I will no longer be posting on this site as I have migrated all of my past posts and have begun to blog on revgretchenhaley.wordpress.com. Hope to meet you there!
I knew she was nervous when she sat down. Her breathing was quick and her eyes darted all over the room. "How can I help?"
She was an inmate in the Denver Women's Prison. I was her Chaplain intern. I'd sent for her after I got a note indicating her request for spiritual counseling.
"I have some questions about God," she began. Questions turned to worries, worries turned to shame. She wondered if God loved her, if God could ever love her for who she was? And she was sure even asking the question was a sin.
Listening to this strong, wounded woman, and getting to know a little of her story, a longing began to grow in me.
A longing and deep hope that my faith tradition - Unitarian Universalism - would have something to say to this woman and her questions that would meet her where she was and help her become the person she was meant to be.
A longing and deep hope that we would be able to do as we say in our 3rd Principle: walk with her in her path of spiritual growth. Written on posters and pamphlets, it sounds dry - but when lived out, it looks like healing and transformation.
Listening to her, a seed was planted in my spirit - deep down - that we would be able to offer her - and others like her - something beyond simply tossing out "God" all together - from her context and life story, that would've been just as wounding as the notions of God she was wrestling with.
It was a hope that we - we - could be a people and our congregation could be a place where she could grow her ideas about God and expand her experience of God in a way that would in turn allow her to grow a new vision for herself and for our world. That we would have tools and practices and a willingness and capacity to go there with her - whereever there is - and to walk that path with joy and love and respect.
It was a big hope, and to be honest, sometimes I still wonder if we have it in us.
If you were here two Sundays ago, you heard my colleague the Rev. Robert Latham challenge our congregation and our faith to define ourselves first by what we hold in common, rather than our usual mode of affirming how we differ.
He recalled the Hagar the Horrible cartoon where there's a bunch of vikings in a boat all rowing furiously, and yet the boat is going in circles and zigzags. The caption on the bottom has Hagar shouting, "Will you please stop saying different strokes for different folks?"
Robert’s basic premise is that society invented religion as a meaning-making institution, and in order for us to be effective with that charge, we need to claim a basic set of shared answers to the questions most people wrestle with.
I'm not sure if he said the questions in his sermon - if not he'll likely outline them when he’s back on the 9th - so spoiler alert! There are 5 of them, they go like this:
1. Who am I?
2. How do I know what I know?
3. Who or what is in charge?
4. What is my purpose?
5. What does my death mean?
As he says, "A religious community is a group sharing a common view of reality built around unprovable answers to life's compelling questions. It is from these answers that a religious community extracts its message to the world.
This message proclaims that if either individuals or society lives accordingly, they will be transformed."
In some ways, Robert's message runs contrary to much of what I have preached and taught in this congregation
over the last three years.
And my first response is to remind him: we need not think alike to love alike. We need not standardize our answers in order to walk together in service of the spirit of life and love. I might also add, as we often say, that each of us holds a piece of the truth, and we need each other across our diversity to better see and experience a greater whole.
Despite these initial misgivings, however, I hear in Robert's questions the same kind of longing I felt in myself when I was talking to the woman about God.
I hear his desire that we would be more practiced and more capable of offering a life-affirming alternative theology translatable to a variety of contexts, and that we would be able to act in response to this theology.
I hear his longing that we would understand why these questions even matter - what theological commitments ground our 3rd Principle - as well as the other six. And so as with most things Robert preaches on, I think I’m on board, with one slight reframe.
Nearly a century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, dean of a Universalist theological school, published a treatise on Universalism. His opening chapter, entitled "Which Way?" begins with this well-known quip:
"Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move."
He goes on to say, "We grow and we march, as all living things must forever do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way we are moving, not what positions we defend, but which way we are marching."
So rather than a single, fixed identity-based answer to Robert's questions about our common view of reality - perhaps our living tradition would be better served by asking ourselves again - which way are we marching?
And with whom? In service of what?
In Fisher's treatise, he answers the “which way” question with a lot of words about Jesus and God, but ultimately he sums up the direction of the Universalist movement as moving towards "abundant life."
Universalists march with all those who serve and create abundant life, in service of abundant life, so that all may have abundant life. Nearly 100 year later, it’s still a very good “common view of reality,” or at least a good place to begin.
Now, before I went to seminary, I have to confess, the conversation with the woman about God would've terrified me. I wouldn't have known what to say or how to listen to her - I am not sure I identified as an atheist, but I definitely didn't "do" God.
Which meant that despite being very active in my UU congregation, I had no tools or language, and no practice in being present to and with big theological questions.
All I had was what I didn't believe, and I had avoidance - my UU church taught me very well how to avoid conversations like the one she wanted to have. It's hard to remember now what motivated this avoidance strategy - in myself or in my church. Mostly I think it was fear.
Fear that we couldn’t be together across our differences, fear that if I really shared my "beliefs," it would sound dumb, or contradictory. And maybe most of all, I was afraid that whatever I said would mark me with a label
that was fixed on me forever - and then I would be set across a table, or a room, or a computer screen from others
who were pinned with a different fixed label, and we’d have to debate about who is actually right, or who actually belongs.
This is my nightmare.
And unfortuntately, having it as a fear is not unfounded. In our attempts towards spiritual growth and along our search for truth, Unitarian Universalists have often been sucked into this kind of labeling and debating mode.
Just these past few months, you may have noticed another round of "debate" running through the UUA about the so-called pendulum swing of humanism and theism.
In our own congregation, over the past year, prompted by the retirement of our senior minister, there has been some parallel questioning and debate, often referencing the conversation at the association level and asking if we can claim more explicitly which we actually are, and where we stand.
While some of this conversation can be - has been- quite meaningful, and insightful, a lot of times, this whole either/or approach makes me weary, and makes that old practice of avoidance seem quite appealing.
If it wasn’t for the persistent longing and hope that conversation in prison planted in me, I might just give in. But I can’t. I can still feel it. I still hope we can meet her there.
Which means, we have to find another way to discern our shared answers - a way that is not debate. A way that moves us out of our heads, and into our hearts, a way that prioritizes relationship and honors our commitment to moving rather than standing.
A way of describing our “common view of reality” that transcends labels and instead makes space for - as our second reading from Tom Owen-Towle puts it - “the creases between mysticism and humanism, theism and naturalism, believing and doubting, devotion and skepticism."
Which brings me to my two semi-contradictory conclusions.
The first conclusion is to say - that the way forward is not to delegate this work to the broad and generic Unitarian Universalist Association. For us to experience a new way - we need to do this from the ground up, in congregations, and in the context of real relationships. As the principles goes: we encourage one another to spiritual growth in our congregations. Here - everything we do here, is a part of this work - small groups, adult ed classes, spiritual practices, the discovery sessions with the search committee, teaching our children, and most definitely all that we do in ministry teams to serve within and beyond our church.
In all of these we have a chance to ask one another, and ourselves - to practice our answers to some of life’s biggest questions, and to listen to one another, to listen them into speech.
What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose? What does our death mean? Who or what is in charge? What if anything do you understand or experience as God? And how do we decide about our answers to all this?
These sorts of conversations, when grounded in listening deeply, hold the promise of transcending the either/or debate, and what Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams called the “hardening of the categories.” Because in such conversations, to say it plainly, it’s no longer about “those theists,” or “those atheists,” it’s about my friend’s story, my group’s heartbreak, and my community’s greatest love.
You may be disappointed to learn, however, these conversations will not result in a vote. There’s no winner - or loser. Sorry. But over time, these conversations allow us to recognize our common view of reality - as well as the places we differ - and how that’s ok - because our commonality is big, and wide, and deep.
Which brings me to my second somewhat contradictory conclusion. Although I maintain that this theological construction and spiritual discernment remains the work of each particular gathered covenanted community -
as a centuries-long faith tradition, we do inherit a theological framework - our common view of reality we might also call our good news - that remains ours to claim. And so I want to end with my sense of that Unitarian Universalist common view, and we’ll see how it sits with you. Here it goes:
1. Being human means you matter, that inherently, your life is precious and worthy of love. And it means being a part of a great interdependent web of life, where we are all in this together.
2. We don’t know what happens after we die - our focus is on living a good life now. What makes a good life is in doing our part to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community - a world of peace, and justice, kindness, and love - for all.
3. Though we might wish otherwise, we know we aren’t in charge of this life. However, we can choose how we respond to our lives as they unfold. These responses - across all time and space - are what drive the world forward. Our actions make a difference, and showing up for one another in our common vulnerability and courageous love brings the hope of healing, and transformation.
4. We describe God in many different ways - or in no way; but our common view, is that no one knows for sure, and no one answer is sufficient, which leaves us with an ultimate posture of humility.
If we talk about God, that God is love - courageous love, infinite love. We are held in this love, we partner with it - to heal ourselves, and heal our world.
5. And finally, as the holy reveals itself in ever-new and surprising ways, we turn to all sources that keep us moving in the direction of more life, and more love to help us sort out our answers to these and other big questions. We draw on our own life stories, as well as our encounter with others, and we seek to keep faith with the liberal religious vision that over many centuries has affirmed the goodness of humanity, the love of God, and the need and our capacity to keep working towards justice for all.
There you go. Our common view of reality.
While I am sure it isn’t 100% for 100% of you, and I’m sure some wish I’d use different words…my guess is that if you listen for the underlying intent, it works for most of us.
So when Robert comes back in a couple weeks, let him know you got the work done. Just kidding. Kind of.
It’s been almost 8 years, and still that conversation with the woman about God - won’t let me go. I still believe we can be that place that could meet her in her struggles, and walk with her. I still believe in our capacity for theological imagination, spiritual depth, contemplation and service - a place that can be present with tools and companionship no matter where your spiritual quest may take you - that we could meet you there, and walk along side you in the direction of life, abundant; love, abundant.
I still long for us to lay down our avoidance strategies, and instead lay claim to our common answers to life’s big questions - not by way of debating about static categories - but rather from within our moving, breathing, covenantal and heart-growing living tradition where we don’t stand, we move.
And when they ask which way - let us say - towards life. Abundant life.
From an article I submitted to the Coloradoan on June 29, 2015....
After the Supreme Court handed down its decision on marriage, my Facebook feed was a string of rainbows, congratulations and bursts of joy. But then, after a couple of days, I saw another trend, which I thought of as the "limits of diversity" trend.
When I came out in 1995, it was a different world. Being gay was still barely discussed, and when it was, it was often in a degrading manner. Ellen was a breakthrough; Matthew Shepherd marked a turning point. However, the real transformation came as more and more GLBT people bravely shared their stories. Over time, family and friends were compelled by love to a change of heart. These straight allies then shared their own stories, insisting that we be seen and made safe.
Yet not everyone's hearts have changed. Some still don't know any gay people. Some are devoutly politically conservative. And some continue to claim biblical commitments and religious conviction as the source of their unwillingness to accept that same sex relationships could be just as sacred and beautiful as heterosexual relationships.
The trend in my feed was assessing: How much should we try to resolve this diversity? Can we still be friends if you believe differently than I do? And if we stay friends, is it OK for you to post about your difference on my page?
In my church, we deal with the limits of diversity all the time. Because we gather in a spiritual community based not in shared belief but in shared commitments, we are made up of a plurality of theologies and practices. This commitment also means that we are often discerning how much diversity we can tolerate while remaining a community. Any community that authentically values and seeks to manifest diversity will eventually need to wrestle with this question.
Ultimately, some friends said: "It doesn't matter what you believe. We can agree to disagree." Others decided: "If you disagree with the decision, unfriend me." None of it felt ideal. In the big picture, we can't really "unfriend" each other; we are all part of one human family. We have to figure out how to be in relationship across differences.
However, that does not mean what we believe "doesn't matter," or that we must "agree to disagree." The persistence of homophobia, whether wrapped in biblical interpretation, political ideology or simple ignorance — is not made tolerable by the Supreme Court's decision. After all, kids are still growing up with parents who hold those beliefs. Gay kids. *Trans kids. Kids who will some day become Supreme Court justices. And these kids — and all our kids are listening. Listening for whether or not who they are, and how they love, is OK, whether it could be holy, and good and true. And what they hear is bigger than agree/disagree — often it's a matter of life and death.
So let's keep telling our stories and keep listening. The pain of this transformation is real; that it is sad for some is real. Let's care about each other, love each other into healing. Let's build bridges across faith communities that include bible study that is not dependent on a homophobic lens — and let us not forget that before homophobia was justified with the bible, slavery was.
One more touch, one more real moment with him, or at least, with his body. One more look at his face, his hair, his skin. It would barely be him anymore, but it didn't matter. Three days had passed since he had died, three dark, lonely days, they needed just one more act of tender care, intimate and quiet, amongst friends. It would not change what had happened, but it would be - one more moment to remember.
These women who had loved him - Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome; these women who had watched him die, terribly, watched him be tortured, this man they loved, whom they called friend and teacher, this man who had told them that their lives were mattered, that all lives were mattered, this man who had taught them about forgiveness, and freedom.
They knew he was gone, but they just wanted one more moment of life, with him. And still - they came carrying spices and their not-dried tears, because they knew, what they would find, could only be confirmation of his death.
No one here today does not know this kind of longing. No one here today is unfamiliar with this distance these women were living in. This distance between what they felt should be true, and what they knew actually was.
Each of us knows, too well, that distance between abundant life, and the finality of death; between love, and loss; between living hope, and overwhelming grief.
In this distance, bitterness is always nearby, and defensiveness a common strategy. In this distance we practice habits of make-believe -everything's fine, I can handle it; in this space we try on costumes of survival, and avoidance, In this space between our ideals and our reality, we are always in danger of giving up, always teetering between our hearts breaking apart, and our hearts breaking wide open.
In seminary I spent a semester studying the book of Exodus -which tells the story of the liberation of a long enslaved people through the power and promise of their God. It is the story at the heart of the Jewish holy day celebrated this week, Passover.
When African American slaves were first exposed to Christianity and the Bible, they went right for Exodus, seeing themselves as those enslaved and then freed Israelites. You can hear Exodus in many of the traditional spirituals - those songs that slaves sang to themselves and to one another both in worship settings and in the cotton field, and along their path to freedom. These same stories populated the civil rights movement, and it's hard to find a speech of Martin Luther King Jr that doesn't include some reference to Egypt, or the Red Sea, or the promised land.
It used to bother me - that the religion of the oppressed seemed to me so heavily dependent on a power located outside the people themselves, and that the underlying promise of Exodus seemed to be about waiting on a God that was sleeping for generations while God's people had been enslaved for 400 years. As my professor used to say when I'd furrow my brow, and ask my troubled questions about the text - I think you have a problem with this God. I guess I do, I'd say.
But then one of my gracious friends, an African American scholar specializing in the dynamics of the black church, gingerly responded to my critique with a simple observation: when there's nothing in this world that seems like it can make things better, you better hope there's something beyond this world that can.
As soon as he said it, my face burned with embarrassment, and I felt my privilege rise up in my throat. It's not like I didn't know what he was talking about - I know what it means to feel powerless. I know what it means to live in that distance between what we long for, and how things actually are, and to know no way to bridge that distance.
And yet my social-cultural location - white, middle class, liberal arts education - It does not equip me with language or tools to express or live with that powerlessness - my own, or anyone else's. For the most part, I have been taught to imagine I can fix what doesn't work, that I can make things right, that - we can make things right - that justice is an achievable end and that we're all on a track towards building it together - through hard work and consistent effort, as our Unitarian Universalist hymn goes - we will build a land where we bind up the broken - we will.
But Exodus is a story for when we can't. Exodus is a story for - when no matter what we do, we won't. It is a story meant to give hope in the midst of hopelessness, a story that creates a way out of no way. A story that bridges the distance between our ideals and our reality when we can't build that bridge on our own. It is the affirmative answer to the prophet Jeremiah's question when he asks it many generations later, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" Exodus says yes. Yes - there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the world weary, sin-sick soul.
When I was here with the choir earlier this week, and they reached that place in the song where they sing "sin sick,"
our usually boisterous choir was suddenly somewhat hesitant, and I could just guess what they might be feeling.
The dominant Christian narrative has so obscured the definition of sin to be personal moral failure - or worse, some original and inescapable blight upon our inner most selves - that the most automatic way that many people will hear the words "sin sick," will be about the weight of their personal sins upon their souls, which in turn leads many to imagine that balm as necessarily a personal savior and his atoning, individual sacrifice.
There are - of course - personal, individual ills in this world, deep injuries perpetrated from individual to individual. I confess regularly that I do not live up to all of my promises, that I fall short of my own ideals. And sometimes these broken promises - my own or others' - overwhelm me, discourage me, make me feel what we might call - sin sick.
But when I hear that term now, when we sing that song now, when we feel it, together here - it seems to me, a lot more powerful, a lot more meaningful, to point to a weariness born of forces less personal and individual, and more- collective, systemic, and generational - and to ask, with all sincerity - where is the balm for that, what will save that, heal that?
As many of you know, our congregation partners with about 30 other faith communities in Fort Collins to host families experiencing homelessness as a part of the Faith Family Hospitality program. We finished up one of our hosting weeks just today. Families, with little kids, sometimes with lots of little kids, with one or two parents, often parents who have jobs, and yet also parents who just can't find and keep affordable housing. These families stay here - in the religious education building, and have meals in our social hall. 40 or so of our members, and some from our hosting partner, Congregation Har Shalom - stay the night, bring meals, set up and take down - all of the tasks required of a good host.
Each week of hosting is different. But without fail, each time, one or more of those 40 volunteers - one or more of you - will tell me a story that knocks the wind out of me. Like last fall, I had come to the church after a weekend where we had the family stomach flu. Total mess, and I was feeling appropriately pathetic. So, I came in and was telling one of the FFH volunteers, and she was genuinely sympathetic, and then she said - oh yeah, one of the families here had the stomach flu last night too. 4 kids. Oh.
I thought of how much laundry we had done for our two children. How I had thrown my son in the shower quickly, and repeatedly, all night. And how there are no showers here, no laundry machines. God. I thought of the weariness that family must feel, how vulnerable.
And I felt deep in me how impossible this all was, how impossible it would be to transform our world - transform so many hearts in so many big ways- so that no family ever has to deal with the stomach flu while staying in temporary church shelter, let alone without temporary shelter, let alone something worse than the stomach flu...Oh, God.
It just - overwhelms me. It's so terrible. The injustice of it just washes over me and I think, there's just no way out of this. We are too stuck. It's too deep. It would take too much. Is there no balm for our sin sick souls?
In those last few days of his life, nearly all of his friends and followers abandoned him, but not these women. Scholars say that the fact that the gospel writers each place women at the scene of Jesus' tomb makes this part of the story
quite likely to have happened just as it is recorded- after all, a newly forming religion like Christianity would not willingly make up a story where women were so central. It would put them at too much of a disadvantage. It has to be in one way way or another, true.
So our story goes, these women came to adorn what was no longer alive, they came to begin the slow, difficult process of letting go, all the while still living in the distance, still longing for life, just a little more life.
As they got closer, they wondered, how they would roll back the big, heavy stone that covered his tomb, in order to get to him. In their last few steps, not yet having decided on a solution, they were shocked to see it was already moved - who moved it? And when? Already the story is not what they were anticipating.
You can imagine they had all kinds of feelings rush in - joy, anticipation, but then also, fear, anxiety, confusion. They went in. And there, in place of the dead body of their friend, there was a young man, very much alive.
Where they anticipated only death, they found life. Where they came attempting to accept the end of a story, they found instead a new story, a changed story. There, in the empty tomb, standing in wonder and confusion and
hope and fear, they were told that the dead had risen - risen, better translated as "awoken, like from sleep", and to go and spread the good news.
It was for them, it still is - too much - to take in, to believe, let alone to go and share with others as the man asked them.
Again and and again, in scripture, Jesus asks his people, Who do you say that I am? Over the centuries, many have tried to codify and define the one, true, right answer. God, or man, one part of a three part God that is really one. Political rebel, or terrorist. Insurgent or teacher. Savior. Carpenter, baptizer, brother, father, friend. My current favorite is love, pure love, with skin on. Love, that just kept on being love, skin or no skin, transformed, and transforming.
The truth is, we don't know. Not for certain, not for sure. Besides a small reference to Jesus of Nazareth in one other historical text from the time, we only have these stories written on scrolls and translated across multiple languages, sometimes badly, often edited and redacted to suit a particular agenda - and we have this persistent desire to tell, and hear these stories, to reenact them, in gathered community, 2,000 years of communities gathering at the river, and mountainsides, in homes, and in sanctuaries - each with a persistent yearning to lift up these stories, to affirm these stories and their core sense of truth, especially this story that love that just keeps on being love, transformed and transforming. This story that there IS a balm - for all our weary, sin sick souls.
Sometimes we can get so stuck on what we know for sure, so single-focused on rooting out the provable and the knowable - Unitarians especially can have a such a bias towards the concrete - that we can end up with a real blind spot for all that remains a mystery.
But on this day, in the celebration of this story, we attempt to turn our attention to the mystery. We seek to acknowledge all that we do not know about life, all that goes on, has gone on, will go on, without our input, without our understanding, and without our power. It is a day where we find language and meaning in our powerlessness. And we say, thank you.
Easter is a story of a power and possibility we don't totally understand, a power that is not exactly ours, but also a power we know we need, and a power that somehow, we're connected to, and in partnership with.
It is a power that holds us in the heart-wrenching distance between our hopes for life, and life as it often is; relentlessly holds us and keeps open the possibility of bridging that gap; keeps open our hearts, luring us away from all that make-believe and survival-mode, holds us and keeps on growing a way out of no way, growing life out of no life.
So that when we come with our spices and our not-dried tears, ready to surrender, Easter offers us this healing balm of a loving, transforming power ready to greet us there, with the heavy stone already rolled back, and an empty tomb, helping us to imagine and create life once again, to turn towards that place where life is, refusing to let death have the final word, resolute that love will not, cannot die.
I understand why the women hesitated. I understand why Mark would write this story with this as the end - these women standing there in the distance between hope, and fear. Paralyzed there. I get that sense of feeling stuck, not trusting, still not ready to open my heart that big. I live in that space, we all live in that space so often.
And so on this Easter, maybe we be each other's evidence of a love that still lives - be that concrete evidence of a love that cannot die, but transforms. We can be for each other and for the world, the living proof of the still living love, with skin on.
A sermon offered for Palm Sunday, 2015
Reading from Desmond Tutu, "Liberation is Costly"
A week ago, the tree in my front yard was completely bare, as if it was dead.
It was just as our guest minister, the Rev. Andrea Anastos, described in her sermon about the winter season last November: unadorned, its skeleton standing exposed, revealing old wounds from past storms that are so much of the year hidden from view by the flourishes of abundant, green leaves.
If you were here that Sunday, you might still remember Rev. Anastos' encouragement to choose to live into the winter season of not-knowing, to live into the winter’s natural patterns of rest, and waiting, and stillness. To be, as she described, fallow.
What would happen to us, she asked, what new stories would we make room for, if we gave ourselves over to a time of letting go, a time without fixing or meaning-making, a time of simply being, observing, and being still?
It was a very powerful message, especially for those of us who rarely find a moment for stillness in a day, let alone a whole season.
So a week ago, my tree was bare, lifeless, and gray. Fallow.
But then yesterday, it was not.
Yesterday, in place of nothing, there was something. Something green, and fluttering and growing. Today, that something is a little bigger, a little more.
Many little green leaves now run up and down the branches, little buds that promise flowers before too long. It’s not naked anymore. The waiting, it seems, is done.
And I wonder, what new room has been made in our lives over these past few months?
What has been taking shape in the earth as it rests, and for what have we prepared?
What new dream has been outlined upon our lives, upon this community, just awaiting our awakening and awareness?
What new thing is about to be born, if we will but plant the seeds?
Like most of you, I would imagine, I couldn't be happier to greet the emerging spring. The return of the sun, the bursting crocuses, the promise of new life, once again. Alleluia.
Who doesn't greet this return with gratitude, and relief? Our winter has been relatively mild, especially when we compare it with our friends in the east who had a terrible season of snow after snow. Maybe our snow is still to come, you never know in Colorado. But still it is a joy to see the sun, the blue sky, to be able to walk in and out of doors without piling on and off of jackets and scarves, hats and gloves. To say goodbye to the cracked and brittle and hello once again to the soft and bright and warm. Come spring, come hope, come life.
In the Christian liturgical calendar, today marks what has come to be known as Palm Sunday. As a child I knew this as the day we would be given palm leaves, long whispers of green that we would bring home and drape across the crucifix on our wall. I have strong positive associations with Palm Sunday, the texture and feel of the palm leaves, the burst of green so reminiscent of the bright colors of new life returning in the world.
I like props in church, especially props that we can touch and feel and take home with us. Because our lives pull us back in so easily when we leave here, and these little tangible things anchor us to our greater hopes, our deeper purpose, our being, and longing.
It wasn't until seminary that I started to better understand the reason behind these great props, and what they symbolized - then, and now.
Jesus had been away for a while. Away from the city of Jerusalem, away from the full view of the authorities, who had - we are told - been itching to arrest him. He was a threat. A threat to the Roman empire. A threat to the few Jews who held power in their occupied land. A threat to the way of being those in power relied on.
In my simplified explanation to my children about the Jesus story, I sometimes tell them that the people in power used fear to keep their power, and Jesus said: Be not afraid. He said, Love your neighbor. And even more radically, love your enemy.
Where ever he went, Jesus showed up with this great and powerful love, a love so powerful it could make the blind see, and bring the dead back to life. This is the sort of love that removes the dust from your eyes and makes you come alive all over again. Love that brings bare trees into full bloom. Reviving love, healing love, clarifying love.
Love that if it caught on, would change everything. The leaders couldn't have it. And so for a while, Jesus left the city, and went out instead to the desert where he stayed with his friends. But eventually, he knew he needed to return. Hiding would not bring the change he sought.
Five days before Passover, Jesus made his final trip into the city, where he was greeted with palm branches laid down at his feet, creating a path for him to walk on. It was a common greeting for kings and heroes of the day when they came to town. Like today’s red carpet, it was a way to honor him.
Along with the branches, the crowd shouted out Hosanna! Blessed are you, King! I can't quite figure out a good contemporary analogy for Hosanna - but it's something like - the "We love you!" shouts that come at super stars when they get up to accept an award. "We Love you!"
Right - like the shouts that make it impossible for them to say what they want to say because everyone is cheering, overcome with a sense of gratitude at this person's gifts. It’s like that.
As Jesus came into the city, the crowd felt they were in the presence of a holy person, someone who could - as the empire feared - change everything.
And by the time we return here next Sunday, we will be celebrating the part of the Jesus story that says he did in fact change everything. We’ll gather to celebrate the good news that love wins - always wins, that after the bareness and the stillness and the waiting and the un-knowing, there comes once again, energy, and activity, and truth, and abundant life. Next Sunday, we will greet Easter’s arrival like spring’s full bloom. Alleluia.
But before that. Before the alleluia, the same crowd who greeted Jesus with palm branches at his feet, who shouted out “We Love You!” “Hosanna!” Before the alleluia, these same crowds instead a few days after Palm Sunday, instead begin to shout, “Crucify him.” And “Kill him.”
Growing up, I remember these words in my mouth like fire. “Don’t you want me to let him go?” the priest would ask, pretending to be Pontius Pilate. And we, the congregation would respond, “no, crucify him.”
In the text for the story of the passion, re-enacted each year during this week by most Catholic and many protestant congregations, it has the question and the response multiple times, and so as a member of the congregation, you hear the words, feel the words coming out of your mouth again, and again. You feel yourself call for Jesus’ death.
But I didn’t always think about the fact that it was the same basic community, just a few days before that was praising him.
What inspires such a change? To go from praise and embrace, to rejection and vengeance - so quickly, and completely?
A number of years ago, right before I went to seminary, when I was a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I spent a Saturday in what the church leaders called a Dream Summit. It was meant to be a time where we shared stories about the future of our church - our big and courageous dreams. The question on the table was something like: It’s ten years from now. What does our congregation look like, who is it serving, and how has that changed in the last 10 years?
The room was filled with maybe 50 or 60 of us. One brave soul got up and offered her answer, “I hope in ten years, our congregation is more racially diverse.” Vigorous nodding across the room revealed this was a common longing in this overwhelmingly white congregation.
I am not a cynic. I’m not even sure I’d call myself a pragmatist. I really do land consistently in the optimist and idealist categories, though I do prefer to think it all as a matter of maintaining a big faith. Regardless, I say all this to help put in context my immediate thought after the woman in my congregation shared her dream for a multi-racial Unitarian Universalist faith community. I thought, “No way. There’s way you want to change that much.”
Unitarian Universalists have expressed this longing for racial diversity for decades, especially in the last decade or so as the world around us has become increasingly diverse. And yet for the most part, this longing has remained unrealized - for a bunch of reasons, but not the least of which is the degree to which it requires mostly white communities to un-settle ourselves - unsettle our patterns, un-settle our habits and often our points of pride.
As the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt said in her 2010 article in the UU World exploring these questions, “We—ministers and laypeople—want our congregations to be safe.” However - as she also acknowledges, “if we are really practicing what it means to be human, in an ever widening circle of humanity, our congregations may become some of the most dangerous places we know.”
Whether we are talking about racial diversity or theological diversity, healing the earth or the equally complicated task of healing our hearts, transforming our world, or transforming ourselves - we must confess that the “talk” about these things is a lot more tenable than what it would take to achieve the actual reality.
We are good at shouting “Hosanna” to our principles around peace and justice for all, good at laying down palms to greet the ideas of Beloved Community, but when it comes down to it, the kind of unrest it would take to manifest the Beloved Community, the kind of deep change it requires of us - as individuals, and as a people - well that feels terrifying, intimidating, overwhelming.
Liberation is - as the reading from Desmond Tutu acknowledges - costly. The liberation of my life that is wrapped up in the liberation of all lives is difficult, and if we really seize its reality, it will bring us to all kinds of complaining as we wander the desert. The liberation of our GLBT brothers and sisters - in Indiana, and across the globe, is costly. The liberation of our immigrant neighbors, and our black friends and family members, the liberation of all who are held by the chains of poverty or mental illness - these are costly. And the freedom of universal access to health care and clean water, and the deliverance of the earth itself, the release of every single person on this earth into the authentic feeling of being loved, and that they belong, just as they are, the liberation of deep awareness that we are all inextricably connected, born of earth and stars. This liberation, is costly.
This is the liberation represented by Jesus’ ministry. And it is the liberation at the heart of our faith, of Unitarian Universalism. This is the liberation that we say we are after. And it is as Rosemary Bray McNatt said - dangerous, and risky, and even costly. And sometimes, I wonder if we are really up for it.
Which brings me back to my tree, last week, and today.
The winter time, my tree tells me, has passed. And now, we are called into spring. Palm Sunday has arrived, and we say Hosanna! But Spring is not just shouts of joy. Out of rest and reflection, we are called into action. It is not a matter of simply returning to where we were before the rest. We are called to clean out the beds and brush away the dead leaves, to loosen the earth and remove the weeds, and to begin to discover who we are now, what new thing may be able to grow in this soil - the soil of our lives, our community, our congregation, our world. And then, we are called to plant.
All the ideas we have been making for our gardens, all that room Spirit has been clearing in our hearts for a new story and a new hope, and all that has been churning beneath the surface in anticipation of the returning sun - all of these will remain simply ideas without our willingness to let go of what the winter has shed in us, and to say YES to this new season and the opportunity for new life.
There is always risk in planting, there is always risk in sewing seeds, especially crops that are entirely new to us, requiring so much new learning. It takes work, long and hard work, and patience, and careful attention. It takes a willingness to fail. And to stay open through the failure to the learning, and to adapt, and to grow, to continue to turn the soil. To refuse to allow the earth, or your heart, to harden.
Our Unitarian Universalist churches often skip over the observance of the fuller story of holy week. I understand how that has happened over time. But it means our faith communities also miss an opportunity to regularly wrestle with just how hard it is to say yes to big, revolutionary change, even when it is a revolution of love.
It also means, we do not regularly rehearse together what it feels like to reject what we once thought was our only hope, and to see our greatest sense of love die. To bear witness together to that possibility and to live even for a short moment with its consequences.
There is something powerful in repeating this story, year after year, the fuller story between Palm Sunday and Easter, between the idea of new life, and the actual birth. There is something powerful in asking ourselves if we are yet saying yes to all that we are meant to be.
Despite my idealistic tendencies, I don’t know if I am up for all that it would take to realize my greatest hopes. I don't know if you are. I don't know if we are - if anyone really is. But here is where I gratefully remind us that we need not make the whole journey in one season. We don’t have to figure it out all it once, know everything all at once, plant everything all at once. Perhaps like me you will be relieved to remember that if you did not find all the stillness you needed this winter, another winter beckons just a few months away. And, given Colorado’s weather, maybe just a few days.
Life does not - as we sometimes imagine- move in a single, straight line. We live many lives in our one life, and we suffer many deaths. And in each of these, we have another opportunity to be reborn again, transformed. We love, and we lose and we grieve again and again. And each spring, we get to choose: turn back to what was, or plant something new. Over a lifetime, across many seasons, one breath at a time, may we build the life we yearn for, the world we yearn for. Little by little, in partnership with all of creation. Let us say yes, together.
The last time someone called me a lesbian, I didn't correct them. Was it a colleague? A congregant? A reporter? I don't know. I only remember not correcting them. These not-correcting moments tend to add up, like little dents in the promises I made to myself on a flight from Denver to Portland over fifteen years ago.
I didn't plan it, but it was National Coming Out Day that weekend I flew to see my parents. They didn't realize it either, not having such concepts in their lexicon. They didn't realize they were about to learn a whole new language. 30,000 feet above the earth, I swore to myself, I would never lie like I had been again. I would not let the lies go on, and instead I would try to tell the truth about who I am and how I love, for the rest of my life. Once I corrected the big lie that remained, that would be it.
I was 23, far old enough to be telling the truth to my parents. By then I'd already come out as not Catholic, as a theatre major, and as someone unwilling to wait for marriage to have sex. You'd think this secret sharing wouldn't have been worthy of such extensive delay, or such deep fear and worry.
I first fell in love with a girl when I was 20, or at least that was the first time I got what was going on. There were others before her, long distance letters and phone calls filled with giddy joy and innocent desire. But nothing I understood or would've named, until her. She was out and queer (importantly different than lesbian, I understood early on) and strong, but somehow also soft, and I liked that mix, a lot. It was kind of like the mix of scared and seduced I felt when I thought about her. She liked to talk to me about a girl she had a crush on, and about how incredible her girlfriend was. We talked about sex and desire in a safe, theoretical way. I was straight, and she was partnered. It was all safe and contained. Until it wasn't.
I can't remember now when or if I broke up with my boyfriend. He had graduated, and was living in another state. We still talked. I remember telling him about her. He was intrigued. She took me to the queer group on campus, and held my hand and we sent secret notes back and forth in hidden drop off places all across campus. I never thought she needed to break up with her girlfriend; she wanted to have babies with her someday, and that sounded good and promising. I didn't have any intention of interfering with such beautiful dreams.
Her girlfriend wasn't so sure, and hated me or tolerated me, depending on the day. We didn't keep secrets, though, so sometimes we'd all go out together. But, we also didn't have any language. We didn't really know what we were doing, if anyone else had ever loved like this. It was the mid-nineties, pre-Ellen. We didn't mean to be so radical in our loving, but there we were.
What I do remember: sitting in my room, in the house I shared with 3 other roommates, just barely off campus. The door was closed, there was music playing. And she took my hands and she asked how I was doing with my new bisexual identity. Was I freaking out? Was I confused, or afraid, or happy, or....? It was the first time either of us had said anything about my sexual identity. The first time I'd really even let myself think about it at all. I remember so clearly the feeling I had was nothing except liberation. I feel free, I told her. I don't feel afraid, I feel real.
There was nothing simple about the next few years, loving her. My boyfriend and I did eventually officially break up, though not before we went to my first gay pride together, in San Francisco. His sister, who went with us, not knowing any of the story, flirted with me in that semi-ironic bi-curious sort of way. She couldn't have known. But it was semi-painful nonetheless.
My...lover? (we never found a word that worked)....moved out of state, back to the state she called home, with her girlfriend. A few years later I helped with their commitment ceremony. A few years after that, I witnessed the birth of their first son. We all still count each other as family; and as with any family, our relationships have continued to evolve in their intensity and modes of expression. And, to be clear, I love them all.
Along the way, I fell in love, hard, with my dear friend right in the precise moment and place where he was coming out as gay. In all that vulnerability, we fell in love together. We wondered often what it would be like if I was a man, or if he could love women, though, I never had such gender confusion. He was just beautiful, still is. We broke both our hearts with the impossibility, and the longing. Eventually we decided we loved each other enough to let go, but it wasn't easy. I don't know what he did, but I'll acknowledge I had to take a piece of me and hide it away for a while, starve it until it went quiet. Even now I love him with a quiet ferocity, simmering under the surface in a way we all know. We: his husband, my wife, him, me. It's ok. We're good. It's long ago and different lives. Besides, there are so many ways to blow up a marriage, if you want to. And none of us have any such desire.
A lesbian playwright I worked with once asked me to predict which I would choose: man or woman. She was puzzled at my instability. I answered honestly, I didn't know. She didn't believe me.
When I met Carri, I didn't mean to be settling the question once and for all. I only knew that every time I saw her I got butterflies, and I had this image of loving her until I was an old, old woman, and hoping I never had to not be with her. She wouldn't want me to portray it as immediately a done-deal. It wasn't - but also, it was. I'm just not great at leaping at the obvious. Luckily, however, she is. So, about 6 months after we first started talking, we got serious, and I realized I couldn't avoid telling my parents about the unspoken lie we'd been sharing any longer.
My parents drove together from Olympia, Washington, to get me in Portland. I couldn't get a flight into Seattle, because obviously we were meant to be tortured in the longest.drive.ever. I had told them I needed to fly home to talk to them about something. I wasn't willing to tell them over the phone. I didn't intend to tell them in the car, but they were impatient and pressed me on the drive. So, from the backseat I let it spill out. I told them I was bisexual, that I was in love with a woman, that it was serious. They didn't react well. I'm sure they would agree with me that it ranks as one of the worst few hours of our lives. Some of the other worsts came in the next few months.
Somewhere along the way, my mom told me she would need five years to come to terms with it. I laughed with a certain bitterness, but she was about right. By about five years later, she started to talk to Carri like she was a person. She started to believe me. My dad stopped with his extreme silence. We didn't have to play the game like everything was ok, because everything started to actually be ok.
They never picked up the queer or bisexual identity, however; if they say anything at all, they say lesbian. I tried correcting it a few times, but it gets exhausting, all that translating and explaining, coming out again and again. It's so vulnerable to try to claim such perpetual instability, to insist on troubling the categories with my life. And so I just let them, and a lot of others, think whatever they are going to think.
But still in my heart, I know that this is how loving works - mine, and many others'. There are trends we can point to, and some helpful ways of thinking about people and roles and who we are to each other and why. Some people are really super duper consistent in the type (and biological sex) of the person they fall in love with and desire. And some people truly only fall in love with and find intimacy with one person, for their whole life.
But for many of us, love and desire is a lot more complicated across our lifetimes. There are relationships we just cannot have words for, that mean more to us in many ways than the relationships we do have words for. We surprise ourselves with desire for people that we would've never expected at other points in our lives. Some of those desires we act on; many of them, we do not. Love changes and grows and fades and evolves - because we do. Living things change.
Of all the dangers I ever wondered about in the marriage equality movement, it was the possibility that the GLBTQ community would collude in the silencing of these queer notions of love and desire. When I used to read those alarmist articles about queers wanting to change marriage, and straight (and also gay) liberals defending our upstanding intent to slip unassuming into marriage as-is, I used to think - No. We do want to change marriage. I hope we do.
I hope by arriving in the midst of this straight tradition, we can liberate all of us - queer and straight - into a greater honesty and authenticity in our practice of loving. I hope we can acknowledge more regularly that "marriage" does not mean one thing, but many possible things, each with many different promises, different for each couple and family as they may discover and discern. I hope we can de-couple marriage from pro-creation, liberating all my friends (straight and queer) who don't want children from that oppressive pressure. I hope we can release some of the strange gender roles that even the most liberal straight folks I know feel the pressure to perform after marriage. I hope we can begin to unravel the legal framework from the spiritual framework of marriage, and allow anyone who wants to privilege anyone else in a certain kind of legal way, to do so easily and accessibly. I hope we can get more honest about the reality that sometimes, the most loving thing you can do for your spouse is agree that the marriage is over.
"A conversation begins with a lie, and each speaker of the so-called common language feels the ice-floe, the drift apart as if powerless, as if up against a force of nature." There was a time when we couldn't copy down Adrienne Rich's words fast enough, they were such medicine to us. We knew exactly what she meant. We were trying to grow up, and we didn't have the words for all the feelings we were having. We were long past Stonewall, and in the midst of our own awakening, we watched Ellen risk it all telling us what we all already knew. But we also didn't need Matthew Shepherd or Brandon Teena to know truth telling, though ultimately liberating, might break us in ways irrecoverable. We knew our lives were witness to a dangerous kind of love that most of the world wanted to keep a lid on. It makes sense that we too would want to claim we fit in a category that doesn't move.
But my hope is we don't let the silence seduce us. My hope is we keep speaking up for all the ways love challenges us and inspires us and scares us and makes us laugh and knocks the wind out of us. Let's keep coming out in the places where there aren't yet words, keep crossing boundaries and borders until we realize we've made a new land, and a new language that tells all our stories.
And on that note, let me end with the video that finally inspired me to write my post for #SexUUality, this awesome super queer re-make of Taylor Swift's song, Blank Space.
Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum... join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex--the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality.
At the first appearance of James Reeb in the movie Selma, I whispered over to my partner, "He's a Unitarian." I did the same when I saw Viola Liuzzo,"Unitarian." I wanted to claim these martyrs as our people, and claim a place in this story of white allies who show up out of their religious convictions to call for a greater justice not only for themselves but for all of humankind.
Which is why I understand the grief some feel about the line spoken by one of the movement leaders, spoken to Dr. King after the beating death of Reeb: A priest from Boston has been killed.
It's just one example. From the portrayal of President Johnson to the role of women in the struggle for civil rights, much has been already written critiquing the historical accuracy of the film.
I get it. We have a stake in this story; we want it to feel true. And yet, I worry that these questions about the film's representation of the past can be a distraction from its urgent message for us today. While it's not true that James Reeb was a priest - he was a Unitarian minister, and while it's unlikely that one of the leaders in Selma called him a priest, it is critically important to pay attention to the fact that this African American female director in 2015 doesn't seem to care one way or another, and to be open to the possibility that not many others do either.
Approaching it from this angle, we might find ourselves in a conversation about our call - not as Unitarians but as partners in the broad movement to build the Beloved Community. We might find ourselves talking not about only about our presence in Selma in 1965 (including Foothils' own, Rev. Roy Jones), but also the question of where we are called to show up now.
Remaining curious rather than corrective to these "historical inaccuracies" might help us be better allies and interfaith partners as we come to see that perhaps no one cares all that much if we are actually priests, but many care a lot about the presence of a community filled with an authentic and priestly kind of dedication, conviction, compassion and love.
Selma invites us into all kinds of questions about who we are as people of faith and our call for the future. It invites us to think critically about social change - in 1965 and in 2015. It invites us to reconsider sacrifice and redemption, prayer and protest. I urge you to go and see it. And then join in conversation with others. Let us allow these conversations to seep into our everyday lives; let our hearts break wide open to this story of the past as a call to our future and the possibility still, as Dr. King said, for out of the mountain of despair, to carry forward a great stone of hope.
Sermon, January 4, 2015
1. Martin Luther King, Jr. from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957
Our ultimate end must be reconciliation; the end must be redemption; the end must be the creation of the beloved community. We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people...It begins by loving others for their sakes and makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.It is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
2. Rebecca Parker, "Life Together," from A House for Hope
The perils of religious community have left many liberals and progressives convinced that organized religious communities cannot be trusted; they pose too many dangers and break too many promises. They fail to embody what they profess and disappoint those who invest their lives in them. Such wariness about religious community puts liberals and progressives in sacred company. The Hebrew prophets condemned religion when its priests soothed the privileged but neglected the poor. In the book of Amos, the prophet declares, “Take away the noise of your singing, stop your ritual sacrifices. Instead, let justice roll down like waters!”
Sermon “What is Required of Us”
When he made these bitter declarations, Amos was speaking to his own people, the Isrealites. It was a time of prosperity, and wealth - at least for the ruling class. Not so much for everyone else.
Amos, like his fellow prophets, Isaiah, and Micah, was appalled at the ways the Israelites were interpreting their religion. He says, "I hate, despise your festivals and your sacrifices and burnt offerings." None of the prophets could stand the empty rituals, the hypocritical prayers declaring peace peace when there was no peace.
From the Hebrew prophets’ interpretation, a righteous life meant taking care of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger among them - not just performing a bunch of rituals and acting “holy.”
If you read the details of the 613 rules given to Moses- you thought there were 10? - 613 commandments in fact - it's pretty clear the prophets were right.
But then, as now, people were busy and don't always remember so many things at once, and life gets distracting, and so another of the prophets, Micah, spoke more clearly and succinctly:
"What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
In these three simple and beautiful phrases, Micah managed to offer a vision that remains even today both specific and broad enough that people of a wide variety of theological orientations and faith traditions use it as both a map and compass, an orientation for life, despite the passing of some nearly 3,000 years.
As an illustration of its appeal - my friend, a Unitarian Universalist minister about my age, has the phrase tattooed on her forearm; she talks about it as her personal mission statement. And, as you may have noticed, David's usual benediction uses the phrase somewhat reworded - inviting us to "do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with all that is to you holy."
On the other end of the theological spectrum, the chapter and verse of this phrase in Micah are the source for the name of the service arm of the Timberline Church - Serve 6:8. Chapter 6, Verse 8. Through Serve 6:8, Timberline provides financial assistance, food boxes, home repair, food preparation, and a variety of other supports, including having recently taken over the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center, a resource center for the homeless. Through all of these services, and many others, Serve 6:8 does as they describe on their website "serve our community demonstrating God's love in tangible ways with no strings attached."
I find this work and mission so beautiful, and inspiring. And I am not a small bit jealous. I want to be a part of a faith tradition that makes such a big impact on my community, that connects my faith with this impact, and that creates clear and tangible way for me and my church community to care for those in the wider community.
And I want to be able to trust that underlying this good invitation is a foundation aligned with my own values and theological claims, which is to say, a foundation that seeks to dismantle rather than reinforce patriarchy and white supremacy, undo rather than teach heterosexism and homophobia, interrogate rather than affirm colonialism and American Exceptionalism, transform rather than overlook classism and ableism, and most of all, one that sees our lot as fundamentally bound up together, which is to say - none are saved unless all are saved, which means that we don’t just enact charity, we address the systems that keep people marginalized and othered, that we seek a transformation of ourselves, and a transformation of the whole. Where are the Serve 6:8s that are built on this kind of justice?
Unfortunately, as far as I know, they don’t exist. Nothing like Serve 6:8, with its degree of reach and local impact, with its force of volunteers and its level of funding, exists within such a liberal, progressive theological paradigm, Unitarian Universalist or otherwise. We have the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, sure, but that is internationally focused, and invites individuals to participate in a broad call, rather than a community inspired by the specific heartbreak and call of their own particular context, by their own covenanted community.
And I wonder why. Do you? I wonder all the time.
I have a couple theories. One - I think a lot of our people do this work professionally - we found and run and work at non-profits - which means we don’t feel the need, or have the time, or the energy to do locally-based justice work as a part of our faith community. Which also means we don’t see the need, or understand how we could tie their work to our faith commitments, our spiritual path, or our theological claims.
But it’s more than that: After Rebecca Parker acknowledges that our discomfort with religious institutions aligns us with the Hebrew prophets, she goes on to describe how:
"As a result, liberal and progressive people of faith are more at home alone than in company with others." (This is what Fred Muir has described as the iChurch phenomenon of Unitarian Universalism; a church that prizes individualism above all)
"Many liberals, consciously or not, seem to prefer that their religious institutions remain weak, underfunded, or distracted by endless attention to “process” and checks on the exercise of power. Too much money, power, or organization, it is feared, will lead to corruption.
"One friend of mine, a United Methodist lay leader and community activist quips that liberal religion teaches that you can do anything you feel called to as long as you do it alone."
What a lonely, frustrating, and unavoidably heartbreaking path we sentence ourselves to. I mean, we care so deeply about justice!
It reminds me of a moment in seminary when my professor, a Native American activist and theologian, asked us - a group of liberal seminarians - if we believed “power” was a bad word. There was a general sense of like - well, obviously. It’s not, he said. Power is neither good, nor bad - in and of itself. It is how power is used that is good, or bad, moral, or immoral, just, or unjust.
Despite the historical trend, I am convinced that it need not be this way. I am convinced we can transform our understanding of what is required of us, detach it from the grip of individualism,and the idealizing of a bunch of individual paths and commitments of those who "happen to hang out together," and the fear of a powerful religious institution - because it will be power used for our vision of the good.
The key to such a transformation - what you might call - our salvation - lies in Beloved Community.
When I first heard the term, I was a relatively new Unitarian Universalist attending a church where there was pervasive bickering and back-stabbing behind the scenes; when the minister called the church our “Beloved Community” from the pulpit, I nearly let a “Ha!” slip from my mouth. I didn’t know anything about the concept, the tradition he was pointing to - I only knew the words “beloved community” felt like a mismatch to what I was experiencing, and thus more support in my own history of religious institutions not living up to their promises.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was attending an annual conference put on by our District, where I realized “Beloved Community” wasn’t just a fancy way to say “the community you love.”
It turns out, the term dates back to the late nineteenth century philosopher Josiah Royce, who described it as the highest ideal of human community, achieving the highest good, and the most common good. Then, in the mid-twentieth century a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., after hearing about it in seminary, started preaching Beloved Community as our ultimate ends. The ultimate end for churches, for activists, for any human beings who cared about justice, and about that question of what the Lord (or Love) requires.
As the King Center website describes it, “Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.” There’s no poverty, hunger, or homelessness; no racism, or bigotry - instead there is an “all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.
Love and trust triumph over fear and hatred. All conflict can be resolved peacefully and should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”
In short, Beloved Community is a humanistic, this-worldly vision of the Kingdom - or what we might call the Kin-dom of God.
Since King, progressives of all kinds of have taken up the concept of Beloved Community, and continued to enrich and deepen its meaning, recognizing it as an idealized expression of our own covenantal tradition.
As an example, his book, The Prophetic Imperative, Unitarian minister Richard Gilbert describes the Beloved Community as “an image embodying human hopes and standing over against human finitude in judgment of the social order. Its basic characteristic is human solidarity.” He goes on to assert that the Beloved Community is “the highest common denominator for Unitarian Universalists and thus an appropriate symbol for us.”
Beloved Community can be for the local liberal church, that shared understanding of what it means to “do justice” - not as a bunch of individuals on our own paths, but on a shared path, together. It is who we are - at our core.
Which brings me to my 5 Guideposts for discerning what is required of US, based in my understanding of Beloved Community. It’s 2 more answers to than Micah gave, but still fewer than the 613 in the covenant code, so hopefully still simple enough for us in our congregation to use as a tool, and a reminder, as we discern our way forward, together:
and these 5 are my sense and hope for how we will fulfill the promise we make to ourselves each week when we say Love is the spirit of this church. Because I what we mean is Agape Love.
In this path, I believe we can get over our fear of the powerful liberal religious institution and instead become its champion. We can release our good news into the world knowing it is worthy of our very best resources - our money, our time, our testimony, even our door-to-door - because it is a vision of the world that we believe in - it is our shared vision of Beloved Community.
Sermon offered on November 23, 2014
After President Obama's Executive Order on Immigration and before the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson
In Fort Collins, Colorado, a few days before Thanksgiving
(Please note that there are vivid images offered here, some of which may be too graphic for those sensitive to violence or trauma)
You might remember, two winters ago, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE - blasted into Little America.
You know, Little America, right? If you’ve done any traveling through Wyoming, you can’t miss it. It’s a hotel, travel center, repair shop, and from the billboards that describe it - so, so much more.
When we’ve driven I-80, Little America is the place that keeps us entertained in that interminable trip across the plains. The signs announce it long in advance, building anticipation. Billboard after billboard of happy, white, blond, very happy white blond mom and dad with two very happy white and blond children, smiling about all the fun they are having at Little America.
Every time my partner and I have seen those signs, we’ve joked there are no people of color, and definitely no gay people in Little America.
Well, it turns out that - though it’s still possible there are only white people who stay at Little America, the people who work there are much more representative of today’s Big America.
It was January 24th, 2012, and actually, ICE didn’t blast into Little America. They blasted into the homes of the workers of Little America. Fully armed. In their SWAT gear, and in groups of about five. In one home, an 8 year old boy was alone, about to walk out the door and cross the street to his school, when ICE banged on the doors and windows until he opened the door. They stormed in, searched the whole house, and demanded to see his mother.
At another, they arrested a man in front of his children, took their mother’s cell phone, and then took the visas and I-94s of everyone in the house, including family visiting from Mexico. They told them they had 3 weeks to get out of Cheyenne.
That same day, they got in touch with a woman, a single mother. She was a victim of past domestic abuse. Her abusive husband had followed her to the US, but had since been deported for his behavior. The agents didn’t arrest her that day as she was home alone with her 11-year-old daughter. But they said to her - we’ll be back. We’ll be back.
With her trauma and her past, it was too much. Thinking of a future back in that country where her abuser lived - she just couldn’t let that happen. And so on February 3rd, 2012 she burned her trailer home, with herself and her daughter inside.
As we approach the third anniversary of the raid, the image and her desperation still haunt me. It’s like something we’d hear about happening in the middle east. Not here.
How is it possible that this is the same America that we learn about in school pageants and over dinner tables around this Thanksgiving holiday? How is it possible to recognize the themes of cooperation and abundance and goodwill across difference, the themes of hospitality and kindness we learn in the story of English pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal in the early 17th century - how is it possible to recognize this Big promise of America in this raid of Little America?
In his speech on immigration Thursday night, President Obama made many claims about America, calling on us as a nation of immigrants, a nation that has long welcomed the stranger among us, in the spirit of Hebrew scripture - “for you were strangers once yourselves.”
In this version of America, we have always been a reconciling nation, a nation that pulls people in, all who may come. And only now have we fallen down on this promise.
Calling on such an idea of our past is a rhetorical strategy. I mean, how could it be anything but a rhetorical strategy, coming from an African American man, fully educated in the ways that for African Americans, Native Americans, for early Irish immigrants, for Chinese and Japanese, for so many of us, this version of America has simply not been true? America never was this America to many, many who arrived or who were already here.
Just after Obama was elected in 2008, Dr. Vincent Harding, speech writer and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., called together a diverse gathering of people in response to what he called “Brother Barack’s call for a conversation on race.”
I remember he looked around at us and said, We’re all wounded here, in his usual gentle, soft and yet singularly commanding voice. We all have our stories, and we’re all wounded here. White, or black, latino, native american, or asian, Christian, Jew, Muslim - we all have a story where we learned about race, learned to comply with the rules and expectations of our race. Learned to separate ourselves from our neighbors, our friends, from ourselves.
Person after person stood up and offered their testimony. The attempts by a white girl to be friends with her black neighbor, thwarted by her father’s beating. The repeated taunts one young Iraqi girl got at her middle school that brought her to tears in front of the large crowd. The sorting out of multi-racial identity - not black enough, not latino enough. Hours of testimony, from all ages, races, genders, religions. We are all wounded here.
As stories poured out, I heard in my mind the longing whispers of African American poet, Langston Hughes: Let America be America again. Let America be the dream they dreamed, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be!
We have this nostalgia - even those of us who have remained outside its promise - for this idealized version of the America we tell in the Thanksgiving story. We long for its truth, and its hope, its abundant vision. We want to be a place where the stranger is welcomed, where in our welcome, we are all enriched, and redeemed, and saved. We want to believe that such a place has existed, that it was real - even if we have lost it for a moment, because that means we can bring it back, like returning home.
This vision of America is the promise our spiritual ancestors the Puritans came here to create. They thought of themselves like the Isrealites in the story of Exodus. Severely persecuted in England, they identified with the enslaved Hebrew people seeking liberation. Like the Isrealites, they imagined themselves, God’s chosen people, promised a new land of freedom and abundance, a new land they felt they had found on the shores of what they called New England.
This identity as God’s chosen people promised this great land of abundance with all of its many resources passed generation to generation, until it became synomonous with America itself, fueling the manifest destiny of the great western expansion, fueling our sense of American Exceptionalism, justifying American imperialism, propping up our climate change denial, even seeping its way into an African American president’s narrative of America as a country where - as he said on Thursday - those who break the law must “get right” with the law....despite the deep and rich history of those who broke the law in order to bring escaped slaves to freedom. I mean, wow.
After the triumph, and the liberation, after the “mission accomplished” banner was hung with pride, the scriptural story of Exodus continues. In the full telling of Hebrew history, it turns out, the promised land - was already occupied! Rather than being “delivered” into a land that was all their own, the Israelites discover that things were slightly more complicated. Dedicated as they were to their narrative, however, they decide to take matters into their own hands, and remove the people who live there, claiming the land as their own.
They destroy the native Canaanites, and occupy their lands. These formerly oppressed slaves arriving seeking freedom, become the oppressors and the persecutors, immediately repeating the very pattern of abuse that they came seeking to escape.
Which it turns out is pretty common. Because when you read the fuller history of the United states - the story beyond land owners, and men, beyond the anglo land owning dominant narrative, when you read a multi-cultural history, a people’s history, a fuller story than the usual Thanksgiving myth emerges - one that matches that biblical narrative almost exactly. It goes something like this - a group arrives, finds a way to claim a piece of the American dream, claim themselves as part of the “chosen people,” and then in turn, they find the next vulnerable group, the next outsiders seeking belonging, and they treat them the same way they had been treated. They push, and persecute, and exclude.
Or, in the case of Native Americans, some never become “chosen,” because they are Canaanites, surprised to learn that their land had been divinely promised to others. Surprised, and then slaughtered. Remember what I said last week about being careful about what story you are living out of.
Perhaps today, rather than imagining as liberated Israelites, still trying nostalgically to reclaim a country we never had, we might instead imagine we are still attempting to create that place where Israelites and Canaanites can sit down together, a place where there is enough, more than enough, for everyone. Rather than telling ourselves a story of America that came true in the past, but was lost; we might instead imagine a story that is yet to be fulfilled, a story we can make true by asking ourselves - which stranger remains yet unattended or unwelcomed? who is seeking a place now that we are turning away from? whose story remains untold? and then reaching out and gathering all of these up, bringing them all in, moving from a little, partial vision, to that still unfulfilled dream of a great big America, the beautiful.
The President’s action on Thursday increased our capacity to hold a greater number in our promise, but it is nothing without our engagement and response, nothing without our willingness to hold both the suffering it soothes and the pain it leaves unaddressed, the stories that still live in us like that woman in Cheyenne who chose death over returning to Mexico nearly 3 years ago, the women and men and children who still linger on the edge of despair, struggling still as strangers in a strange land, no matter where they go. We can do so much more.
As my children keep singing to me, love grows when you give it away - and it is only in our giving and receiving, in our abundant sharing - that we all may live.
Sermon and Story from Worship Service November 16, 2014
Story (from various sources)
Apparently the commander of a vessel that was engaged in maneuvers in heavy weather was on the bridge late one night when the watch noted that there was another vessel visible directly ahead of them some distance away.
The commander ordered the appropriate person to contact the vessel and order them to turn so that they would pass to starboard. There was an immediate response saying, "We suggest you turn immediately to port."
The commander knew the formation of the group of ships with him, even though he couldn't see them, and responded with a sharp command for the vessel ahead of him (now closer) to pass to starboard.
The vessel responded, "We suggest you turn immediately to port."
The commander knowing he couldn't turn to port because there was another ship out there, pulled rank and informed the rogue vessel that this was Commander Jones on the USS Tweedledum on maneuvers and he expected the ship to get out of his way NOW.
The reply came back, "This is the North Ipswich Lighthouse, Sir. I suggest you turn immediately to port."
Sermon: “The Danger of the Single Story”
As my family and I have settled into Fort Collins over these past few months, we have begun to develop a few reliable routines, none more critical than the daily ritual of my children pulling out all the stuff from their backpacks when they get home from school.
One day last week, my son Josef was in the midst of this daily routine, when he brought me a green piece of paper for a project his class would be doing for Thanksgiving.
"Our class is learning about the Pilgrims," it said, "and the story of America. To help us explore this story, please talk about these questions with your child." It went on, "At some point your family came to America. Please note below when they arrived and where they came from, and what their family name was."
And then it had two lines:
My mother's family name was __________. Her family came to America from __________ in the year ________.
My father's family name is ____________. His family came to America from ____________ in the year _________.
After reading, I paused, took a deep breath, and turned to my curious 6 year old.
Wow, Josef, I said, this assignment is kind of challenging.
Between my pause, and breath and my measured response, a flood of less measured thoughts raced through my mind.
Mother and father - like everyone has precisely one of each? And what’s up with this mixing up of parents generally with biological parents? Was this actually an exercise on ancestry, it doesn’t say that. And what does she mean - the "Story of America" and does she really think the US contains only those whose ancestors traveled here from somewhere else?
I thought about my friends - a two-mom family that includes a Native American adopted daughter. I wondered, how did Josef's teacher imagine they would fill out this form?
I’m guessing, she didn’t imagine it. In her story of America, or at least as that story is represented at an elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado, my friends aren’t there. And to some degree, neither were we.
Author Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of growing up in Nigeria as an avid and early reader, mostly of British and American children’s books. By the time she was seven, this early reading turned into early writing as she began to craft her first stories in pencil with crayon illustrations.
As she tells it in her TED Talk, all of her early “characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.”
This, she says, “despite the fact that she lived in Nigeria, where it never snowed, they ate mangoes, and never talked about the weather because there was no need to.”
Adichie says her limited reading exposure created in her this limited idea about what literature meant, making her believe that a “real story” had nothing to do with her every day experience. Only once she learned about and started reading African writers did she have that big “a-ha moment” that inspired her to weave together the fantasy fun of her early reading with her real-life experiences.
It reminds me of how I spent my whole life deeply connected to spirituality and faith - I even preached the homilies at both my confirmation mass and my high school baccalaureate - but I never even imagined myself in religious leadership until I experienced my own female minister. The priests of my childhood had created in me this limiting story of what ministers looked like, what they knew and talked about and cared about. Which is to say, they certainly didn’t wear skirts, they weren’t feminists, or moms, they didn’t study performance art or appreciate queer theory, or queer anything or anyone, and definitely didn’t love pop culture or fashion as much as I did, and do. But then suddenly, I discovered a new story in my female skirt wearing feminist minister, and it was like - why didn’t I think of this before?!
Adichie calls this the “Danger of the Single Story.” Growing up, her “single story” was the literal stories of British and American children’s literature. Later, when she came to the US for college, she experienced the “single story” that many Americans have about Africa.
For example, her roommate asked Adichie if she could to listen to some of her tribal music, and was “consequently very disappointed when she produced her tape of Mariah Carey.” She says, “my roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe [where] there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Whether or not they arise as or out of single stories, each of us walks around with a number of stories we use, consciously or subconsciously to help us understand and navigate the world and our place in it. These arrive out of our earliest years, and our family systems, our accumulated life experiences.
In our communities, we hold shared stories, narratives about how things work -origin stories recovery stories, stories of being broken apart, and lost, sometimes forever. Stories of love and commitment and discovery. Families have stories - stories we tell and retell about each other, and congregations have stories.
We have stories that help us know who we are, how we relate to each other, and what we mean to each other and why. Of all the ways we might think of as what binds people in relationship, we don’t name it too often, but shared stories may be one of the most important.
Stories can can keep us stuck in a perpetual cycle of struggle, or liberate us into a previously unimagined potential.
When we are open to the presence of more than one story, we can choose which of these stories we want to live our lives out of and in response to.
Adichie doesn’t say whether their encounter expanded her roommate’s understanding of Africa. If she was as deeply committed to her single story as the naval commander in the story we heard, for example, even if she was receiving alternative information, she may have been unwilling or unable to hear it.
Stories are one of the main factors in what psychologists call our "perceptual set." As Unitarian spiritual director Andrea Anastos describes it, "perceptual set" is the way "we 'select' what we see or hear based on our preconceptions or expectations, and we 'interpret' what we see or hear based on formative past experiences," those stories we've been told and that we tell about ourselves and the world around us.
Like the commander who was so sure of the story he was in, so sure of what was happening and what part he was playing, that he saw only evidence to support his theory. He interpreted everything around him based on the story he thought he was in. His "perceptual set" prevented him from seeing what was really happening.
Some forms of “perceptual set” Anastos says, are “totally benign (tailors who notice the cut of a suit before they notice the person wearing it; gardeners who notice the garden before they notice the house.) But we have also seen tragic examples of perceptual set.”
The conversation around the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, is filled with the impact of people’s perceptual set, the impact of the story any of us has internalized about white people, and about black people,
about race at all, about black teenagers, or any teenagers, about police officers, or guns, about Missouri, about America - any and all of these will change how we see and interpret the situation in Ferguson, how we understand it as relating to us and our lives, if and how we care or respond.
Any and all of these will impact how we understand the story that played out that night in early August, the story the police officer was playing out, the story Michael Brown thought he was in, the story we still see unfolding in response.
How committed we are to a single story as we encounter Ferguson and other complex situations like Ferguson, how willing we are to open ourselves up to multiple stories will determine just how possible reconciliation, liberation, and a deeper humanity will be - for all of us.
The consequences of a deeply held “perceptual set” play out all the time at a global, societal, and also completely personal level. My paternal grandmother walked through most of her later life believing the story that her children had left her behind and their spouses kept them from her and her friends neglected her - after all she felt she had done for them, it stung bitterly. My grandmother was very committed to this single story, one that narrative therapists would call a “problem-saturated story.”
In response to this commitment, my grandma’s adult children - who were living full lives raising their own children - were stung by her coldness towards them, and to their spouses; her friends were confused at her sharp criticisms
and eventually, whether or not my grandmother’s single story was originally true, its consequences were often fulfilled.
She was lonely and isolated and her children and their spouses and her friends, all pulled away in response to her withdrawn defensiveness.
Problem-saturated stories are often self-fulfilling: believing the problem story, you act out of its truth; others respond to you in kind, which in turn provides evidence that you were right all along. And so you double down, and repeat the cycle.
The more people who interact with a problem-saturated story, the harder it is to escape its grip, especially in times of change like our congregation is experiencing now. During this interim time, any tendencies any one of us might have towards seeing things through the lens of a single story will find new support across relationships due to an inevitably strengthened anxiety born of change and uncertainty. Fear is a powerful fuel for the single story, especially the problem-saturated one.
Church consultant and Unitarian Universalist minister Larry Peers notes that “You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is. We can almost hear ourselves saying, even if the words aren’t verbalized, ‘You think that’s bad, let me tell you how it is even worse than that!’”
When we hear ourselves stuck in such moments - whether in our church, or in our lives - we can help each other remember that although there are many things true about the story we’re sharing, the way we are telling it has been created as Peers says, “by a particular sifting of facts.”
There are other ways to tell the story, indeed entirely other stories available for us to live out of and create.
We can ask how others would tell the story, what outside observers might say, or even, what would someone who disagrees with our version of events say about this situation? All of these and similar questions, allow us to shake loose from the grip of the problem-saturated single story, and instead release ourselves into alternative, equally true stories that are present all the time, the stories that allow us to live into our potential and our goodness rather than our problems.
Unitarian Universalist congregations intentionally seek to cultivate multiple stories - as we embodied with our singing earlier. We welcome the Buddhist chant alongside the Shaker traditional song alongside the Christian hymn alongside the contemporary Unitarian Universalist song of gratitude. And we give thanks for each of these melodies and tones and the ways they enrich the others by their coming together.
Our faith values multiple ways of understanding and naming truth and meaning, and we value the struggle to name anything for sure, the posture of humility such questioning entails. We respect and rejoice in all the ways we each encounter and claim Life in its most ultimate sense.
We are also a place that holds many different stories about our congregation. Often we tend to believe that whatever experience or understanding we have of our church is the same for every other church member. But in truth, our various arrival times and friendship means there are many different threads, different stories present here, all the time.
It was especially fun to realize at our Path to Membership class a couple weekends ago, about half of the class had arrived over the summer. Which means, their story of Foothills is totally different than someone who arrived five, or ten or twenty years ago and who associate Foothills so deeply with the Rev. Marc Salkin, who retired in June. They’d never met him. But then again, it’s also totally different than folks like Bob who remember multiple ministers before Marc, as well as other buildings than this one, and a Fort Collins and a Unitarianism that was so totally different than it is today. And it will be totally different than the experience of those who arrive here in five or ten or fifty years from now. Which is very fun to imagine.
Sometimes we get confused, and assert that this intentionally multi-vocal storytelling translates to “anything goes.” But this is not the case. In order to do anything of meaning, we must ultimately bring together our many stories into a shared larger story, the story of the Foothills Unitarian Church.
Though we are invited to sing the song that speaks to our hearts, we still must choose from among the songs that fit together, for our community to work, our songs must find a similar key, a complimentary rhythm, they must work with each other to make something beautiful together. We bring our many stories, and we listen well and we open our hearts to multiple understandings, and yet ultimately we must cede some of our individual stories in service of a greater calling.
This greater story refuses to perpetuate the problem-saturated stories and instead feeds the larger story of hope, the story of people who are kind to one another, who assume the best in each other, who listen and love each other across our differences, who make room for the variety of stories that are present in the human family and welcome all who welcome all; people who are open and willing and curious, the story of refusing to imagine one another as an enemy,
people who listen, and learn together, who speak the truth in love, who mess up and forgive each other and it’s ok, people who laugh and risk showing up for each other even when its hard, and people who want to make a real difference in the world.
Our faith is the story of what Victoria Safford describes as “the beautiful and proud history of work for human rights and freedom, for social change and peace and protection of this earth….the story of those who lived their lives and gave their lives for love, for a difficult and truly patriotic ideal of liberty and justice for all.”
As our many stories come together, we give thanks- for this is our shared song. Let us lift our voices, and sing out, in love.
May it be so, and amen.
"None of us alone can save the world, but together, that is another possibility, waiting."
Rev. Gretchen Haley is a Unitarian Universalist minister, mom, partner and friend, trying her best to love this beautiful, broken world.