” said his father, who was one of the preachers in the Baptist church the family went to, “just as we try to live a good life, to be kind to other people and to follow God’s plan, we try to stay clean.”

“Yes, Father,” Hosea said, and after that day, he did indeed try to stay clean.

But it wasn’t easy. He stopped stomping in the mud puddles on purpose and splashing the muddy water everywhere, and he stopped making enormous mud pies, but sometimes the mud was just there. Then he had to walk through the mud to get across the yard to gather the eggs from the chickens. He had to walk in the mud to feed the pigs. And sometimes, when he was already muddy from doing his chores, he played in the mud, just a little bit, and got even muddier. His sisters, who loved him, took him home and washed him and dried him and made him all clean.

But Hosea’s sisters went to their father again and said, “Father, please tell Hosea to stop playing in the mud.”

“Hosea,” said his father even more sternly, “you must not play in the mud.”

“Yes, Father,” Hosea said. He was sad, because he had truly tried not to get muddy, most of the time anyway. “Are you very angry with me, Father?”

“I am disappointed in you, Hosea, and I am a little angry with you.”

Hosea hung his head and kicked at the dirt with his toes, then he dared to look up, just a little, to ask, “Do you still love me?”

“Hosea,” said his father, and his father didn’t sound stern anymore, “I will always love you, Hosea, no matter what you do.”

“Even if I get muddy again?”

“Yes.”

“Even if I get really, really muddy?”

“Yes.”

“Even if I get mud all the way up to my eyebrows and between my fingers and my toes and in my hair?”

“Even then,” his father said with a smile. Then he added, very stern again, “But remember, Hosea. You must try to stay clean.”

“I’ll remember, and I’ll try,” Hosea promised, and he did. He stayed clean, most of the time anyway.

Readings:

Transforming Grace by Paul Tillich:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.

Source: Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich

 Eyes as Clear as Centuries by Ann McCallister (167 words)

It is said that grace can be “an unexpected, undeserved good.” I feel resistance to the idea that grace is ever undeserved, probably because in the work I do as an attorney, I represent convicted murderers, abusers, burglars, car thieves, drug dealers, etc., all of whom, whether guilty or innocent, need as much grace as possible to give them another jumpstart to hopefully connect with their higher selves and heal.

My belief is that the universe is benevolent in an impersonal way — that grace is the high vibration of manifested love that weaves in and out of our lives, nourishing us especially when we are not consciously aware that we need it. The gift that simply happens just when we are mired in some feeling that life sucks, and then, we serendipitously come across the amazing face of a baby with “eyes as clear as centuries” as Paul Simon sang in “Born at the Right Time.” And afterwards, we realize we don’t feel the same way

Source: unknown

 

Sermon

This month, the theme of our services is grace, what grace is, how you give grace, how you receive grace, how grace is found and how it is held onto, if it even can be held onto, grace being those moments when a wave of light breaks into the darkness, which is not a bad theme to have in a month where there are more cloudy days than sunny ones and when the festivity of Christmas and New Years fades away as the decorations are taken down and the lights put away and you’re left with the rest of winter to get through.

Grace.

So, a man dies and goes to heaven and St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. Now I know I know, we Unitarian Universalists don’t do heaven and hell but it’s a joke, so bear with me!

St. Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay” the man says, “I attended church every Sunday”
“That’s good, says St. Peter, ” that’s worth two points”

“Two points?” he says. “Well, I gave 10% of all my earnings to the church”
“Well, let’s see,” answers Peter, “that’s worth another 2 points.”

“Only two points? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s certainly worth a point, ” he says.

“hmmm…,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“THREE POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Exactly” shouts St. Peter. “Come on in!” https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/watchwomanonthewall/2011/06/jokes-it-takes-a-100-points-to-get-to-heaven.html#R48wdTLMks5EQoQ4.99 )

Now even though as Unitarian Universalists we don’t focus on an afterlife, even if many of us believe in one or hope there is one, there is something for us in this cute little joke. Even we, who profess the conviction that there is inherent worth and dignity in every person, still fall into the cycle of believing that we have to be good enough to deserve acts of kindness. There’s still enough of those Puritan roots in us that pull us into that place where we keep score of ourselves and each other. Grace gives us permission to stop keeping score.

I would hope that most of us have been blessed, sometime in our lives, with an experience where we were so overcome with the wonder and mystery of life that we simply couldn’t fulfill the expectations that others had of us. We abandoned those expectations so that we could enter into that wonder and mystery. In other words, we stopped keeping an internal score card. As a child, Hosea Ballou just couldn’t help himself. The mud called to him and the repeated instructions from his sisters and his father to “Stay clean” weren’t strong enough to keep him from running through it one more time.

And yet over time, and as he grew a little bit older, their words of caution stayed with him a little bit longer, he tried a little bit harder to “stay clean”, but eventually he would give in, run through the mud, and then, in that moment of realization, know exactly what was coming. “Hosea Ballou,” his sisters would yell, “Why can’t you just stay clean?” And that question haunted him. He started to feel guilty. What was wrong with him that he couldn’t just stay clean? That internal score card started going again.

There are three things that are true in this story. The first, is that Hosea Ballou did get immense joy from playing in the mud, like most children do, and ultimately, that is a beautiful thing. All children should be blessed with moments of abandon. And really, all adults should be blessed with it too!

The second truth is that every time he got all muddy, it also increased the work for his sisters who took care of him. They were the ones who inevitably had to strip off those muddy clothes and wash them.   Remember this was before electricity and indoor plumbing. They were the ones building the fire to heat the water which had to be carried in to clean their little brother and to wash his clothes one more time! So his acts of abandon had an impact on them. It made their lives harder.

The third truth is that Hosea’s sisters were taking care of him because their mother had died. So this is a household in mourning, where the older sisters are grieving their mother and then having to then set aside their grief and take care of the younger children, in effect, becoming mothers because their mother died.   And in this grieving family where sisters take on the responsibility of mothering when they don’t have the maturity to be mothers, you have this little boy who simply can’t stay clean.

Those of us who have grieved deeply, we know that we aren’t at our best, especially when the grief is fresh and raw. It is easy to get turned around, you’re absent-minded, impatient, maybe quick to anger. Everything just feels hard. So these sisters are getting impatient. Nothing seems to work with Hosea. And perhaps this grief is affecting Hosea’s choices too. Perhaps in his grief he just can’t fully take in their instructions. Perhaps those moments in the mud lift his grief for a while and he can recover for a short time the innocence of childhood where there is no grief and no sadness and his mother is still alive and he’s not being bossed around by his sisters day after day!

Is this not a situation where somehow grace needs to break through?

Is there someplace in your life where grace is yearning to break through?

And that’s how it is that Hosea finds himself standing before his father, who takes a different approach than his daughters. Rather than blustering and yelling, rather than leveling ultimatums, he expresses his feelings. He’s disappointed. He’s angry. He’s sad. He’s tired. As Hosea listens he becomes anxious. His father is suffering because of his choices. Will Hosea lose his father’s love if he can’t keep clean? Is his father keeping score? Not an unreasonable fear when he has also lost his mother.   And his father assures him that no, Hosea will never lose his love, ever.

And that’s one way that grace happens. Grace is this thing, this mysterious thing, that happens when love prevails even when there are a million reasons why it might not. I kind of liken grace to the way rays of sunlight stream through the breaks in a dark and cloudy sky. Those times in life when most everything around you is colorless and then there is a sudden breach, and a ray of love, hope, kindness, or graciousness returns some of the color that you are yearning for. And you can’t do anything to make that happen. It’s not about getting enough points. Because the truth is that the sun is always above those clouds and you can’t make those clouds separate. All you can do is be ready, be able to lift up your eyes from the greyness down here, so that you will see those rays streaming down from heaven to this complicated beautiful heartbreaking earth.

I imagine that when Hosea ran through the mud, a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds. That ray became even brighter when his father offered his unconditional love. That is grace. Grace is being blessed with unconditional love even though it’s probably impossible for you to stay clean. What a metaphor for how life is.

When I started to think about this sermon, I became mindful that many of us have experienced different understandings of what grace meant and who we were in relationship to it. Some of us grew up in a form of Christianity where a key theological element was the doctrine of Original Sin, which says that we are born sinful and that nothing can erase that sin. Grace was seen as God’s response to our inherent depravity. There may have been a strong focus on us not deserving that grace, and perhaps even feeling shame for receiving something that was undeserved.   Many of us left this kind of Christianity because it just kept hurting us and a deep part of us felt that this understanding of humanity was wrong.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism rejected the doctrine of original sin early on, seeing it as an abusive theology. This means that in our faith, the meaning of grace gradually changed. It was no longer an undeserved gift from a transcendent God to an undeserving humanity. It became instead about an interdependent relationship between the creator of life and those who had been given life, with each giving and receiving acts of grace. As our faith became more diverse, and especially with the introduction of religious humanism, which is now a predominant spiritual disposition in our congregations, grace became an act of love that breaks through isolation, self-absorption, broken relationships, suffering, and the inevitable harshness of life.   Grace restores us to ourselves and to each other.

But one of the things we have held on to from our Christian origins of grace, is that we receive it regardless of whether it is deserved or not. You don’t have to be clean to receive grace. You can see this in our first principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This principle is infused with an understanding of grace whereby every single person, no matter who you are and how you have lived your life, you can never been separated from your inherent worth and dignity.

It’s why, for instance, many Unitarian Universalists oppose the death penalty. There is nothing you can do that merits the loss of your life. Nothing.

It’s why we are so public in our support of undocumented immigrants. Your worth as a human being should never be determined by whether you have the right papers.

It’s why we have grown in our support for criminal justice reform. The way we scorekeep puts many people behind bars who should never be there.

It’s why we support the legalization of many drugs. We shouldn’t be criminalizing addiction. That kind of scorekeeping leads to so much harm, so many families ripped apart, so many people punished for their addiction rather than loved through it.

It is also a cornerstone of our commitment to fighting poverty. Too many people fall through the cracks, with poverty judged as a moral failing. The scorecard creates many punitive obstacles in their search for basic dignity.

All this scorekeeping. All these ways we resist grace. In 12 step programs we call this taking someone else’s inventory . You’re moving into a place of judgment, thinking you know better than them what they need. You don’t. Stop keeping score. It’s a hard thing to do, especially because we live in a highly competitive society where we rank ourselves and each other all the time and where we often assess our value by how much we make, our level of education, the kind of work we do, the kind of children we raise and the kind of spouse we marry, you name it. This keeps us from being able to receive and give the liberation of grace.

The spiritual task for those of us who want this liberated understanding of grace is to figure out how we possibly step back from keeping score, because you can’t be present to yourself, you can’t be present to others, you can’t give or receive grace when you’re keeping score. You’re not living in the moment and seeing what is right in front of you.   How do we make ourselves ready to receive grace, and how do we become the kind of people who offer grace? You center in the incredible gift we all have of this inherent worth and dignity, that nothing can take away from us, not even our own doubts and fears.

I hope that not only have you had the experience of being so overcome with the wonder and mystery of life that you simply couldn’t fulfill the expectations that others had of you, but also that you were still loved afterwards, that as you abandoned yourself to that wonder and mystery, there was someone in your life who resisted the urge to keep score and just kept loving you, no matter how much you messed up.  And if you haven’t had that experience, my prayer is that you can stop scorekeeping yourself, and offer yourself the grace that others couldn’t offer you.

What I also hope, that is all of us have had the experience of being the one who resisted the urge to keep score, that we could stay in that place of grace, secure in ourselves, not threatened by someone moving in a direction different than the one we want for them or believe is best for them.

Grace is how we claim the rays of light that are always there, no matter how hard life becomes and how much we suffer. To use the words of Paul Tillich, “If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”

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Hanukkah Glimmers of Hope – Reflections on #metoo and #wecommit

This sermon was preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on Sunday, December 10, 2017.  You are free to quote this sermon in other contexts provided full credit is given to the author.

Story for all Ages

You know how sometimes something can happen around you – maybe at school, maybe during class, maybe during recess, maybe it happens at home – and you don’t really like it. It doesn’t seem right.  It doesn’t seem fair and you wish it wouldn’t happen.  You know how there is always one kid that gets teased, right? And everyone knows who that kid is. We know there are rules against that kind of teasing but it happens anyways and you know it’s not right, but you’re scared of what would happen to you if you stood up for that person. Maybe then you would be the one who got teased. So, you stay silent, but then you have to watch that kid keep getting teased, and it hurts.

The story of Hanukkah, is a pretty special story and it has something to tell us about bullies.  More than 2000 years ago, the Hellenistic Empire conquered the Jewish people. When the Greeks conquered a land, they forced the people to give up their culture, their religion, and their language.  This was very scary to the Jews. They were afraid they would cease to exist and they wanted to resist, but the Greeks were pretty scary.  Some  Jews tried to give in just enough to look like they were getting along, and then they would try to teach their children in secret about the Jewish language, religion and culture.  But the Greeks made it very hard to get away with it. They took over all the temples and ruined them, they closed the schools and punished anyone caught breaking the rules. And if someone got caught, it was very bad. This happened day after day. And after a while, people started getting really angry. A small group of Jews called the Maccabees decided enough was enough. It was time to draw a line in the sand. They were going to fight for their dignity and for their survival.

This little army began to fight the Greeks. Surprisingly, they won a lot of the battles for such a little group.  In one big battle, they actually took back one of the temples the Greeks had ruined. They walked into the temple and saw the mess and they cried because it made them so sad and angry. But, they were determined to light the temple flame. In the Jewish tradition, there was a flame in every temple and it was to never go out. It symbolized that God was with them. But there wasn’t enough oil in that ruined temple to keep the lamp lit, only enough for 1 day.  It would take 8 days to make more. They wondered whether they should wait to light the lamp for 8 days, but they decided no. They had to take the chance. They lit that flame and started to make the oil. Miraculously, it was still burning on day 2, and then day 3, and then day 4, all the way to day 8, when the new oil was ready.

So today, the holiday of Hanukah is when the Jewish people remember the miracle of the temple flame. There are 9 candles in the menorah, like the one I have here. The center one represents God. The other eight are lit from the first candle, one more candle every night, to remember those 8 miraculous days. The lesson of Hannukah is that you should never hold back from doing what is right. You should never let injustice pass you by, never be a bystander. If something is wrong, it is our job to tell someone, to be there for people who are being harmed, and to believe people when they tell their stories. It will not always be easy. Sometimes you have to do what is right even if it might make your life harder for a while. That is what it means to be a moral person.

Hannukah starts on Tuesday so we aren’t going to light any of the Hannukah candles today because it would be disrespectful to light them as a demonstration. Some people in this church grew up Jewish and will begin lighting the candles in their home on Tuesday. After the Menorah is lit it is placed in the front window so that everyone can see it. So as you drive around town this week, look at the homes you pass. Some of them will have the light of the Menorah, and now you’ll know what that means.

It is our responsibility as people of faith to know when it is time to draw a line in the sand and say no more. Just as the Jewish ancestors did, we have to work for the worth and dignity of all people.

A Ritual of #MeToo (developed by Rev. Karen Johnson and adjusted for the particular culture of this unique congregation)

There are so many ways that we are in changing times. One of those ways is embodied in the growing voices of women telling their stories, and they aren’t easy stories to tell. For many of us they are stories we’ve kept quiet for a long time because we could not trust that we would be believed or that anything would change. These are stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  If it’s helpful to know what that means, it’s when one person touches another person in a way that isn’t wanted. It can also happen with words when you use sexualized language to make another person feel powerless or ashamed.

There are always women who have dared to tell their stories, but more and more women are drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Enough. We will accommodate no more. We will be silent no more.”

This fall, the hash tag #metoo burst into social media. Metoo was started by Tarana Burke, an African American woman, in 2007 as a way to help women identify themselves to each other to know that they were not alone. She also wanted to help African American women in particular claim their power through truth telling. Because of the nature of race, gender and power in this nation black women are more vulnerable than other women to sexual violation and more likely to see those who violate them go unpunished.

Then this past fall, when allegations of longstanding sexual harassment were leveled against Harvey Weinstein and it became clear that the whole industry had protected him and punished the women who dared to speak, actress Alyssa Milano turned metoo into a hash tag.  She challenged women to take the risk of naming their experience on social media to create a critical mass so large that not only would the Weinstein story stay alive, but that women would also create an avalanche of truth telling to take on the backlash. In less than 24 hours, 12 million women used the hash tag #metoo to identify themselves as survivors of sexual harassment, and sexual assault.  Since October, millions more have come forward.  Many men have been identified as perpetrators. Some are facing the consequences and either losing their jobs or choosing to step down.

The purpose of #metoo is threefold. The first is to help women and those of all genders who have experienced sexual violation to not feel alone. There is healing in claiming our stories in solidarity with others who have been harmed as we have.

The second is to show men the magnitude of the problem so that men can no longer claim ignorance. Sexual assault isn’t a women’s problem, it’s actually a men’s problem. More than 90% of abuse is committed by men. So #metoo is asking men to step up and take responsibility for addressing sexual harassment.

The third is to change the culture so that every person can grow up trusting that their body will be respected. One whole premise of the #metoo campaign is that change happens through visibility.

Across the United States and Canada, Unitarian Universalist congregations have been taking time in our worship services to invited our people, our beloved people, into the #metoo movement.  There is guided meditation that was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Karen Johnson, and we will bring this meditation into our worshipping space and declare that we are in solidarity with all in this congregation and outside it who have experienced sexual harassment and assault.  You will have the opportunity, if you so choose, to identify yourself as a person who has had this experience, or as someone who has loved someone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. Participation is voluntary. We are all in different places in terms of comfort and our healing process. But today, may we come together in solidarity with all in this community who yearn for healing and wholeness and a changed world.

Let us begin.

(This ritual is amended from the original by Rev. Karen Johnson. The original is here: http://blog.awakeandwitness.net/wp/2017/11/metoo-prayer-ritual/)

Make sure you are seated comfortably, feet flat on the floor, arms loose loosely resting, and eyes closed or open, aware of your breathing. Aware of your thoughts, aware of any anxiety or concern because of the tenderness of what we’re focusing on, aware of those we sit with, each of us human beings with a need to be loved and respected.

Remember to breathe and to breathe deeply and then once more, to take the breath in and let the breath out, we pause, poised as we are, at a point of risking, at a possibility of courage: #metoo.

Risking vulnerability

Risking pain

Risking being known

Risking being not believed

Risking being believed

Risking so much, including leaving the shadows behind, and stepping into healing light.

Risking being brave.

I invite any in the room who understand yourselves to be included in the #metoo movement, this moment in time when so many are stating publicly that we have been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually harmed, any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to come forward and be with me, and stay with me, and if you are so moved, to add your stone to those already resting beneath our chalice.  I will stand in silence for at least one minute to give lots of time, and if I stand alone that whole time, that is alright, for I will trust and know that I am actually not alone, that almost every woman in this room and some of you who are not women have experienced some form of violation, whether verbal or physical. Let us enter into a time of silence so that those who wish to come forward can do so.

[allow time & space for those to join]

I invite anyone in the room who knows someone, loves someone, regardless of their gender, who has been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, sexually harmed – any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to lay a stone to those already laid beneath our chalice, adding your committed witness to those who have risked coming forward, who have risked being brave.

[allow time & space for those to join]

I add this stone for those in the room who are not yet ready to come forward, but know the truth of their story and are a part of #metoo.  We honor your choice to not come forward at this time.

I add this stone for those among us who have been perpetrators of sexual violence.  We pray that you know who you are and do not run from this truth.  We pray for healing, accountability, and for forgiveness.

We will try to be brave.  And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine.  And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours.  We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

Let us bring intention to this act of courage, of witness, of solidarity. Let us notice and see, truly see, the pain in this room,…and the possibility.  Let us commit in the quiet of our hearts to do what you can to stop any future harm. And may we build and ever rebuild the world where safety, equality, and justice, wholeness and integrity, are the air we breathe.

May it be so. Amen.

 

Sermon 

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I preach about Hannukah in some form every year. Because Unitarian Universalists honor the truth and wisdom in all religions, and because there are members in our congregations who grew up Jewish and may still observe the Jewish holidays, we always recognize Hanukkah in December.

I am always wondering what my angle will be this year. Will I stay with the mythological remake of Hanukkah, predominantly developed for children, that offers a simple story of the struggle for freedom and dignity? Will I focus on the miracle of finding hope when the odds are stacked against you? Will I focus on the aspect of risk, when failure is a real possibility and you light that flame anyways?

On the other hand, I can go into the actual historical story and see what’s there. Hannukah originates in a story of war. It is a story about violence meeting violence.   One Empire, led by men, tries to destroy a smaller nation, led by men.   It’s men fighting men. It’s bloody and there are no rules, just that you win at any cost. And the message is that violence is redemptive, violence protects and violence restores. And it is the violence of men that accomplishes this. There are no women in the Hanukkah story. Men are the fighters, the decision makers, the heroes and villains, the winners and losers. They light the chalice.  For me as a feminist and as a pacifist, I struggle with any story that holds up violence as the means by which true peace and freedom are established.  War doesn’t create peace; it changes the balance of power.  At most, military might and intimidation can keep people from killing each other.

In Ancient times, women were on the same level as children. They had no identity of their own, it came from men – their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles. Women were property.

Now to be fair, this is how it was for every culture in the Ancient World – Greek, Roman, Persian, Syrian, Jewish.  It was the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was the constant. You see in their religious texts the foundation for the relations between men and women, a relationship that was not equal and women had no agency. This is the foundation of western civilization and it is the legacy that we continue to live with and struggle with.

In this foundation, the words of women meant nothing.  Women were irrelevant except as the bearers of children.

But there have always been women who have tried to light the temple flame, to shine light on their lives and their experiences and their truths. If you read the ancient texts against the grain, if you look in the dark corners of history and culture, sometimes you can find them. But you have to look hard. And if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the words:

Believe women.

Believe women.

Believe women.

The #metoo movement is accelerating a very old struggle – women’s ongoing struggle to be believed. We’ve been trying to light the temple flame for thousands of years. We have been trying to tell the stories of what it is like for the patriarchal legacy of western civilization to be worked out on our bodies.

When 11 women came forward and told stories of being abused by the man who is currently in the Oval Office, many women and men and gender nonconforming people thought that it would mean he would lose the election. We hoped that the women would be believed.

Now Roy Moore, running for Senator of Alabama, has been accused by four women, with corroboration from multiple sources, that he abused young girls.  He still has a serious chance of winning the special election on Tuesday.  For some of us this is infuriating and it leaves us feeling very vulnerable.  If those men can get away with it, if they can attain political power despite all the women they have violated some of whom have taken the greatest risk to tell the truth, where does that leave us?

Not believing women has been a cornerstone of western culture for thousands of years. Not believing women is anchored in a deeper rooted belief, held not just by men, but by all genders, that women’s words mean less than the words of cisgendered men.   By cisgendered men I mean men who were born into the body that matches their gender. They were born with men’s bodies and experience themselves as men. We have internalized that female and gender non-conforming bodies are not as sacred, are meant to be available and that our worth is determined by our value in the eyes of men. You can see this, for instance, in what happens to widows, even today. Widowed women often experience being left behind by some married friends who suddenly find them threatening because they no longer have a man.  Yes, this happens in the 21st century.   Some of you may have experienced it.  The same dynamic that allows abusive men to hold power without accountability abandons women when they are without men. It’s all interconnected.

So when Harvey Weinstein’s behavior became public, Alyssa Milano got really nervous. She remembered Anita Hill. How many of us remember Anita Hill. This brave African American woman dared to speak out about being mistreated by Clarence Thomas, and the Senate chose not to believe her and to confirm Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. This broke so many hearts but few people were surprised because it’s an old story. Then as now, a temple flame had been lit when she spoke the truth. And it didn’t get to 8 days. How many women have lit the flame, hoping that more oil would come, only to have it burn out and take their reputations and sometimes their careers with it?

In the last 1 ½ months, millions of women have joined the #metoo movement. There is a critical mass of energy that is come together.   There are some big names in this country that have been held accountable for their choices – Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Trent Franks, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey, and there will be more.

I must admit that there is some satisfaction here, even for those men who have broken my heart. Might the flame actually make it to 8 days? I do think accountability is the only way that the abuses stop. I would like to be able to walk to my car in the evening after meetings, and not wonder whether I should hold our keys through our fingers.   Do you men know how often we hold our keys like this when we walk to our cars? I would like to be able to walk my favorite trails without always keeping an eye out and listening for the sound of feet.  I never go for a hike without texting my partner where I am and how long I expect to be on the trails. I would like to feel comfortable enough that I don’t insist on meeting in public when a man becomes newly involved in congregational life and wants to talk with the minister.

Part of the #metoo campaign is about creating the space for women to tell their stories and to be believed.  And as more women take the risk, others build up the courage to come out of the shadows.

But I think that the #metoo campaign is bigger than that, because the most important audience of the #metoo campaign is men.

Did you know that women Unitarian Universalist women ministers started their own #metoo movement amongst other ministers? Women started using the hash tag #metoo and sharing stories of male colleagues who had misused their power.   Over 200 women added their names. And the purpose of that exercise was to show our male colleagues what we had had to endure.  So lest we think that this is a dynamic that is predominantly in conservative circles, think again.  It is right here.

Now the purpose of #metoo isn’t to tell men that they are bad or evil or hopeless. It’s not to vilify men.  Rather it is to show men that abuse of women is not a women’s issue.  It is a men’s issue. We can keep lighting the flame, but it won’t make it to 8 days without men’s support and commitment.  It won’t make it 8 days if men don’t change.

 

In response to the #metoo, a new hash tag has been create, #wecommit. When a man posts #wecommit on his Facebook page or twitter feed, what he is saying is that he believes women and he takes responsibility for his part in how sexual violence happens. Many men are talking about how they were raised as boys, the messages they received from parents, teachers, friends, about what it meant to be a man and what a man should expect from a woman. Men are talking about how they were trained to feel entitled to women’s bodies. Sometimes they are even talking about things they did that they knew was wrong, and working on how to make amends. They are apologizing without using the word “but” or making excuses or saying if they knew now what they knew then. Men are making promises that they will never stay silent in the face of locker room talk. They will take the risk of losing friends and status by speaking up and challenging men who talk badly and disrespectfully of women. Men who have authority in the workplace are promising to mandate anti-harassment training for all employees. Men are promising to vote only for candidates who have strongly committed to ending the violence. Many fathers are promising to raise their sons to be a different kind of man.   Where emotions are encouraged, not suppressed, where feelings are talked about, and where boys are encouraged to explore all of who they can be separated from gender stereotypes.  Basically, men are promising to take on patriarchy.

And I tell you that even, though it’s the #metoo movement that has touched me deeply because it is personal, it’s when I see men who choose to believe, understand, and change, that’s what takes this from a sputtering flame to a strong one that is going to be a lot harder to extinguish. The #metoo movement lit the flame, the #wecommit movement is going to make sure that there’s enough oil to get through the first 8 days, and then 30, and then 365, enough oil so that our daughters and gender non-conforming children and all our boys will always be safe and loved, and that the brokenness that so many of us assume just happens, will become a story that we tell our children of how it used to be.

But we’re not there yet.

This is the thing about those Maccabees, those men who went off to war. They knew there would be losses. If you read the story of the Maccabean war, when they took over that temple, the Greek army was right outside. They had to hold back the enemy even as they tended that sputtering flame. The struggle never stopped.

That’s where we’re at right now.

It is very possible that Roy Moore will win on Tuesday and if he does, a lot of us are going to be in pain. It’s could to be triggering. So plan ahead and get your resources and support network in place so that if you need it, you have somewhere to lean on.

And even if that is what happens, we can’t allow ourselves to think that it means the flame has died. The struggle for bodily autonomy is a long one. We’ve been fighting it a long time. What we need to do is anchor in love. Love of ourselves. Love of women. Love of justice. Love of fairness and kindness and generosity. Love of our children. We have to live in our hearts as if the world we believe should be already exists. We have to stay in love. And when we do that, we won’t lose hope that all is lost. It is one set back. We have millions of women and gender non-conforming people and men in #metoo and more and more men in #wecommit. That can’t be erased in one special election.

So Hannukah starts on Tuesday night. There are people in this town who are going to light their menorahs, one more candle every evening, and they’ll place that Menorah in the front window. As you drive around town, keep an eye out because I bet you’ll see one or more than one. You’ll see the flame that never dies.  When you see that flame, think to yourself, “What can I do to make sure that flame burns for 8 days? What can I do to be part of the miracle that will be upon us where every woman and non gender confirming person is believed, where every man understands, and where all genders can live in freedom, peace and dignity?”

May it be so.

 

 

STJ We Are Answering the Call of Love (explain why the words have changed)

 

Our closing words are From The Talmud. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

 

 

 

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