The Meaning of Membership

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Today is the first day of our new member orientation at Shelter Rock.  Starting today after services in the Art Gallery, the ministry team will meet with folks who are interested in joining the congregation for four sessions.  At the end of those sessions, they will have the opportunity to sign the membership book and formally become members of this congregation.

It’s worth exploring, then, on this occasion, what we mean when we talk about membership- and what possibilities it holds for each of us, whether we joined 40 years ago or are coming to the first session this afternoon.

In some ways this is an easy question:  what does membership mean:  It means you have signed the membership book, made a financial pledge to the congregation, and a payment on that pledge –we are starting the pledge campaign next month, so be ready!-  Yet there is a lot going on beyond those simple check boxes.  In the UUA publication this sermon takes its name from, membership in congregations is primarily a covenantal relationship, similar to other covenants that we enter into—like marriage. My marriage means, in one way, that Stacie and I signed a form from the City of Baltimore, that we were of legal age and sound mind.  Just as that is a painfully incomplete picture of marriage, signing the book, making a pledge and a payment on a pledge can oversimplify this complicated thing that is membership in religious community.

The meaning of membership is also caught up, in this moment, in cultural changes much larger than our congregation or Unitarian Universalism.  While there was a time when membership in a religious community was an expected part of being an adult, religious affiliation (at least in New York) is no longer the default.  Of my peers, the vast majority do not belong to churches, synagogues, or other religious institutions.  A recent survey found that Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile, and 59% of millennials (30 and under) raised in a church or religious tradition are no longer members of a religious institution.

So even more than we have in the past, it’s important to think of membership as a covenant that we enter into voluntarily, and not because society expects us to.  That, to me, makes the choice all the more interesting.  Why is it that we join?  There are a few ways of thinking about membership that may answer part of that question:

The first is Membership as Transaction.  This is in some ways the most visible part of membership.  Members don’t have to pay to have a wedding ceremony.  When Stacie and I got married at the UU congregation I was a member of, the organist only accepted a check from us after we made it out to the Baltimore Organ restoration fund.  We can think about this in terms of expectations:  We support the congregations that we are a members of, and expect support in return.

I don’t mean to reduce this to an economic exchange of services.  Congregations have a major role in caring for members in times of need, and in holding lives and stories through generations.  “Who will tell my story” is one of the central existential questions of life, and congregations are a place those stories are told.  I walk past UUCSR’s archives on the way to my office each day, and in there are stacks of minutes, letters, oral histories:  the accumulated stories of 75 years of living together in community.  The memorial garden marks the names of members that have died, and I promise, each minister that has served here holds memories and stories of the people they have met and cared for.  We hold a lot of stories in this place.

There is a danger, though, in this transactional model of membership. It is incomplete.  Rev. Conrad Wright wrote once that “Joining a congregation should be different than joining the National Geographic Society.”  If we limit our relationship with this place to a series of transactions, the exchange becomes the point of membership.  We never get deeper.  This can be a real challenge and fear in places where the transactions are valuable.  The elephant in the room (which to be fair, we talk about fairly often) is UUCSR’s great material wealth.  We should and do try to take care that it is not the dominant or only way of thinking about our relationship to this place.

Another model is Membership as a form of signaling.  By joining an organization, we are declaring something about who we are and what values we uphold.  This is much different than the transactional way of thinking about membership, in that it does not expect direct support from the organization.  Saying that you are a ‘card carrying member of the ACLU’ does not (generally) mean that you expect they will provide you a lawyer, but it does say something about what you value—and what you want other people to know about you.  WNYC is starting it’s spring membership campaign tomorrow –my commute will suffer.  Pledging to your local public radio station does not mean you get more or better public radio during long commutes, but you do get a tote bag to carry groceries in!

We all do this in different ways.  If you’ve come by the office during the week, or to a class I am teaching, you’ve probably seen me walking around with a Peace Corps coffee mug.  You may also have heard me subtly mention that I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  Once or twice.

On one had it’s my favorite coffee mug.  It’s not one of these giant mugs better used for soup that coffee, it’s simple, easy to clean.  My recruiter gave it to me when I was accepted into the program, so there’s some sentimental attachment.  And, if I’m really honest with myself, I have it on my desk because I want to signal my membership in that organization.  I like what it stands for in the world and I like what it says about me that I was a part of it.

Unitarian Universalism can be similar.  In membership, we are signaling our affiliation with this movement, a kind of shorthand in a way, for everything from the inherent worth and dignity of all to the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part.  Declaring “I am a Unitarian Universalist” signals to the world (or the part of the world that knows something about Unitarian Universalism) that we are people with particular values and that we take them seriously.

 And.  There’s a danger that this view of membership as signaling both asks too little of the relationship between member and organization, and can glass over shortcomings-  both our own and those of the organization.  This kind of membership doesn’t ask much beyond the fact of public membership, a good starting point but not the whole picture.  Also, if we are using membership to signal good things that we value, we tend to have a rosy picture of the organization we are members of—and of ourselves.  After all, we are members! 

There is also a particular challenge of my generation.  It’s relatively hard to get an ACLU card-  (okay, hard for millenials, you have to send in a check and wait for a few weeks).  It’s hard to join a congregation- it’s a commitment of time, talent, and treasure.  It’s definitely hard to get a Peace Corps mug.  It’s really easy to like UNICEF on Facebook.  One click and your sympathies are displayed for all your fiends to see.  The commitment to membership, I hope, goes deeper than that.

One last model is that of Membership as Sanctuary.  I don’t think this can be overstated in importance.  We we sing ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” we are proclaiming that whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever your age, whatever your skin color, whomever you love there is a place at this table. 

While we still are trying to understand the full implications of this- and we often fall short- it is not a stretch to say that Unitarian Universalist communities and members providing welcome and love has saved lives.

According to a 17-year longitudinal study published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 28.5% of high school students who are sexual minorities attempt suicide.  Each.  Year.  28.5% of high school students who are sexual minorities attempt suicide each year.  So when in the face of national news to the contrary UUA President Peter Morales declares: “To our Transgender youth:  You are loved and welcome here,” it matters. 

This is fundamental to what it means to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 2017.  We try to practice radical hospitality in our congregations, and we have been a refuge for many groups in many ways..  Most of us have benefited from that hospitality in some way.  I have.  How many traditions accept agnostic ministers?

If there is a danger here, it is that radical hospitality without attention can lead to complacency.  If we are accepted, welcomed, and loved for who we are, why should we change?

For a generation or two after World War II, the expectation (at least in suburban white society) was that you belong to a church.  If you were an agnostic or atheist one of the only places you would have been fully welcome was in Unitarianism.  All to the good!  Unitarianism became deeply humanist- after the merger the UUA carried on in the same way.  In the last generation or so, there’s been a move to reincorporate the language of reverence into worship.  This has led to some chilly renditions of hymns, where a third of the congregation sings ‘Anointed by God,’  another third use ‘Walking together,’ and a third look around in deep confusion or dismay at a metaphor of walking that excludes folks who do not walk.  It’s not a pretty picture, and unless we are willing to give up some of our comfort to grow into something new together, one that will be difficult to solve.

So:  transaction, signal, sanctuary.  Three possibilities for the meaning of membership.  But we started with membership as a covenant. And to me there are rich possibilities in covenant.   Like any covenantal relationship, membership requires that we change when we join, and that we are renewed by our participation in covenanted community. 

Membership is, at its best, transformational.  The people we are together, after we have joined, is different than the individuals we were before.  The transformation is not limited to the moment we join in covenant, but grows over the time we spend together.  This is what Rev. Walker calls ‘True Community,’ not individuals sharing space but a community were everyone gives and changes a little that we may gain a lot.

Exactly what this looks like is hard to put in words.  So I’ll borrow someone else’s.   Stacie and I have been watching The Crown on Netflix, and there is a remarkable scene between the Duke of Windsor- the abdicated King Edward VIII- and a friend, as they watch the Duke’s niece Elizabeth crowned Queen of England.

D:  And now we come to the anointing, the single most holy, most solemn, most sacred moment of the entire service.

F:  So how come we don’t get to see it?

D:  Because we are mortals.   …  The oils and oaths, orbs and scepters, symbol upon symbol, an unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines that no clergyman nor historian nor lawyer could ever untangle any of it.

F:  Sounds crazy.

D:  On the contrary it’s perfectly sane.  Who wants transparency when you can have magic?  Who wants prose when you can have poetry?  Pull away the veil and what are you left with?  An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination… but wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey presto!  Whadaya have?  A goddess.

What the Duke is describing is something not unlike a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace—a spiritual transformation hinted at through metaphor and symbol.

We are not the Church of England.  We do not practice coronation, nor are we sacramental in theology.  There is something like a sacramental element in membership though.  When we sign a membership book, when we make a commitment of time, talent, and treasure to a community we are showing outward and visible signs of- I hope- an internal transformation.

Of course this is not how membership is every week, every Tuesday afternoon at work.  Some seasons our relationship to the congregation is transaction, some afternoons it’s a symbol of what we value, some days we just really need a place where we know we will be welcome.

And some days, despite and because of all of that, we are transformed.

Amen.

Made For These Times

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Reflecting in his memoir on his early years in ministry, Rev. John Haynes Holmes wrote ‘It would be folly, even actual falsehood, for me to declare that I was not afraid that Sunday morning (April 1, 1917).  The truth is I was scared when I opened the door leading into my pulpit, and still more scared when I saw the throng which had gathered to hear me.  A goodly proportion of this crowd were my own people- I could see their kindly faces looking up anxiously into mine.  Others were curiosity seekers, still others seekers after the latest sensation of the hour.’

And make no mistake, Rev. Holmes was the sensation of the hour that spring morning in Manhattan.  The first page headline of the New York Times on Monday, April 2, 1917 reads:

·Holmes Won’t Fight So Offers to Resign; Assails nation in sermon;

·no order of a president can force me to the business of killing;

·Trustees call pacifist pastor an Impractical Idealist, but won’t drop him.

Five days later on April 6, congress voted to declare war on Germany, and the United States entered World War I.

Holmes, as one of the most prominent pacifist voices on the East Coast, was suddenly in a very lonely position in a very uncertain time.  Almost immediately there were calls to ban his writing, and while the trustees at New York’s Church of the Messiah did vote to support his ministry, if not his personal beliefs, many pacifists lost their jobs and livelihoods during the war.  They were uncertain times for Unitarians, and for our country.

We live in uncertain times.  While I do not think it appropriate or helpful to reargue the recent elections from the pulpit, what does seem clear is that we as a country and as a faith are sailing into uncharted waters.  Regardless of our party affiliation or who we voted for, there is a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, fear and anger. 

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the GM plant closed in ’99.  Sure, there’s a new consortium that owns the old factory, but Midlink Business Park’s distribution center employs a quarter of what GM’s aluminum stamping line used to- and without a pension. 

In a generation the town has gone from a place you could get a solid middle class job and support a family with a high school diploma to a town where you can’t afford the taxes on the houses you inherited from your parents.  In 1999 there were 5000 people unemployed in the county- ten years later that number was 20,000.  And while that number has fallen in the last few years, recovery wasn’t restoration, the rage and worry that grew with it are still there.

Across the state in Dearbourn, 40% of residents are Muslim American.  In the ten days between November 8 and 18, there were 30 hate crimes reported in the state- in an average year there are between six and eight.  Folks in Dearbourn watched as national news broadcast video of an ‘alt-right’ conference held blocks from the White House, where the keynote session ended with calls of ‘hail victory,’ and a salute not seen often in public since 1945.

It is a time, as Matthew writes, ‘of wars and rumors of war.’  Between the election, the economy, worries about our families, our loved ones, rumors and threats of terrorism,  a changing climate, fiscal insecurity, Brexit, health scares, racial tension, schools … it can all feel a little apocalyptic.

With me still?  Deep breath.

Here’s what I’m thankful for this year:  that I am part of the tradition of Unitarian Universalism.  We have been here before, in the uncertainty and anxiety, the fear and rage.  And I believe that we, as a faith community, are made for these times.  We are at our best when we stand for the values we proclaim.  In the midst of job losses and hate crimes we proclaim that all have inherent dignity.  In days of intolerance and distrust we proclaim that all are free, and responsible for the meaning they find in life.  In times of disconnection and mistrust we proclaim that we are all part of a single interconnected whole.

The more anxious the time, the more these values of dignity, radical hospitality, and deep sense of pluralism need to be proclaimed.

We’ve been at this a long time.  This year we at Shelter Rock are celebrating our 75th anniversary, and so there will probably be more historically focused sermons than usual this year.  I want to start a bit earlier though- 450 years rather than 75.

In 1568 Unitarianism was a new movement in Eastern Europe.  Religious wars through the continent had killed thousands, perhaps millions.  By 1568 the counter-reformation was well underway, and one of the few things that Catholic and Protestant leaders were united by was a shared belief that the Unitarians were heretics. 

In the midst of all this, the early Unitarian church had the ear of John Sigismund, King of Hungary.  Hungary at the time was divided between Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians.  Like much of Europe in the 16th century, Hungary was an anxious, uncertain place.  With no small prompting by Hungarian Unitarians, the King released an Edict of Toleration in 1568, declaring that

…in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel; each according to his understanding of it [preachers were uniformly men].  And if the congregation like it, [it is] well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.

In the midst of a century of religious wars, Unitarians developed a remarkable document, protecting not just their rights as a religious minority, but those of the other Christian denominations.  While the Edict of Toleration was a product of its time—non Christian faiths were not protected—it enshrined religious toleration and pluralism in the story we tell ourselves as Unitarians.   In the midst of anxious and violent times, Unitarians proclaimed a different way to be.

We’ve grown in the last 450 years.  This morning Ned announced that religious communities across Long Island are joining together to speak with each other and with the authorities to find way of being together, of fighting back against the hatred and divisiveness we’ve seen in the last month.  

Like Hungary 450 years ago we are trying to live together as people of faith and the governments of this world.  Unlike 450 years ago it’s more than the the King of Hungary, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians.  Today the religious communities and government agencies of Nassau County are being asked to convene by the Islamic Center of Long Island and Temple Sinai in Rosyln.  I will be there Thursday night, and I hope you will join us.

I began this sermon with pacifism, and I want to go back to that.  And I’m doing so knowing that arguments around pacifism and war have been going on in Unitarian and Universalist congregations for at least the last century.  We are not a Peace Church- it is very possible to be a faithful Unitarian Universalist and not be a pacifist.  Several UU ministers serve as chaplains in the armed forces.

Still, I think the question of pacifism is a good example of Unitarians and Universalists taking a moral stand at counterpoint to the culture around them, and there are at least two direct lines from pacifism to this pulpit: 

The first is that before “Shelter Rock” it was the Unitarian Society of the North Shore, and 75 years ago what is now UUCSR was the Unitarian Church School for Northern Nassau County.  In the fall of 1941, 75 years ago this autumn, the church school hired Norman Blair as its first director.  By the summer of 1942, Norman Blair had resigned.  He had been drafted, but spent World War II in an alternative service camp for conscientious objectors.

The other connection between pacifism and this pulpit is me.  My parents joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation with my sister and me in 2000.  The congregation we joined has a long tradition of witnessing for peace.  The most formative years of my Unitarian Universalism were spent in the shadow of September 11, and in hearing the stories of peace activists from that congregation.

I got my draft card the year the United States invaded Iraq.  Saying that you were against the war in 2003 was… not a popular position.  I preached my first sermon that fall on registering as a Conscientious objector, and while I was learning a lot about my faith, I was also learning what if feels like to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable positions in public- and why it is vitally important.

One of the sharpest memories I have of high school is of organizing an antiwar protest in front of my school.  As half a dozen of us walked back back forth with signs- ‘no blood for oil’ and ‘not in my name’ –remember those? - the high school baseball team came out in force, stood directly in front of us, and chanted USA! USA! For an hour.  This moment we are in now feels a little like that.  Voices are raised, people are scared, and we don’t really know what comes next.  But we’ve been here before.

Those protests 15 years ago were the first time I heard stories about Unitarians and Universalists standing up for peace as the country went to war.  In the year after John Haynes Holmes made front page news, many pacifist ministers lost their jobs, draft protesters went to jail under the espionage and sedition acts, newspapers were temporarily shut down, and the American Unitarian Association formally condemned pacifism.  What must it have been like to stand by deeply held beliefs despite a culture that seems to not even hear us?  Pacifism was Holmes’ stand:  What is it that you will stand up for, regardless of what the culture tells you is right?

Unitarian Universalists have a lot of experience taking unpopular stands.  It’s not just peace and war—two members of our congregation in Baltimore sued the state of Maryland for the right to be married (over a decade ago).  They knew when they filed the lawsuit that they would not win, but made it all the way to the court of appeals.  Some time later, in a much different state of Maryland, they were the first same sex wedding in downtown Baltimore.

In the last few years Unitarian Universalist congregations have begun to hang banners or signs on their property declaring that despite all the ways society disagrees, Black Lives Matter.  The only story as ubiquitous as those banners being torn down or vandalized are stories of congregations replacing them, more committed than ever.  A suburban congregation I’ve spent some time with is now on their fourth banner since September.  The last one was vandalized the morning after the election –someone used white paint to cover up the ‘Black’ of ‘Black Lives Matter.  Within a week it was replaced- by a banner signed by every member of the congregation.  In the time since I wrote the first draft of this sermon on Monday the sign was torn down again, and the congregation is deciding how- not if- they should replace it.

 

We live in uncertain, anxious times.  But I believe that the lesson of our history as a faith is that it is in moments of uncertainty and anxiety that we can rise to be our best selves.  Our faith proclaims human dignity, both individually and collectively.  We encourage each to a search for meaning and truth in their lives.  We practice the democratic process; we know that our destinies are caught up with those of the whole world in a single interconnected whole.  And we have time and again proclaimed those values.  We were made for these times.  We have the tools, we have the stories, and we have the will to be a force for good in the world.

Setbacks and victories come together.  In 1917 John Haynes Holmes became a founding member of what became the ACLU.  Church of the Messiah, where he had been afraid of his welcome, eventually moved away from the American Unitarian Association and renamed itself the Community Church of New York.  Rev. Holmes served Community Church for over 40 years, helping to found the NAACP and overseeing the construction of a new building for the congregation on east 35th street.  And when war came again in 1941, Holmes continued to stand by his convictions, writing:

And now, what shall the pacifists do?  The answer is easy.  Stand fast by principle and “carry on!”  This does not mean opposition to or interference with war activities… But it does mean the exercise of the full freedom established in a democracy to voice honest opinion, to be loyal to fixed conviction, and to advance the eternal cause of peace.

So let us not fear the uncertainties of these times.  Let us use them to voice honest opinion, loyal to our convictions to recommit to the essential values of our faith.  We will proclaim these values wherever the path leads us.  We are made for these times.

Standing in Awe

“May all the people of Israel be forgiven, and all the strangers in their midst, for all the people are at fault.”

This reading from the Book of Numbers traditionally follows the singing of the Kol Nidre, in the heart of the festival of Yom Kippur.

We are in the midst of the Days of Awe, the week falling between Rosh Hashana, the New Year of the Jewish Calendar, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It is a time, the Rabbis say, when the book of life is open, before being sealed for another year.  It is a time to consider the choices we’ve made, to reconsider how and who we will be in the coming year, and yes, to reflect on where we have fallen short.

Tradition holds that before asking forgiveness of G-d on Yom Kippur, we must first ask forgiveness of those we have hurt in this world.  Before being in covenant with the divine, we must be in covenant with the human.  And so on Yom Kippur Isaiah 58 is read: the fast the LORD asks is not one of sackcloth and ashes, but to unlock fetters of wickedness, to untie cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.  And so we can speak of prophets calling us to greater commitment to justice in this world, just as Isaiah called for justice almost three millennia ago.

But Numbers says that all must be forgiven, because all are at fault.  Really though?  Are we all at fault?  Must we all be forgiven?  I think this can often be a barrier for Unitarian Universalists.  People have inherent worth and dignity, we proclaim, and we rightly uphold those of us like Martha and Waitstill Sharpe, who have and continue to dedicate their lives to the betterment of the whole people of Earth.  But inherent worth and dignity is not the same as doing no wrong, and even the Sharpes had their own blind spots.

I’ve been thinking of Prophets lately, of hard truths, spoken in love.  This past Jun I was in Columbus Ohio for our yearly General Assembly.  Toward the end of the last day there was a moment I will not soon forget.  Unitarian Universalists of Color took to the stage, along with our Youth Caucus, and presented a resolution recommitting the Unitarian Universalist Association to the cause of racial justice generally, and the work of Black Lives Matter in particular.  When the moderator of the session observed that the resolution would pass by acclimation, the Unitarian Universalists on stage responded that it wasn’t enough, that their voices had to be heard.  Hard truths, spoken in love.  I do not have their statements, but in their place hear these words for Alicia Garza, one of the founding members of what has become the Movement for Black Lives:

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that  500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence.  And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.[1]

Hard truths, spoken in love.

It is hard to hear that we’ve fallen short, especially when or if we’ve done so with good intentions.  To my ear there are echoes of Isaiah in the words of Alicia Garza, in the frustration and hope of the young people on stage in Columbus.  What must Isaiah’s people have thought, 2700 years ago, hearing that despite their fasting, despite their good intentions, the world was not just, and they were in part at fault?

In August 2014, I stood up to preach at my home congregation.  That week Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and as sat on my couch watching the unbelievable images on the news each night, I struggled to put into the sermon I was writing some of what I thought my congregation needed to hear.  Hear is, in part, what I said that morning:

The images and stories coming out of Ferguson this week have shocked us all.  Another young black man is shot and killed, and the ensuing police crackdown looks more like Mosul that Missouri.  I am heartbroken this week.  I am enraged.  I want to pull aside every police officer I see on the street and scream that they are here to protect our communities, to keep us safe, not to hurt, silence, and kill.  It. Is. Wrong.

But I know [I continued that morning], that the police office I would scream at here isn’t the officer who shot Michael Brown, or one of the officers who mount mine-resistant vehicles to patrol a Midwestern suburb.  [We are] a long way from Missouri, and for all I know the officer I see on the street here might agree with me.[2]

I went on to emphasize that, though perhaps not the most appropriate response in that immediate moment in time, our best hope in the long run was empathy and common cause between the community of my city and the Police, who were dedicated public servants.

I was proud of that sermon.  I felt I had threaded the needle between axknowleging what was going on in Ferguson and recognizing that the situation where I was preaching was different.  I was so pleased with that sermon that I included it as part of my application materials to the internship program at Shelter Rock.

…But my home congregation, where I preached that sermon, is the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.  And less than a year later I was sitting on my couch in my new apartment in the Bronx, watching smoke rising over West Baltimore as police and protestors clashed after the death in police custody of a young man named Freddie Grey.  Two years later, after a DOJ investigation that found officers who blew the whistle on police misconduct had dead rats left on their windshield, after multiple trials with no convictions of the officers who killed Freddie Grey, I read the sermon I wrote that week and taste ash in my mouth.  Just business as usual in the Baltimore City Police Department I had been so careful not to condemn.

I tell this story not for purposes of self-flagellation, but as an illustration that good intentions can often fall short, that talking about race in America is really, really hard, but absolutely necessary.  I lived in inner-city Baltimore for four years.  I worked with and at a West Baltimore elementary school.  I shared an office with a criminal justice diversion program.  I lived and breathed Baltimore City, and thought I could speak about the complex intersection of race, poverty and law that shapes so much of that city.  My intentions were good, I had some experience, and I was still deeply wrong that morning in August.

This is work we are called to do.  The last several years have shown, unambiguously, that systemic racism is real and a force in American society.  At General Assembly, Unitarian Universalist delegates reaffirmed the Association’s commitment to action, to work towards police reform, and to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice.

This is work we are called to do despite having fallen short so many times before.  We have done good in the world, as Unitarian Universalists, and we rightly share those stories.  But for the stories of Unitarian Abolitionists, there’s the organ loft of our Baltimore Church, built as a separate gallery for the slaves of the congregation’s founders.

For stories of white ministers heeding the call to march in Selma (my Methodist uncle among them), the is the controversy over funding the Black Affairs Council, only 5 years later at the 1968 General Assembly.  While I cannot do justice to the full history or story of that time this morning, the Empowerment Controversy, as it became known, resulted in many Unitarian Universalists of Color walking out of the General Assemble, and many kept walking out of the Unitarian Universalist faith.  Mark Morrison Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister and professor of history, whose mother was a member of the Black Affairs Council, wrote reflecting on the period’s impact on us as a faith:

I speak only for myself and about what I have come to understand. I speak also out of disappointment and weariness, anger and amazement that we have allowed this to drag on for forty years. I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to look upon what transpired as a tragedy. … These were all honorable people responding to cultural circumstances not of their making while in the grip of emotional forces beyond their control. These circumstances compelled them to choose between dearly held values, and they brought to their decision making their humanness: lofty hopes and moral certitude, grim earnestness and inflamed passions, some self-delusion, lots of defensiveness, and as tragedy requires, hubris.[3]

I don’t want us as a community of faith to continue in tragedy.  We are all implicated in the breadth of systemic racism in America, and we are all harmed by it.  But this is work we are called to do.  Despite our failures in the past, despite the certainty of misunderstandings and of falling short, it is work I believe we all can play a role in.  Congregations were asked at the last General Assembly to engage in intentional learning spaces, and that it what I hope to do here at Shelter Rock in the coming months. 

You may have heard about the course I am teaching, starting at the end of the month, on Being White in the Black Lives Matter Movement.  It is a course that was developed by Kate Lore, at the Portland Oregon congregation, to help white congregants understand the challenge of systematic racism and how they can best be a part of the work of dismantling it.  The course will run for four consecutive Mondays, beginning on October 31.

In addition, we will be relaunching the Black Lives Matter column in the Quest.  We’ll fill it with information, but also opportunities to learn and get involved in this work.

Lastly, I hope to hold open conversations within this community over the next several months, to discuss questions raised this sermon, the course, and any other pieces that come up.  Note: Is this practical?  Is it something other ministers and staff could participate in?

There’s a phrase in Hebrew that is often invoked in Unitarian Universalist sermons: Tikkun Olam, the work of repairing the world.  But in order to be in need or repair, the world must be broken in some way, and indeed it is.  There is hurt in the world, whether from systemic racism or the death of a loved one.  And I believe that we are each called to the work of healing a broken world, whether through lay chaplaincy, work to dismantle systems of oppression, or any of the thousands of other ways to build a world that is more just, compassionate, and loving.

The Day of Atonement can be a harsh festival, a day of hard truths, spoken in love.  We are asked in this season to grapple with where we have fallen short in this year and as a people.  But it also holds out hop.  Hope that we can be reconciled, that we can be better this year than the last.  We are left with the hope of Isaiah, that when we have built a just and equitable society, ‘then shall your healing spring up quickly, and your light burst through like the dawn.’

 

[1] From A HerStory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Alicia Garza

[2] From “When the Shield Becomes the Sword,” Oscar Sinclair, FUCB August 2016

[3] Mark Morrison Reed, “The Empowerment Controversy,” UU World January 201

Courage

Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, 11/29/15

Two hours into my first overnight shift as a hospital chaplain, a little old lady called me a coward.

I did my chaplaincy training at Carolina’s Medical Center, in downtown Charlotte, and if Charlotte isn’t the buckle of the Bible belt, it’s the next loop over.  One of our responsibilities as chaplains was covering major trauma calls in the Emergency Department, the ED.  The first time I shadowed one of my more experienced colleagues, she stood me in a corner while the doctors worked on the patient.  After 30 minutes we left, and I asked what we had been doing – it didn’t seem like we were much help, and I had accidentally gotten in the way of a fast moving nurse or doctor a few times.  We were there to pray, she told me, for the patient, the doctors, the family on their way in – those same family would want to know there was someone in the room praying while their loved one came in.  This was not the northeast.

So it was with a little trepidation that I stood looking at the “ATC-1, 5 min ground” on my pager that first night.  ATC-1, Adult Trauma Code 1, a life-threatening accident or injury, 5 minutes away by ambulance.  I jogged down to the ED, met with the paramedics, and prayed in the corner as the doctors worked on an unconscious elderly gentleman, who had apparently fallen in his driveway.  After half an hour I heard his family had arrived, and I went out to the waiting room to meet Mrs. Jessup.

Mrs. Jessup was 87, about five feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet, and had that particularly Southern way of maintaining her composure and charm even in what must have been a difficult moment.  I sat with her in the waiting room, making small talk and hearing about her grandkids, until she turned to me and asked: “You seem like a nice young man.  What denomination are you?”

“Well ma’am, I’m Unitarian Universalist.”

“Oh.  Well.  I hope I don’t offend, but I just can’t respect that Unitarianism at all.  I think it’s the coward’s way out.”

The first thing to go through my head was that I was, in fact, offended.  But I couldn’t say that, not with her husband next door in the Emergency Department.

She went on to tell me how she felt Unitarian Universalists dabble in many beliefs, but that without some specific grounding, something that they couldn’t prove but where nonetheless committed to, they would always be cowards in her mind.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I got out.  “What church do you and your husband go to?”

“Mr. Jessup and I are God-fearing Presbyterians.  We don’t want any of your Unitarian Prayers.”

The second thing to go through my head was “Huh.  This is going to be a sermon some day.”

Because we’ve all heard something like this before, right?  Unitarian Universalism, the faith where you can believe in whatever you want, and so don’t have the same spiritual grounding as the God-fearing Presbyterians.  UUs are spiritual dillitants, who spend time in committees talking about the finer points of parliamentary procedure rather than doing something about the problems in ourselves and in the world.  We even tell jokes about it:  “What do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness and a UU?  Someone who knows on your door and doesn’t know why.”

Maybe I’ve spent too long outside UU congregations, but Mrs. Jessup was certainly not the first time I had heard that critique, though perhaps the first time I had heard it that personally and specifically.  Which is strange to me, because it is so far from the faith that I love, the faith that prompted Adrienne Rich’s description in our hymnal:

         My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

         So much has been destroyed

         I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,

         perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

This is the Unitarian Universalism that I know- the desperate, perverse hope that in the midst of a world that is so broken, so heart-rending, that not only is a better world possible, but it is possible because people of good will will make it so.  And it is an absurd hope.  The news in the last few weeks has been almost unbearable, dis-couraging, and it is almost impossible to see much hope.  But the courage, the faith to hope in the face of hopelessness, seems to me a hallmark of Unitarianism and Universalism throughout their history.  As we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday of appreciation of all that we have, I want to take a few minutes to tell a few stories of our Unitarian and Universalist predecessors, whose courage in the face of the world continues to inspire.

Stacie and I moved to New York from Baltimore, and I still maintain my membership at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.  First Unitarian is an old church, proud (maybe overly proud) of our history.  American Unitarianism, in a real way, began in the pulpit of First Unitarian in 1819.  William Elery Channing, the well known, well respected Congregationalist minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston was invited to preach the ordination sermon for Baltimore’s first minister. 

At the time a division had opened up in the Congregationalist church in New England- the descendants of the first pilgrim churches.  On one hand a liberal wing preached about a benevolent and loving God and a view of human nature that was far too optimistic for the more traditional, Calvinist wing.  Orthodox ministers wrote tracts and pamphlets condemning their liberal colleagues with the name of an old Christian heresy they felt the liberals were getting too close to embracing:  Unitarian.

Channing’s ordination sermon in Baltimore, entitled “Unitarian Christianity” did not defend against the charge but rather embraced it, giving the liberal movement a name and a concrete theology to develop.  Within years the American Unitarian Association had been formed, and Channing had become a household name in the Northeast.

This is where the story often ends, with Channing returning to the Federal Street Church as the philosophical and practical leader of the emerging movement, deeply respected if not revered by his peers.  But that’s not where Channing’s career ended.  He was indeed a respected leader in the early Unitarian Church, but by the 1830s was increasingly at odds with his congregation over the issue of Abolition.

Channing, while never as strong an advocate of abolition by any means as some would have preferred, was appalled by the institution of slavery.  In an 1835 pamphlet he wrote that slavery violated the basic rights shared by all children of God “no incidentally, but necessarily, systematically, from its very nature.” “God has breathed an immortal spirit more precious than the whole outward creation.  No earthly or celestial language can exaggerate the worth of a human being.”

Channing’s congregation preferred a less obviously political ministry, as did many prominent Unitarians.  At the time, many Unitarians were well-off merchants in New England, who were concerned about the economic impact of abolition, or at least on abolition done too quickly and without thought to the consequences.  John Quincy Adams himself, recently returned from his presidency, wrote of that same pamphlet that it was an ‘inflammatory, if not incendiary publication.’  Members of the Federal Street congregation took to stopping Channing on the street to insult and berate him for his views.  By 1840 Channing had resigned his position in the pulpit on Federal Street, but did not cease writing and arguing for abolition.

Our next example moves from Boston to upstate New York, ten years later and with the Universalists, rather than the Unitarians, and from a figure that’s well known to one that has all too often been overlooked.  1850 was a major year for the Women’s Rights movement.  Building on the success of the Seneca Falls Convention, a Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester Massachusetts.  The rhetoric against it, even in prominent Universalist circles, was appalling.  Thomas Whitmore, a prominent Universalist writer and editor, wrote that “some distinguished female talkers were there, whose husbands, at home, must have had a time of heavenly stillness during their absence.  This is the only good, as far as we can see, that will grow out of the convention.”

Four month later, Whitmore commented on reports that a Lydia Jenkins had begun to preach in upstate New York.  “We have no occasion to have any disrespect personally to this woman preacher, but we regard her resolution to preach as unwise.  It were better for her to remain at home and attend her domestic duties.”

It is unfortunate than none of Lydia Jenkins’ sermons seem to have survived, and in fact she was mostly forgotten until the 1980s.  Putting together the information that has survived, we can put together something of a picture:

Lydia Jenkins was born in 1825 or 26 in upstate New York.  By the time she was 20 she was involved with and making speeches at Women’s Rights conventions and events.  By the time she was 25 she was preaching and providing pastoral care, while married to the Universalist minister of Clinton, New York.  Her sermons across the state drew large crowds, and she was fellowship- and possibly ordained, by the Universalist governing body of Ontario.  If she was ordained, she would have predated Olympia Brown by almost a decade, making her the first woman to be so by an American Denomination.

She was a commanding preacher.  Thomas Whitmore, who had so condescendingly referred her to her ‘domestic duties,’ eventually had occasion to hear her preach, and wrote afterward that her sermon was ‘one of the most effective, tender, instructive, truthful discourses…that we have ever heard.’  She and her husband did not stay in ministry long, instead going to medical school in New York City before opening a hospital in Binghamton.  She was, by all accounts, an extraordinary human being.

The last example I want to talk about is more recent, and probably well known to many in this congregation.  The work of Martha and Waitsill Sharp and the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee is a compelling story.  In the days leading up to and during World War 2, the American Unitarian Association sent the Sharps to Europe to assist refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.  The story is better told in other places, and I’m certain I’ll preach on it again, but I do just want to bring up this first hand account, by Lion Feuctwanger, of dressing up in a shawl and dark glasses and “secretive and conspiring, [driving] to a gloomy station.  There I addressed a total stranger, known to me by description only, introduced myself to him under an assumed name which, for the next new weeks, had to be my name, that that stranger- he was your Mr. Sharp- answered “Fine.  Splendid that you have come.  Now let’s go.”

Each of these people, Rev. Channing, Lydia Jenkins, the Sharps, did their work in the face of great opposition and at great cost.  Channing lost his pulpit.  Lydia Jenkins died after a fire at age 49, Martha and Waitsill Sharp separated in 1949, citing their wartime experiences.  These are not the coward’s way out.

But that’s not what I said to Mrs. Jessup in North Carolina.  I simply stayed with her, talking about her worries and where her husband would go next.  I was eventually paged away, and as I was leaving I asked if, for myself, she would mind if I prayed for her and her husband that night.  “Ah well,” she said, “I guess quantity over quality.”

That’s fine, and I wish her the best, but I do wish I could have told her what I’m telling you this morning:  Unitarian Universalist are heirs to a long and deep tradition of proclaiming the worth of human life, be that through abolition, women’s rights, refugee assistance, so many other moments in time.  It’s hard for me to imagine what some faced, from condemations from a former president, aspersions that housework was more ‘natural,’ or the full terror of the final solution.  The courage they and so many others –Servetus, Reeb, Skinner- exhibited is awe inducing.

And each were eventually shown to be in the right, the world came around.  Abolition is… well thought of now, the Sharps are heroes, and I, as a straight white dude, am in a minority of new UU ministers.  Channing, Jenkins, the Sharps- none could have hoped for the outcome they had, but all would be happy with where we are.

I believe that the roots of that courage lie in the faith itself: the faith that no earthly or celestial language can exaggerate the worth of a human life.  That simple belief calls us to act in the world, becomes the absurd, perverse hope of Adrienne Rich that in each age those of no extraordinary power reconstitute the world.

Two weeks ago Tom Schade preached here on the challenges facing the UU movement.  In his analysis we will live and die as an Association on the success or failure of movement beyond our walls.  He may very well be right about that! – I suspect he is – Still, rather than start with specific movements, I want to know how your faith is calling you to be in the world.  We’re blessed with a tradition that can inspire incredible courage in the face of a world of fear and uncertainty- where is that leading you today?

If you were at Soulful Sundown this month you heard me talk about our closing hymn this morning, “We’ll Build a Land.”  It’s a song of hope- hope that not only is a better world possible, but it will be built by human hands.  That courage and hope is fundamental to Unitarian Universalism.  Let’s sing it together this morning.

The Community of Faith?

First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, 11/30/14

Well here we are, in the Channing pulpit.  I hope you’ll allow me a brief moment before starting to experience this, and to remember.  The first time I preached to this congregation was two and a half years ago, on a July day in the Parish hall.  I was trying to put into words my (then recent) decision to start attending seminary.  It was hot that morning, and in my nervousness I had worn a heavy linen shirt.  By the time I finished preaching I was literally dripping.

I’m not quite that nervous this morning, (and it isn’t that hot!) but there are some nerves.  I’m a history nut, you see, so to stand in this pulpit is something special.  For our visitors this morning, this pulpit is named after William Ellery Channing, a minister who almost 200 years ago delivered a sermon from this pulpit, defining and naming the new ‘Unitarian Christianity’ then sweeping the country.  A month ago I got very excited about being in the same room as Thomas Jefferson’s pen, behind glass, so you’ll have to imagine what’s going through my head now, as I actually stand in this particular pulpit.

Channing was a fierce individualist.  ‘The great hope of society,’ he wrote, ‘is in individual character.’  We still see Channing’s influence in how we often speak of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  Here, what you believe is your own decision, dictated by individual conscience rather than Church doctrine.  This is a great strength of our tradition, placing faith and belief in the hands of the individual rather than some outside hierarchy.

Channing, though, doesn’t tell us the whole story.  We call ourselves a community of faith, and that first word is important as well.  If we all were content in our own answers, self-sufficient in our own walks of faith, then there would be no need for us to come together, no reason for us to be in this place together this morning.  We could be content with our own stories, our own answers, our own back scratchers.  “Poor beast,” God says in the reading earlier, “In Eden no one stands alone.”  I’d like to take a few minutes this morning to explore this tension in our tradition, between Channing’s individualism and the community we strive to build together.

“All virtue,” Channing spoke here, comes from a person’s forming his or her “temper and life according to conscience.”  Channing’s sermon, indeed much of the basis of our UU faith, comes out of Enlightenment principles that enshrine individual conscience and agency with an almost holy aura.  It is not a coincidence that the early Unitarian Church arose in Boston, less than a generation after the American Revolution.  That same principles that established a stable, mostly progressive country played a role in this generally stable, certainly progressive faith.  And to take the comparison one step further, just as our country has - all too slowly - moved toward the promise of its founding, so have we taken Channing’s conception of conscience further than he could have imagined.

We are Channing’s legacy, here in this room, and while many of us no longer call ourselves ‘Unitarian Christians,’ that beautiful emphasis on individual responsibility and conscience is alive in our seven principles.  We each have our own conceptions of what is holy, what that candle we light and place with the others means.

Channing’s sermon was at an ordination, and he had some advice for Rev. Sparks, just entering ministry.  “Show in your preaching and your life, your beliefs and morals, with a high and delicate sense of duty, with candor towards your opposers, with inflexible integrity and with an habitual reverence for God.  If any light can pierce and scatter the clouds of prejudice, it is that of pure example.”  Wow.  This also can be traced through our tradition.  We raise up individual conscience, and often put our leaders right up there with it.  And most leaders want to be there!  Duty, candor, integrity, reverence, and example:  I want to be that!  All of us should aspire to those heights, to take our individual lights out into the world, being an example of a life well lived and a force for change in the world.

The thing is, much as we’d like to be that perfect example, almost none of us are.  Certainly I’m not always this being of grace and light Channing seems to describe.  If you have any doubt of that, talk to me after a committee meeting has run an hour late, or, better yet, find someone in the congregation today to let you know.  At coffee hour find one of my friends, my in laws, my wife, or - God help me - my parents.  They will gleefully confirm that my faults are manifold, just as all our’s are.  We all fall short of perfection, no matter how much we seek it.  We invent our own back-scratchers in our cleverness, but they never quite reach that perfect spot.

Self sufficiency isn’t enough.  I spent this past summer working as a chaplain at a hospital in North Carolina.  While the very existence of chaplains is, perhaps, an argument in itself against spiritual self-sufficiency, that’s a different sermon.  Instead, let me tell you about the interconnectedness of chaplains.  The five of us in the summer program met at least three times a week, encouraging, consoling, and celebrating with each other.  When one of us lost his wedding ring, we were all there.  When he found it again, we were there as well.  When another lost a patient he had been especially close to, we were all there.  When my time came, they were all there.  Each of us pulled the others along, and in turn were pulled by them to be just a little better each day.  Five chaplains, two Catholic, one Evangelical, on Searching, and one Unitarian Universalist.  By the end of the summer, I think it’s safe to say that each had deepened and grown the faith of each other.  Without that network of mutual support and trust, I doubt any of us would have been half as effective in our work.

Desmond Tutu calls this interconnectedness Ubuntu.  Ubuntu, to him, is our shared humanness, the sense that I am who I am because you are who you are, and vice versa.  What diminishes you then must also diminish me, and it’s only by you having full expression that I may express my own humanity fully.  As much as Channing’s individualism is part of our tradition, so is Ubuntu- though perhaps in different words:  the interconnected web of existence, Martin Luther Kings ‘single garment of destiny.’  Many of our most cherished traditions and actions stem from this sense of Ubuntu, from our Standing on the Side of Love to most recently saying that what happens in Ferguson Missouri is not separate from what happens here in Baltimore, and is no less wrong for happening a thousand miles away.

How do we reconcile these two, Channing and Tutu, individualism and Ubuntu?  I’m not sure there’s a neat, seminary ready answer to that question, other than to say that’s what we do as a community of faith.  This morning we all gathered together and each family lit a candle symbolizing…whatever was appropriate to their own conscience, before leaving it with all the others in a single display that could together light up this sanctuary.

We’re warned at seminary against getting too personal in our sermons.  But this time I think my own experience right now may be useful.  One of the most bittersweet parts of this process is knowing that, as soon as you start down the path to ordination, you are saying goodbye to the church that put you on the path.  As a member of First Unitarian, I cannot be the minister here, so if I pursue this career it means going elsewhere all too soon.

A calling to ministry, as I described in that first muggy July sermon, is a deeply personal thing- in some ways individual conscience taken to the extreme.  This is my choice and my path, and I cannot generalize that path to you.  And yet this place, this congregation, everyone in this room is a part of it.  Here are the people who cared for me when I was sick, we encouraged me, we cautioned me in moments of excess.  I was married right over there, and with any luck I’ll be ordained here in this chancel.  I am who I am because you are who you are - In Eden no one stands alone.

If I’ve learned one thing in Seminary, it is that ministers are not the perfect paragons of virtue Channing describes- but they are deeply affected by the churches they come from.  The people I work and study with at Wesley are amazing, beautiful examples of humanity, but they still gripe, they still complain, and they they all too often fall short of where they want to be.  They have been and are formed by the people around them, and as they lead and support a community they grow as the community around them grows.  Each carries with them every church they have been a part of, the memories, the lessons, the failures and the successes.  So if my own conscience has put me in a position where I will leave this place, in a way I am tied to it, and always will be.

Channing’s voice in our tradition calls us to free our minds, to answer only to our own conscience the meaning of the things we see.  His voice, evolving through the generations, gives us the tapestry of faiths that make up our tradition.  Without Ubuntu, without the loom weaving the disparate threads together in a single garment, we would not be a community of faith, simply a collection of individuals.  The day I leave this place I will be sad, it’s true, but I know that I my journey is dependent on the journey we have here together, and will remain so as we all move forward.  Our faiths are stronger for being part of this community.

Thank you, and bless you all.

Complicating Forgiveness

Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, 10/19/2014

I started undergrad as a pre-law student.  I thought at the time that religion, while interesting enough, could never have the same weight and challenge as issues of law, politics, even philosophy.  My second semester at college, I took an elective course on ‘Modern Religious Thought.’  In a few short weeks I was exposed to Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Boff, Neibuhr- the great guideposts of twentieth century religion.  By the end of the semester, I switched my major to religion, and a decade later started training as a minister.

My professor in that first class was a woman named Katharina Von Kellenbach.  Over the years since, I’ve gotten to know her better and learn more of her story.  Dr. Von Kellenbach is German, and grew up in West Germany in the years following World War 2.  She had an uncle, a sweet man whom she remembers bringing her candy and listening to her stories.  When she was a teenager, after he had died, she found out that he had been an officer in Hitler’s army- and the commandant of a concentration camp.

Much of Dr. Von Kellenbach’s life since has been taken up with working through this apparent contradiction: her kindly uncle was the same man who killed thousands of innocent people- and never seemed bothered by it.  Katharina recently spent several years going through recordings and transcripts of Nazi perpetrators conversations with their prison chaplains, and found this to be a common theme.  While many were unwilling to talk about their actions during the war at all, those that did expressed little to no remorse over the suffering they caused.  What do we do, what can we do in the face of such unrepentant evil, especially when, like Dr. Von Kellenbach’s uncle, it can be so hard to recognize?

I love Rheinhold Niebuhr.  In the responsive reading this morning, he paints a picture of a very human salvation, with hope faith and love serving the cause of a better world.  To my ears it is a very UUesq piece of writing from one of the great Christian minds of his generation.  There arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, yes, and maybe here is a roadmap for us to bend it together- ending in what Niebuhr calls the final form of love: forgiveness.

Our Universalist tradition has a long history of talking about forgiveness.  Like many Christian traditions, Universalist thinkers and writers found deep truth in the story of the prodigal son.  Man of you probably know the story:  many years ago, a man had two sons.  One, foolish and eager to make his mark on the world, convinces his father to give him his inheritance early.  He travels to a foreign land and squanders it, returning years later to the family he wrong and left behind.  Much to the other, responsible son’s amazement and alarm, the father does not punish the foolish son, but instead welcomes him with open arms, saying ‘my son was dead but now returns!’

This is a beautiful story of a family made whole and wrongs forgotten.  It has been used for generations to describe the ideal of human- and yes even divine – forgiveness.  The father and son are upheld as a the example of the transformative work of forgiveness, bringing wholeness where there was brokenness, love where there was bitterness.

Yet I am troubled by the implications of using it as the model of justice and mercy in our society.  Forgiveness can be a wonderful, transforming thing, there is no denying that.  But when we talk about forgiveness as an integral piece of justice, or as something necessary to ‘move on,’ the expectation of forgiveness places an unfair burden on people who have already been victimized once, asking them to engage with and even be kind to the person or people who have done them wrong.

Second, an expectation of forgiveness often oversimplifies complex situations, expecting a simple division into the wrong and the wronged- while sometimes situations are not as clear cut.  Should Israelis forgive Hamas for its attacks?  Perhaps, but what about Palestinians’ forgiving Israel for the blockade?  And what right do we, so far from the situation, possibly have to tell either group they should forgive?

Lastly, all too often we hear the language of ‘forgive and forget’ in which letting go of guilt and anger is tied to de-emphasizing what took place.  The again can rob victims of their agency, softening the memory for society in order to get along better in the future- at the risk of forgetting as well any lessons learned.

So then if forgiveness is problematic as a societal expectation, what can replace it?  Surely not the retribution of violence inspiring more violence, with hurts and wrongs accumulating until there is nothing but hatred.

Von Kellenbach’s answer is to change the Biblical verses we use when talking about justice and reconciliation.  Rather than use the prodigal son, she suggests an equally familiar, if my darker story about two brothers: the marking of Cain.  The story goes something like this:

Long ago there were two brothers, Cain and Abel.  Cain, in a fit of jealousy, killed his brother Abel, hiding his brother far from home in a field.  God (for it was in the time God had conversations with us mortals) searched for Cain and Abel, but when she found only Cain, asked after his brother.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked, still angry and distraught over what he had done.

God, of course, being wise, knew what had happened and punished Cain, exiling him from his home and sending him out into the world.  ‘But surely,’ begged Cain, ‘those who know what I have done will kill me to avenge Abel’s death.’  But God, loving her son, placed a mark on him saying ‘all who see this will know what you have done, but they will also know that you are mine and to touch you in anger is to condemn themselves.’  So Cain went out into the world, carrying the burden of his wrongdoing but protected from violent retribution.

For my old professor, this is what she wants for her uncle and those like him- not to be killed themselves in vengeance, but to always be forces to confront what they did.  While I owe much to Katharina and her wisdom over the years, I think this interpretation misses the heart of the Cain story, and the opportunity for us as people of various faiths:  we all tell stories.  To me, this is the essence of justice, and the first step towards wholeness.  Not forgiveness, with the expectations it places on victims, but telling the story of what took place.

I spent two years living in Southern Africa, and while I was there grew to know and respect the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  In the years following the fall of apartheid, many in the black community wanted Nuremberg style tribunals to punish the crimes committed by former government agents.  Many white South Africans, on the other hand, wanted a blanket declaration of amnesty for all crimes committed under Apartheid by both sides.

The compromise proposed by Nelson Mandela and carried out by Desmond Tutu and others did indeed contain a clause for full amnesty, but with one critical condition:  Amnesty would be given to perpetrators of violence on either side if they if (and only if) they came forward and detailed the crimes they committed.  These confessions would be kept and published by the Commission, as a memorial to all that had been lost.  Thousands of people came forward in what Bishop Tutu still calls a miracle, speaking the truth about what they did and what they lost, and giving the world a detailed, nuanced understanding of South Africa under Apartheid.

Isn’t that what we, in our best moments, do in places like this?  In UU churches we are all storytellers, bringing our stories and our truths forward that we might all benefit.  Complicated, complicating stories that show we are all just human.  Touching, powerful stories that show we are all magnificently human.  Stories where we can see and acknowledge to brokenness in all of us, and even stories where we see ourselves in Cain.  In these stories we see ourselves sometimes as the victim, sometimes the perpetrator, and sometimes the outside stranger stopping to offer help.

Maybe Niebuhr was right, maybe in the end we will all be saved by forgiveness.  Certainly, it is a powerful forces for good, good for the forgiven and forgiver alike.  I’ve seen first hand the power of forgiveness to change lives.  It cannot be an expectation though- to do so wrongs those already wronged.

For my part, I tell stories, right here in places like this.  Churches are where we come to work this stuff out, in stories from pulpits, between pews, over coffee after the service.  In telling our stories we affirm and strengthen our shared humanity, and on our best days, learn from what has happened before and commit that it will not happen again.

The Plowshares of Advent

Rehoboth United Methodist Church, 11/28/13

Early on the morning of September 9th, 1980, seven men and one woman walked into the GE plant in King of Prussia, PA.  They were not supposed to be there, and were worried that after months of planning, their mission would collapse at the last moment.  Visibly nervous, the woman and one of the men split off towards the security guard, who was reaching for his phone.  Before he was able to call for backup, the nervous man had pinned him to the wall, while the woman slammer her hand down on the phone’s receiver.  Knowing that security backup would be delayed, the other six proceeded on to their target- the factory floor, and the nuclear ballistic missile components being assembled there.

Minutes later, when the base security team arrive on the factory floor, nothing in their training had prepared them for what they found.  Several of the intruders had taken out blunt tools and were hammering on the missile components.  While they beat away, the rest of the group had found the plant’s file cabinets, and were in the process of spilling containers of chicken blood over the paper records.  When confronted by the security team, the surrendered immediately, revealing themselves as several priests, lay leaders, and one nun.

The events at King of Prussia on that September morning were the first actions of a group calling themselves the ‘Plowshares Movement.’  Phil Berrigan, the leader of that first action, was at various times a Roman Catholic Priest, a leader of draft protests during the war in Vietnam, and multiple nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his advocacy of nuclear disarmament.  Berrigan and several of his friends (one of whom later donated his personal papers to the institution where I was employed) chose them name “Plowshares Movement” as a direct reference to the scripture passage from Isaiah we read this morning.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;  nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn to war any more.”

We may not agree with them, but we can learn from the eight men and women that morning.  To the members of Plowshares, Isaiah 2 is not a prophecy of the future, but a goal to work towards together.  Isaiah speaks of the coming peace of God, but it is not God alone who brings peace to the world.

Advent begins next Sunday.  Thanksgiving falls late this year, and Rev. Chapman graciously offered me my the option of using the lectionary texts for next week, when, as I understand it, there will not be the usual Sunday services.  Advent is a time to look ahead to Christmas and to hope breaking into the world.  It is right and proper that we do this.  But Advent is also about looking back in a way, no?  The events Christmas celebrates took place over 2000 years ago, and to Christians Christ is come, and indeed the Holy Spirit is with us now, even in this very room.

As much as Advent is about looking forward, we must look forward in the knowledge of what has come before.  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes about this tension.  He writes assuredly that ‘salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers.’  But we also know what has come before.  “The night is far gone, the day is near.”  Paul calls us to live into the daybreak we see on the horizon, putting on the armor of light and living ‘as in the day’ – as if the reign of God were now.  In many ways, while there is hope for a coming messianic age, the reign of God is now – and it is our responsibility to act in ways that reflect it.

So what does this mean for Isaiah?  From the beginning the passage is ambiguous.  The phrase that opens the account in 2:2 denotes in Hebrew a time in the future, yes, but as a part of time, not outside of it.  While it is sometimes translated as ‘in the last days’ (which places the passage firmly as an apocalyptic one) a better translation, I believe, is ‘in days to come.’  Nearly 3000 years have passed since Isaiah was written, giving ‘in days to come’ a somewhat unclear quality:  Is this something we are still waiting for?  Is it something happening now?  Could it be both?

Next, I want to look at who in this passage is doing what.  In 2:3, ‘many people’ desire instruction from the Lord, and take steps to receive it, that they ‘may walk in his paths.’  After receiving the Word of the Lord, it is again the people who respond, beating their own spears into plowshares and learning to war no more.  God’s action in the passage is straightforward, with ‘instruction from Zion’ and ‘the Word of the Lord’ from Jerusalem.

While I’m relatively sure that this is not what the author intended when Isaiah was first put to paper, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘the Word of the Lord?’  What about another reading, that comes at the end of Advent every year:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word, certainly in classes Carl and I share at Wesley, is no more or less than the person of Jesus Christ.

Now we’re left in an interesting place.  To recap this possible reading of Isaiah 2:

  • At some point after Isaiah’s prophecy, around 800 BCE, people will look to God for instruction.
  • Jesus Christ comes into the world, teaching the Lord’s ways, and the people desire to emulate him.
  • In response they beat their swords into plowshares, and make war no more.

Where can we see ourself in this process?  The approach of Christmas means that Jesus has come, teaching the ways of the Lord and of a coming age of peace.  The proliferation of ‘What would Jesus do?’ bumper stickers, if nothing else, suggests that there’s a deep desire to emulate his life and teaching.  While few of us, perhaps, would agree with Phil Berrigan and the Plowshares Movement’s methods, they should be commended for deeply living out what they see as Jesus’ nonviolent teaching.

In this season of Advent, let us consider what we are doing in the world to reflect and live the hope we know has come.  Rather than wait passively for a future second coming and reign of peace, let us listen to St. Paul, and the Gospel of Matthew which remind us that while we cannot know the date of Christ’s return, we can and must live uprightly, as if the day is upon us now.

What could this look like, hoping for a future to come while living its promise today?  Certainly we are not all Phil Berrigan, breaking into arms factories as a symbolic gesture.  What other examples are can we turn to?

Next Sunday is World AIDS day.  I spent two years living in Southern Africa, in a little village called Bobete, up a mountain path far from any major cities or roads.  At the center of the village is the area’s only clinic, which serves about 50 villages, some a two day ride on horseback from Bobete.  Lesotho, the country Bobete is in, has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, with over 40% of working age adults infected.  While I was there, hardly a week went by without a funeral in Bobete or one of the surrounding villages.

This time of year, Bobete is in an uproar.  Almost every house in the village is cleaning, preparing to host guests from other villages, coming for World AIDS day.  The cooking has already started, and for the next week the smells of baking bread and stewing mutton will fill the village.  By next Sunday, the village will swell in size from 200 to several thousand people, who will all make their way to the airstrip by the clinic for the festivities.  World AIDS day, my neighbors said every year, was bigger than Christmas.

What’s important to us in this story, I think, is the tension in that gathering between hope and recognition— recognition of what has already happened, and hope for what is yet to come.  At World AIDS Day in Bobete the people desperately hope for and imagine a world without HIV, where the villages live in peace and health, no longer afraid of this scourge stalking through them.

At the same time, the event is held at the clinic, and is a celebration of how far we’ve come towards a cure.  Drugs to treat the disease are available and free at the clinic.  Hundreds of volunteers work to care for the sick, teach prevention classes, or grow gardens full of vegetables whose nutrients can help to ease the symptoms of AIDS.

While a cure or vaccine for HIV, when it comes, will certainly come from outside the little village of Bobete, on World AIDS day the people gather to celebrate the work they are doing, however small, to reflect and bring about the hope they have for the future.

Isaiah 2 is, to my ears, one of the most beautiful, evocative images in the Bible.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war any more.”

Yet this is not simply a beautiful image of a blessed community yet to come, but a vision of a world that humans build together, following the teaching and example of the divine.  In this coming season of Advent, when we look in hope for the coming of Christ, let us also reflect on his coming 2000 years ago and the era of peace that event inaugurated.  Christianity’s message is not merely one of future hope, but of the potential for us, as imperfect as we are, to live in brother and sisterhood together.  With God’s help and example, let us build peace here on earth step by step, even as we look forward to the ultimate peace to come.

Blessed be, Amen.