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Oct 24, 2018

We Make the Road By Walking

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 21, 2018

It has been a little while since I have been with you all. It is good to be back in this pulpit. The last couple of weeks I have been off leading worship at First Church’s smaller campuses: Tapestry and Thoreau. Ministering to a multi-site congregation is new experience for me. And it is still something that I am trying to figure out. My sense is that you are also uncertain about what it means to be one church in three locations.

Visiting Spring, where Tapestry is, Stafford, where Thoreau is right now, and Richmond, where Thoreau is moving to, has helped me to get a better sense of the individual needs, cultures, and aspirations of your campuses. My visits with the other two Houston area campuses suggested to me that as a congregation you are collectively struggling with the question: Who are we?

Who are we? It is not an unexpected question during a period of ministerial transition. A lot of congregational identity is formed around a congregation’s senior minister. And the departure of one often brings congregations to struggle with their identities, to ask, who are we?

Who are we? is a deeply religious question. Rephrased as who am I or who are you it is probably the most fundamental question there is. And it is a far from an easy question to answer. There are scriptures recording both the Buddha and Jesus kind of dodging the question.

In the Dona Sutta the Buddha and a brahman, or priest, engage in a discourse over the Buddha’s identity. The brahman asks the Buddha if he is one of the various kinds of divine beings that inhabit Hindu cosmology. You will have to excuse my Pali I as reconstruct the dialogue.

“Master,” say brahman, “are you a deva?”

“No, brahman, I am not a deva,” replies the Buddha.

“Are you a gandhabba?”

“No...”

“... a yakkha?”

“No...”

“... a human being?”

“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”

Clearly growing frustrated, the brahman queries, “Then what sort of being are you?”

To this question the Buddha gives the sort of long answer that you might anticipate from a prophet or great teacher. He explains why he is not this or that. He gives a discourse on how he has overcome the world. And then finally, he gives his answer:

Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
I’m awake.

In the Christian New Testament Jesus is even more cryptic than the Buddha. Instead of answering the question himself he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” His disciples answer the Messiah. He then says that he’s the son of man. Elsewhere he gives different information saying that he is the son of God or the Christ. But he’s never really clear on his answer to the question, Who are you?

He is so unclear that for the last two millennium people have been debating Jesus’s answer to the question: Who are you? The Jesus that many people think they know comes a specific set of texts that were culled from much larger set. The canonical gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are often interpreted as portraying Jesus as Lord and Savior in a unique way. The non-canonical gospels, texts like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary, are more easily interpreted as portraying differently Jesus. Scholar Elaine Pagels advises us that “these texts speak of illusion and enlightenment... Instead of coming to save us from sin, [Jesus] comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.”

Who are you? When it came to Jesus, at first the early Christian church permitted people to have many answers to the question. And they argued about their answers fiercely. Three hundred years after Jesus’s execution, Gregory of Nyssa recorded that these disputes were all consuming:

Ask the price of bread today and the baker tells you: “The son is subordinate to the father.” Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he makes an answer: “The son arose out of nothing.”

Theologically orthodox Christians eventually settled the debate by proclaiming Jesus the son of God and inventing the trinity. They then kicked everyone out of the church who did not agree with them.

In giving his ambiguous answer to the question, Who are you?, I rather suspect that Jesus was intentionally being slippery. He probably would have been disappointed to learn that the church had fixed his identity and required people to believe certain things about him. He might have also hinted that asking the question, Who are you?, is more productive than coming up with a permanent answer to it. We humans change a lot over the course of our lives. I am a different person today than I was at seven, or fourteen, or twenty-eight. When I moved out of my parents house, I became a somewhat different person. When I became a parent, I changed. The same is true for you. The place you are in the cycle of life shapes will shape your answer to the question. So will your family of origin, your occupation, the city in which you live... The same is true for religious communities as well. And I will talk about that more in a bit.

Right now, let me say, I am not surprised about the Buddha and Jesus’s evasive approaches to the question of identity for it resonates with me on a personal level. Who are you?, is a question we ministers do not like. Robert Fulghum is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the author of the well-known, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He has a whole shtick about how he has answered this question when approached by strangers on planes. He has told them he was a janitor and a neurosurgeon. Once he refused to answer the question at all but invited his seatmate to play a game with him. They would each make up what they did for a living and then play pretend. Fulghum’s seatmate declared he was a spy. Fulghum decided to be a nun.

Eventually, Fulghum admits, he grew somewhat frustrated with the question. He started responding by invoking the great artist Marcel Duchamp. When asked who he was Duchamp would reply, “I am a respirateur (a breather).” Breathing is what he spent most of his time doing so he figured it defined who he was. Plus, Fulghum points out, breathing is more about being a human and less about being defined by what you do for a living. And so often when we ask someone who they are we anticipate an answer that is closely tied to their occupation.

I will admit that when asked who I am, I sometimes try to avoid the question too. Telling people that you are a minister can make for fairly awkward, or intense, conversation at parties. People usually want to skip the small talk and get straight to something serious. What do I think about the nature of God? Does the good really exist? Do I have thoughts on the Arminian controversy? I imagine that last one is something I probably won’t be asked outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, still, sometimes I just want to talk about my kids, or my cat, or the fact that I am really excited that the farmers market near my house has squash blossoms and they’re one of my favorite foods and I couldn’t get them the entire six years I lived in Boston. Or mushrooms... I really like mushrooms. Actually, I once preached a whole sermon on how much I like mushrooms.

Who are you? When religious communities try to answer this question, it can make them uncomfortable for all of the same reasons why it makes us as individuals uncomfortable. We do not like to be fixed, defined, as this or that. And we change. The way members of First Church answer our question will be somewhat different today than it was ten years ago or twenty years or fifty years ago.

In answering this question, I think First Church has a particular challenge. After having visited all three of your Houston area campuses I rather suspect that if I asked the members of each campus, Who are you?, I would get different sets of answers.

This is reflected in the reality that all three of your campuses have different histories. If I was to ask the members at Thoreau who their most important ministers had been they would probably tell me: Leonora Montgomery, Bill Clark, Paul Beedle, and Bonnie Vegiard. Tapestry has been largely lay-led. Its members would likely tell me Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Here at Museum District, I suspect you might name Bob Schaibly, Gail Marriner, Jose Ballaster, and Daniel O’Connell. Maybe someone would mention Webster Kitchell or Horace Westwood.

There is no simple through line that unites all of the histories of your campuses. Is there a clear through line that unites your cultures? My visits to Tapestry and to Thoreau have given me the impression that both have the feel of small lay led fellowships. Museum District here has been on the cusp of becoming a large church for many years.

Who are you? is probably hard for you to answer in part because your model is unique within Unitarian Universalism. There are only about four other congregations that practice multi-site ministry. And they each practice it differently.

The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, for example, has two campuses are separated by about ten minutes. Each week they hold an identical service at each campus. The services are two hours apart. Shortly after completing the first the minister gets into a car, sometimes followed by the choir, and dashes from one campus to the other.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego also has two campuses. The majority of the congregation gathers at their downtown campus for English language services. Another group gathers at their second campus for bilingual English and Spanish services. The congregation has three full-time ministers. They take turns leading the worship at the two campuses.

The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque calls their smaller campuses branches. They livestream their sermons to small groups of Unitarian Universalists throughout New Mexico who do not have a congregation nearby.

Only the First Unitarian Church of Rochester has a model somewhat similar to yours. They provide the staff for a nearby smaller congregation. Unlike your model, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua have remained separate legal entities.

Who are you? One of your challenges as a congregation is trying to figure out if you want to answer this question as individual campuses or as a collective entity. Maybe you want to answer the question as both individual campuses and as a united congregation. Maybe not. Maybe you need a single answer that stretches across all of your campuses.

It is not for me to tell you. As your interim senior minister, it is my job to help you ask the right questions so that you can chart your path forward as you prepare for your next ministry. By raising these questions, I hope to help you get some clarity about where you have been and where you might go. I want them to be the right questions, the kind of questions that generate thoughtful conversation and deep reflection about that essential question, Who are you?

My approach to this question is mirrored in our poem from earlier this morning, an untitled piece by the Spaniard Antonio Machado:

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.

The poem suggests that life is a path upon which we trod with no direction, no meaning, except the one we give it. The road we travel is not something someone else has laid before us. It is our road and we create it as we move, leaving only the echo, only the wake, behind us, not a clear map for someone else to follow.

The poem inspired a famous dialogue between the two educators Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Horton was a civil rights hero who taught figures like Rosa Parks, Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, Septima Clark, and John Lewis something about organizing. Freire was a Brazilian teacher who spent many years working on adult literacy for his country’s poor and disenfranchised. They both believed that education, and life, is not a process which leads to final answers. Instead, they thought education is a collaborative process between student and teacher where each is a learner co-creating knowledge with the other.

They adapted the phrase “we make the road by walking” from Machado poem’s because it suggested to them that the journey, the process, was the destination. No one is ever finished with their education. Just as, if we are honest, no congregation, and no person, should ever have a permanent answer to the question, Who are you?

As members of a congregation, we commit to travel along the metaphoric road of life together. And as members of an experiment in multi-site ministry, you have committed to traveling together not just as not as a single community but as three commingled communities. This is not all that different from the life of other large congregations. In fact, it is not that different from what we find here at the Museum District if we looked within. The choir and the religious education program each form their own distinct communities within the larger tapestry that is the life of the Museum District campus.

Museum District’s choir, its religious education program, Tapestry, Thoreau... each community within the congregation is going to have different answers to the question: Who are we? The challenge you face is finding answers to the question that unite all of your communities.

There are many ways you might seek the answers to this question. You might, as we will be doing during our time together, ask other questions, questions that prompt you to explore your deepest values. What do you love? Why are you here? What is your mission to the world? What values do you want to pass along to the next generation?

You might also seek counsel from others. In some sense, that is my role as your interim, to offer you my perspective, my advice, on ways to pursue the question, Who are you? during your time of ministerial transition. You may seek guidance from the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association or from other congregations that have experimented with multi-site ministry.

Marilyn Sewell was the senior minister of First Unitarian Portland for close to twenty years. During her time there the congregation grew to be well over a thousand members. She advises however we answer the question, Who are you? we ground ourselves “in love and service.” For this is what Unitarian Universalism ultimately has to offer the world: A message that we are called to love everyone--that is extend universal goodwill to all--and labor together and make our society, and our planet, better.

That message is an important one in the challenging days in which we find ourselves. The midterm elections are upon us. They are time when voters collectively attempt to answer the question, Who are we? as a country. This is not a question with final answers. It is one that shifts over time. This should be a comfort to us as we face the disappointment and the horrors of recent years. Our religious tradition tells us that is no one fixed answer to who a country, a religious community, or a person--be they First Church, the United States, Jesus or Buddha, you or I--are across time. Instead, it suggests that our answers are ever changing. We travel along in the path of life seeking justice, and creating a shared congregational life, uncertain of our exact answers because that is the only thing that has ever happened. The road is always made as we travel. We answer the question, Who are we? as we go.

As we close, I invite you to join with me in prayer:

Oh spirit of life,
that some of us call God,
and others name simply
as the force that drives life forward,
be with us in times of uncertainty,
remind us that while the path
may be unclear,
the road uncertain,
it is still our path
to trod,
our track to travel,
and that we travel it better
together,
beginning again
and again
where we are,
as a community of seekers
united in a quest
for truth and justice,
joy and beauty.

That it might be so, let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Tapestry Campus Thoreau Campus Multi-Site Ministry Buddha Jesus Dona Sutta Elaine Pagels Gregory of Nyssa Robert Fulghum Marcel Duchamp Unitarian Church of Harrisburg First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego Antonio Machado Myles Horton Paulo Freire Marilyn Sewell

Sep 25, 2018

Sermon: Put Your Hands Up

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 23, 2018

This month our theme in worship is hospitality. For Unitarian Universalists hospitality, or radical inclusivity, is at the core of our theological vision. This congregation’s decision to desegregate in 1954 was a decision to be radically inclusive. You were the first historically white church in Houston to make such a decision. More recently, your decision to become a Welcoming Congregation was an act of radical inclusivity. You made an intentional choice to be a religious home for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people.

The decisions to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation were not political decisions. Instead, they came from the radical love found at the core of our universalist heritage. Universalism is a form of dissident Christianity that claims that God so loves the world that she cannot condemn any person to eternal suffering in Hell. Not one single person. Not you. Not me. Not anyone. Universalism teaches that God loves everyone, no exceptions.

There’s a fragment of a poem from the poet Edwin Markham that captures something of Universalism’s sentiment of radical inclusivity. It reads:

He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.

The second circle is the wider circle. The wider circle is the circle of care and concern, the circle of love, that somehow, impossibly, is so wide that it takes in even the enemy. It takes in even the person who sought to cast the speaker out. The wider circle is a wonderful metaphor for the theology that inspired your commitments to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. These were acts of radical inclusivity.

Radical inclusivity might sound like an intimidating phrase. It need not be. At its core it is a simple idea. It is creating a community to welcome the stranger. It is getting to know each other. It is recognizing the human in the other. It is like “The Rabbi’s Gift,” our story from earlier. Something profound happens when we realize that each person in the world, you, and me, and all the people outside of this sanctuary, is equally a child of universe. We all contain “the likeness to God,” as foundational Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing told us. We all have something to teach each other about living amid the maddening rush of abrupt rain, piercing sunlight, and generative ground that form life’s tapestry.

Radical inclusivity is a recognition of this truth. It need not be hard. It can be something as simple as introducing yourself to someone else. There used to be a button floating around Unitarian Universalist communities that made this point. “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another,” it read. Today, after the service, you can commit this radical act. You can walk up to someone you do not know and say, “Hello.” Who knows what marvels you might open up by meeting someone not already in your circle?

Meeting someone not already in your circle... Here is an odd thing about interim ministry: When a congregation calls a settled minister the congregation and the minister take time getting to know each other. The minister meets with the search committee for a full weekend. The search committee agrees upon a candidate. And then the candidate comes and spends an entire week with the congregation. At the end of the week, the congregation holds a vote to decide on whether or not they want to call the minister.

The process that led to my coming to Houston was more abbreviated. It was facilitated through the Unitarian Universalist Association’s interim matchmaking process. I was hired by the Board rather than called by the congregation. This is a drawn-out admission that you did not have much of an opportunity to get to know me before I appeared in your pulpit at the beginning of August. We should fix that. If I am going to suggest that you introduce yourselves to people you do not know then I should let you get to know me a bit better. I should say, “Hello.”

There is a meme floating around the internet that is popular in my circles. I thought it would serve as a nice introduction. It is on the front of your order of service. It is a Venn Diagram of the ways preachers, DJs, and bank robbers overlap. They each urge people to “put your hands up.” This Venn Diagram encapsulates some of the communities that have taught me about radical inclusivity: preachers, DJs, and bank robbers. I am a preacher. I came of age in the DJ culture of hip hop, house, and techno. And, well.... I have something to say about bank robbers.

Put your hands up.

We begin with DJ culture.

I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, hip hop, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:

Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”

Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape have something to teach us about radical inclusivity. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?

We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time... no longer constrained by fears that keep us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”

These experiences of beloved community are experiences of radical inclusivity. They are experiences we can foster in church. We can foster them through the creation of worship that makes space for everyone, that proclaims that all are welcome, and all are loved. There are few other spaces in American society that have the potential for people to gather across the dividing lines of race and class.

Years ago, amid the shambling concrete of abandoned factories, I witnessed that music could bring people together in the country’s most divided cities. Black, white, gay, straight, suburbanite, loft dweller, drag queen in fabulous silver go go boots, baggy jeans wearing break dancing trickster, everyone united in “One Nation Under a Groove,” just as rgw original funkster George Clinton told us to. Our Universalist theology of radical inclusion challenges us to build religious communities that are capable of drawing such wide circles. Later, in some other sermon, we can talk about how difficult and challenging this work can be. But this morning I want to offer you a simple truth. Radical inclusivity begins with saying, “Hello,” to someone you do not know and inviting them into your circle.

Put your hands up.

The bank robber Willie Sutton was once supposedly asked, “Willie why do you rob banks?” “Because that is where the money is,” he’s alleged to have replied.

I first heard Sutton’s words when I was in my early twenties and living in San Francisco. While I was there I got to know the folk singer Bruce Phillips, whose stage name was Utah. By the time I met him, Utah Phillips had been a Unitarian Universalist for more than fifty years.

He had a weekly radio show on KPFA, KPFT’s sister station in Berkeley, and occasionally did concerts at Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Bay Area. Over the course of our conversations, listening to his radio show, and attending his concerts, I discovered that Utah had a particular affinity for bank robbers. “Working-class heroes,” he used to call them.

He often quoted Willie Sutton. And he liked to talk about Kid Pharaoh, a minor criminal from Chicago. In an interview, Kid Pharaoh had confessed that he had a political philosophy. He said, “I’m dedicated to one principle: taking money away from unqualified dilettantes who earn it through nepotism... Take it away from... [them]. Hook, crook, slingshot, canoe, we must shaft [these fellows]...”

In my conversations with Utah, I learned he praised bank robbers for three reasons. The first: his praise provided a radical critique of society. The second: it was an act of drawing the circle wider: reminding his audience that everyone, even the criminal element, has something to teach the rest of us. The third: he admired their clarity and honesty of purpose. They went to the place where the money was and took it.

Utah did not advocate robbing banks. But he did urge people to be clear about who they were and why they did what they did. That was the way he lived. He had been a critic of American society, the military, and our economic system ever since he returned to the United States after fighting in the Korea War. Part of his critique was that changing the world began by listening to the voices at society’s margin.

Parallels to his position can be found in the words of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, our friend Susan Frederick-Gray. She tells us, “the circle never gets drawn wider from the center. The circle grows wider because the people who live at the margins, at the edges, who see how exclusion is happening, are leading and organizing and working to break down those walls. So we all have to be standing in the margins, pushing for greater liberation for all people. That is the way we make the circle wide.”

In Susan’s vision, we Unitarian Universalists engage in radical inclusivity when we listen to the voices at the margins of our society, are clear about our theological vision, tell the truth in the public square, and invite the disenfranchished and disempowered into our circle. It is really not that different from Utah’s more controversial invocation of bank robbers. He told stories about them to be funny. But he also told stories about them to provoke his audiences to think about who in society we should be listening. By suggesting that even a criminal element has something to teach us he was being radically inclusive and drawing the circle wider.

Put your hands up.

You may have figured out by now that I am something of a Saturday evening juke joint Sunday morning choir kind of guy. I have learned an extraordinary amount about radical inclusivity from my participation in communities outside of the church. I have learned an equal amount from lifelong engagement with Unitarian Universalist communities. Otherwise, I would not be a preacher.

And now, we come to the part of the sermon where I make a confession. Everything I have learned in church and all of my sermons can really be distilled to a single message. It is found in the twentieth and twenty first verses of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There we find Jesus in conversation with a group of Rabbis. The Rabbis asked him, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is!” For the kingdom of God is among you!”

Other translations read, “the kingdom of God is within you!” Either way, the point is this, we Unitarian Universalists believe we can create the beloved community here on this good green Earth. Indeed, we understand that is the only the thing that has ever happened. It is not up to someone else. God is not going to do it for us. It is not going to happen somewhere or somewhen else. This luminous now is all we have been given.

That is a core message of our tradition. I know this because I spent my formative years in Unitarian Universalist religious education. I know this because I have studied and taught Unitarian Universalism in our seminaries. And I know this because it is what I constantly catch glimpses of as preacher and religious leader of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Right now, our fourth through sixth grade youth are participating in Our Whole Lives. OWL, as it is called, is Unitarian Universalism’s sexual education program. That is correct, we teach sex education in church. And we do not teach it in the abstinence only fashion found in Texas public schools. Such an approach suggests that there is something wrong with the human body and our natural, embodied, need for physical connection. We Unitarian Universalists take a different view. We hold that we humans are embodied creatures and that being sexual is part of what it means to be embodied. We do not teach that abstinence until marriage is the only way to be responsible. Instead we teach that as creatures with bodies and hormones we need to learn to be responsible, respectful, and loving with our partners. We teach about consent. We teach about birth control. And we teach that there is nothing wrong with living in a world with a multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender expressions.

Note that this is not the explicit content of the fourth to sixth grade OWL program. That is much more focused on helping children understand their changing bodies and changing hormones as they go through puberty. But the messages I just shared are those we will eventually communicate to them when they reach high school OWL. And those messages are just a practical, embodied, recognition of the truth found in Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

That is a truth that encourages us to practice radical inclusivity. It is the theological principle which inspired you to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. It is why so many of you give money to support this congregation and the work of its three campuses. And it is a theological principle which can sometimes be realized with a simple introduction, a “Hello” that begins to draw the circle wider.

Are you with me? Put your hands up.

Would that I could end on that precise high note. But the phrase, “Put your hands up,” requires a closing coda. I need to acknowledge that it is a phrase sometimes used by the police. For some people, particularly some people of color, it invokes the specter of state violence rather than celebration, the voices on the margins, or church.

Committing ourselves to radical inclusivity means we are called to recognize that, despite our best intentions, our very words and actions can contain traces of the brutalizing violence which are endemic throughout society. Rather than flee from this truth it is better to confront it. Each of us sometimes turns away from the wider circle and seeks to push people out. But that is why we gather, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. We gather to recognize our own human frailty, the ways in which we have failed our higher vision, and encourage each other to continue to try to live into it. The spirit of such actions were found in the Jewish Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which just passed. They were reflected in our story this morning, our responsive reading, and they are in the words from Markham’s poem which we return to as I close:

He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.

Let the congregation say, “Amen.”

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Welcoming Congregation First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Edwin Markham William Ellery Channing Afefe Iku Detroit Chicago House Techno Rob Hardies Marilyn Sewell George Clinton Willie Sutton Kid Pharaoh Utah Phillips Susan Frederick-Gray Luke 17:20-21 Our Whole Lives Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur

Jun 1, 2016

Reimagine: Three Challenges for Unitarian Universalism

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, May 30, 2016

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Starr King School for the Ministry on the challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. Starr King is, as you know, one of the two explicitly Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the United States. Located in Berkley, California, it is a center for training both future ministers and social justice activists. Over the last few decades it has been at the forefront of theological education by serving as a multi-religious training ground. In addition to training Unitarian Universalists, it has a commitment to training liberal Islamic religious leaders.

Since, I am a both a historian and a theologian I opened my talk at Starr King with nod to the past as a way of setting us on the path to the future. I gave them the same reading we just had, Mark Belletini’s “Reading for the Day.” Belletini is a Starr King graduate and he has been a transformative figure for liberal religion. He was the first openly gay man called to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He is grounded in a multi-religious practice. Raised a Catholic, he has been profoundly influenced by Jewish liturgy and Islamic poetry. He channels the sacred through the fine arts and the human art of connection. He is devoted to teaching and cultivating the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It is a tradition which, in the words of Marilyn Sewell, teaches “that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth.”

Mark retired this past year. In many ways, his forty year ministry has been a testament to why Unitarian Universalism was able to grow steadily over the last several decades. For the majority of the later half of the twentieth-century we have been at the forefront of proclaiming that our religious communities are open to everyone. For a long time we were one of the few places where people who not heterosexual could bring their whole selves to worship. At a time of rising interest in religions other than Christianity, we have since the middle of the nineteenth century affirmed that there are multiple paths to the divine.

Today, Unitarian Universalism is at a turning point. While we grew in numbers steadily between 1980 and 2012 for the last few years our membership growth has either been stagnant or slightly declining. What I am going to do this morning is lay out three interrelated challenges that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. I am going to interweave these challenges with autobiographical illustrations and some cursory reflections on how we might meet those challenges.

Before I continue let me say that each of these challenges takes place within the framework of what we could call the great challenge. The great challenge is the question of whether or not we as a society and a human species will be able to manage the ecological catastrophe that we have created. This catastrophe emerges from our economic system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism, the wealth of the world has been built off a dual exploitation. The raw resources of the planet--magnificent forests of pin straight pine and whale large redwoods, pitch coal, or tarry oil--are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the basis of mostly white wealth. To confront the great challenge of our rising ecological catastrophe we will have to confront the system that has created it. This means, as Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker would have it, that we have to learn to live after the apocalypse. There are great catastrophes behind us and there may be great ones ahead of us. We need to learn with the present resources at hand, as Parker says, we need to engage in “salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” All this, however, is something of another sermon. So, rather than focusing on the great challenge this morning, let us instead focus on some particular challenges that face our faith.

As an introduction to each challenge, a verse from Mark’s poem: “You are alive, here and now. / Love boldly and always tell the truth.”

I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling old buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:

Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”

Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape offer two important lessons. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?

We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, on Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary, just past the mid-point of spring. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time… no longer constrained by fears that us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”

We live in a period of ever increasing modes of religiosity. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. These two observations present the first challenge that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. Traditional religious institutions have to re-imagine themselves to remain culturally relevant. We all know this. For those who care about congregational life, the statistics are grim. Sunday morning worship attendance is shrinking. Churches are closing. Seminaries are closing.

In the coming years, Unitarian Universalists will increasingly have to figure out how to offer guidance, inspiration, and prophetic vision to a society where there is no reigning religious norm. We will have ground our efforts to understand and transcend the great challenge in a desire to teach and explore both emerging forms of religious expression and long established ones.

“Your heart beats now, / not tomorrow or yesterday. / Love the gift of your life and do no harm.”

I left the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to return to academia in the autumn of 2012. Since then I have been doing pulpit supply throughout New England. New England is the historical heartland of American Unitarian Universalism and my itinerant wanderings throughout the region have made me feel, at times, like an old-fashioned circuit rider. In the last years, I have led worship at the some of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations and some of the smallest. Some of the smallest congregations in our tradition are quite small. This is a recent phenomenon for many of them.

Last year, I was invited to preach at a historic Universalist congregation in the center of a small Massachusetts city. Two centuries ago, the congregation had been served by Hosea Ballou, one the founders of American Universalism. During Ballou’s ministry, the congregation had numbered as many as a couple of thousand. The sanctuary was huge--walls with white paint, wooden pews with glistening varnish, a balcony that wrapped around the edges of the room and sat at least three hundred, a gigantic old fashioned New England pulpit that was way up there--just beautiful. It could easily accommodate fifteen hundred hardy souls. Anyone want to guess how many people were there on my Sunday morning? Anyone? Less than ten. That number includes me, my son, and my parents who were visiting from out of town.

The presence of only ten people in that cavernous sanctuary did not make the gathered congregation’s needs any less real. The struggles and aspirations of the community are present no matter how large or small the group. No matter how big or small the congregation we have bring ourselves fully to whatever religious community we enter. This instant we have together is all we have. We must make the most of it and remember that the beloved the community, that sense of the spark of the divine within each, can erupt at any moment.

No matter the size of the congregation, it can serve as an important voice for justice in its community. I was reminded of this recently when I led worship at another tiny little New England congregation in an old mill town. They asked me ahead of time what I planned to preach on. I told them the lasting impact of global white supremacy. It is a topic on which I preach frequently. It was notable enough in that town that the congregation made the local newspaper. Two full paragraphs. Page three. When Sunday morning came round the sanctuary was the fullest it had been in a long while. Afterwards, several people came up and told me that it was the first time they had heard white supremacy denounced from a historically white pulpit.

There is a truth that I am grasping for here. Even if some of our liberal religious institutions are declining they can still make an impact. In this country, movements for social transformation have always had a religious component. Re-imaging liberal religion for the twenty-first century means recognizing that it needs to continue serve the people well, no matter how few or how many. Whatever the size of a congregation we must remember that it can be a space for collective liberation. In some sense this just means remembering the truth of that well-worn quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

“Life is struggle and loss, and also / tenderness and joy. / Live all of your life, not just part of it.”

I come from a long line of troublemakers, political malcontents, social agitators and religious dissidents. My grandparents, on my Mom’s side, have a connection to the Amana colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. Many people on my father’s side are or were secular Jewish socialists. I was raised on stories of family members who fled this country or that to avoid fighting in another bloody capitalist war.

It is should not be a surprise that I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the project of collective liberation. This has taken me to a number places that most people who have my privileged class background do not normally end up. Over the years, I have helped organize an independent union of bike couriers and a wildcat strike that involved over twenty thousand workers. I have gone to jail for civil disobedience and spent about seven years working with indigenous communities, including the Zapatistas, in Mexico.

It is one of the lessons that I learned from the Zapatistas that I want to lift up to you this morning. The Zapatistas, you might remember, originated as a guerilla movement in Southern Mexico. It January 1994 they seized control of about one third of the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. A movement of indigenous Mayan peasants, among them I found remarkable resonances with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. Consider these words from Commandante Ester, a Zapatista leader, describing her community’s decision making process. She said, that her community tried to make decisions “without losing what makes each individual different, [in doing so] unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.” That sounds a fair bit like the approach to community life found in our congregations.

Indeed, one of most remarkable things that I witnessed in Chiapas was the processes of community decision making. I visited a village where there was a discussion on whether or not to renounce Catholicism in favor of non-Christian indigenous religion. For several days, from morning until late into the evening, all of the community members stood around a basketball court and debated the theological merits of Catholicism and of their Mayan religion. Which did they believe was the true? Which would guide their community best in the project of collective liberation?

On other occasions, I had conversations with Zapatista educators about their educational model. They told me that its goal was to enable people to become more fully human. That sounds an awful lot like Sophia Lyon Fahs writing that the goal of religious education is “to become one’s true self.”

We have to recognize that our theological tradition has a power that extends far beyond the white and professionally classed enclaves that have been liberal religions historic strongholds. The challenge, remember I promised I was going to get to a challenge, is that for liberal religion to grow in the twenty-first century those of us who are white have to recognize our theological solidarity with a host of communities of color that articulate theologies similar to our own. This means cracking open Unitarian Universalist culture in its stuck places. This means confronting the culture of whiteness that prevents many amongst us from seeing kinds of Unitarian and universalist theologies outside of our congregations. It means expanding our conception of our religious tradition and, in doing so, meeting the challenges we collectively face in the twenty-first century.

Rising modes of religious expression; shrinking institutions; and opening ourselves to Unitarianism and Universalism outside of our historic congregations. These challenges, within the broader context of the great challenge, are some we face. Let us collectively continue upon the path of re-imagining liberal religion and liberal theology for the twenty-first century. In doing so, let us have the faith that our efforts will serve all of humanity.

And remember that every single human word is
finally and divinely cradled in the strong and secure
arms of Silence.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Starr King School for the Ministry Mark Belletini Marilyn Sewell Unitarian Universalism House Techno Detroit Zapatismo

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