Archive for November, 2011

Bending Toward Justice

It’s sometimes hard to get everything I want to say on a particular topic into a single sermon.  While I want to emphasize certain points with an illustration to make more concrete what might otherwise remain abstract, such an illustration must be brief at the risk of becoming a distracting tangent or, worse, sidelining the sermon’s intended message.  Sometimes, however, an illustration deserves considerably more airtime.

My Yom Kippur sermon in early October, for example, mentioned the importance of rejecting “cheap grace” when it comes to healing brokenness and restoring wholeness.  I cited the wisdom my mother shared with me that it will take at least as long to mend something as it did to break it.  I then said:

Just think about what that means in this country when it comes to something like racism and the legacy of slavery, which existed as a legal institution for 246 years but was only abolished 146 years ago.  By my reckoning that means we have at least a century of work still to do — and just because we have an African-American President in the White House does not mean we’re done!

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker knew this in 1830 when he spoke of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice.  This understanding was paraphrased 130 years later by Dr. King and repeated more recently by (then Senator) Barack Obama.  What for Parker was a matter of faithful intuition, however, became a matter of determined action for Obama: the moral arc bends because we put our hands on it and make it bend toward justice.

Picking up on this theme, our newly renamed Southeast District has launched a campaign called “Bending the Arc” which is aimed at taking the racial and social justice work of Unitarian Universalism in the South to a new level.  With a vision for transforming the Southeast into the world we dream about, the campaign will, amongst other efforts, focus attention on racial justice in a Southern context, create linkages between congregations to maximize our social justice impact, assist congregations in developing effective interfaith and community partnerships, and seed UU legislative advocacy groups to work on critical social issues.

This is, of course, work that we are called to undertake at my congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, and I intend to begin a conversation in the new year about what that might mean for us and how we might engage with it.  We’ll start with workshops for youth and adults based on The Arc of the Universe is Long, a book recently published by the UUA’s Skinner House that presents a history of “Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary” from the mid-1980s to 2006.

Arc is based on original interviews as well as written records and other documents that address matters of race and ethnicity, and traces the work of anti-racist, anti-oppressive multiculturalism from the 1983 report Empowerment: One Denomination’s Quest for Racial Justice to the 1992 resolution “Racial and Cultural Diversity in Unitarian Universalism” through the renewed commitment expressed at the 2006 General Assembly to address racism and classism in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  The five-session curriculum by one of the authors, UU minister Leslie Takahashi Morris, is intended to generate a discussion about race, identity, relationships, social change and faith in ways that are respectful and constructive.

The most recent issue of UU World includes an article by UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed, whose Black Pioneers in a White Denomination is generally credited with renewing the Unitarian Universalist conversation around race and racism in the 1980s.  In that article, he notes that UUs remain unreconciled over issues of multiculturalism four decades after our Association wounded itself over “black empowerment”, and yet even that failure to live up to our vaunted ideals underscores our common humanity.  The Arc of the Universe Is Long reminds us that our journey toward justice continues, so let us dedicate ourselves to this soul work of redemption and transformation!

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The Covenant of Ordained Ministry

One of my favorite books is Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.  Subtitled “The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy and One of the Rarest Books in the World”, it’s primarily focused on the life and death of Michael Servetus (1511–1553), proto-Unitarian martyr and heretical hero to many of today’s Unitarian Universalists.  Out of the Flames begins and ends, however, by talking about books, from Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press to the three surviving copies of Servetus’ last book, Christianismi Restitutio.

Now Out of the Flames is no textbook.  Servetus’ story is already a pretty exciting tale: he was rivals with John Calvin in college; he took to subterfuge to publish his books attacking orthodox Christianity; and he escaped from the Inquisition in France only to be captured by the Calvinists in Geneva.  More than that, though, the Goldstones have a knack for bringing history alive and they do a great job of setting the scene in Medieval Europe and explaining the continent-wide impact of Gutenberg’s decision to make the Bible the first book he printed.  (Not that he was particularly pious: he simply thought it would be the easiest book to sell!)  Suddenly anyone who could read could read the Bible and, what’s more, they could have their thoughts turned into print for others to read, too.

Until that time, Christianity relied on two sources of authority: the Bible and the priesthood.  While the Bible was authoritative, it was not completely authoritative since a priest was required to interpret it.  The priest was granted this authority, of course, by the church hierarchy, from the local bishop all the way up to the Pope; the Bishop of Rome was in turn authorized as part of an unbroken line going back to Apostles who had — according to the Bible and the priesthood — been authorized by Jesus.  It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the commercial availability of the Bible combined with widespread dissatisfaction at the corruption of the Roman Church, would lead to a questioning of the authority of the priesthood, and the stage was set for the Protestant Reformation.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were part of that reformation, only they took it further than most!  They not only rejected the hierarchical priesthood but, a few centuries later, the authority of the Bible as well, resulting in today’s Unitarian Universalism that is most well known for aiming to be open to all people and to all sources of wisdom.  It’s also important, though, that we have ministers rather than priests, and it’s particularly important that Unitarian Universalist ministers are not ordained by one another or by some version of a bishop or by any denominational authority, but by the congregations served by those ministers.

Now in Servetus’ time ordination meant the conveying of priestly authority down through the church hierarchy, but what does it mean for today’s non-hierarchical Unitarian Universalists?

Just as no one of us is alone when it comes to figuring out what it is that we believe, neither is any one of us doing ministry alone.  Unitarian Universalism is dedicated to the process of individual being in community, the covenant we make with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and the covenant we make with the wider world to be a church of “the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  Similarly, Unitarian Universalist congregations reserve the right to ordain their own ministers because, having rejected the circular logic of both authoritative scripture and authorized priesthood, our authority emerges through that same process of the individual being in community.  When a minister is ordained by a congregation, then, another covenant is enacted, a covenant that dedicates that minister to the service of Unitarian Universalism at the same time that it re-dedicates that congregation to the cause of liberal religion.  Just as a congregation is founded once and only once, so is a minister ordained only once.

A year ago the members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, decided to ordain me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry and install me as their minister.  The last year has confirmed to me that this congregation has a bright and beautiful future, and I am honored that they chose to be responsible for this truly once-in-a-lifetime event!

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Social Change, with Love

Remember, remember the fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot!

— British nursery rhyme

One Autumn night in 1605, agents of King James I searched the cellars underneath Parliament and discovered three-dozen barrels of gunpowder guarded by a man armed with a slow-burning fuse.  A few days earlier, Lord Monteagle had been warned of a plot to blow up the House of Lords at the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant king so that he could be replaced by a Catholic monarch.  The plot was the work of a group of English Catholics whose faith was repressed by the king’s policies, and the man with the fuse had been recruited after spending years abroad fighting with the Spaniards against the Dutch.  Under interrogation he admitted that his assignment had been to blow up the House of Lords, and under torture he revealed the names of his fellow plotters, as well as his own: Guy Fawkes.  Found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Fawkes jumped from the gallows in order to break his own neck and so avoid the excruciation of evisceration and dismemberment while still alive.

Guy Fawkes Night is observed in today’s Britain as a largely family-oriented occasion featuring bonfires, food and firework displays.  Originating as a mandated celebration that the king survived an attempted assassination, it has thankfully grown beyond its former anti-Catholic sentiment, and represents a uniquely British holiday on a par with the American Hallowe’en.  I remember when I was growing up in England that, in the weeks before Bonfire Night, children would make figures out of newspapers and old clothes and ask people for “a penny for the Guy” to pay for firewood, supposedly, the idea being that such figures would be burnt on November 5th in memory of Fawkes’ fate.

As we approach election day this week, we can be thankful that civic life in the United States proceeds considerably more peaceably than it did in seventeenth century Great Britain.  Living in a constitutional federal republic with democratically elected leaders, governance is ultimately the responsibility of the people themselves, rather than a monarch or a class of oligarchs claiming a special mandate, divine or otherwise.  Moreover, and essential to the functioning of democracy, the people are constitutionally guaranteed the rights of freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly, all of which are clearly alive and well given the popular movements that are challenging today’s political and financial orthodoxy.

It’s interesting to compare Congregationalism (as a form of church governance) and Federalism (as a form of national governance) since, in the United States at least, they evolved in parallel.  Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, elect their own leaders (including ministers), given their covenant to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  As such we enjoy many and varied discussions about how individuals and groups of individuals can balance freedom and responsibility, how we might seek peace and do justice, and how we are called to use our blessings in service to the greater good.  Disagreements are, of course, inevitable, but we try to remember one ingredient that unfortunately seems all too often missing from society’s political discourse: love.  For, in the words of the legendary Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou: “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”

Love was certainly missing in the lives (and death) of Guy Fawkes and the Court of King James, but it need not be missing in our public lives, too.  As you go to the polls this week, and as you prepare to vote in next year’s elections, will you do so with love?  Casting aside fear, forsaking anger and rejecting cynicism, will you enjoy the privileges of citizenship with love for those with whom you disagree?  Avoiding self-serving pity, will you choose compassion, literally “suffering with” the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed?  When you vote, will you do so as if “the least of these” were right there in the voting booth with you?

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In Service to Love

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

— Blake Covenant of 1894

Ours is an engaged religion.  Whether we’re cooperating in one another’s faith development, supporting our own members struggling with adversity or working with our community partners to address social needs, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the lives and the world around them.

Such engagement does indeed take many different forms.  Each of us, for instance, is a steward of our own community, accepting the responsibility to take care of something we do not own.  Membership represents a commitment to not only support our congregation financially, but to also help realize our shared vision of “spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community”.  Every time we teach a class or participate in a discussion group, every time we take a meal to a member recovering from surgery, every time we volunteer at St. Paul’s or the Living Interfaith Network, we help bring that vision alive.

While engagement and stewardship are characteristics of any self-organizing group of freely associating individuals with a vision for themselves and their world, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not simply another community group working on social or environmental issues.  The overriding characteristic for UUs is that, while we foster community and address issues, we do so in service to love.

That is why we emphasize covenant, the promises we make to ourselves and to each other about how we intend to behave within beloved community.  Love isn’t easy, whether we’re talking about amorous devotion or beneficent compassion.  Covenant brings us back to our best selves, providing a framework for those times when love is proving more challenging that we’d like, and service to one another and the wider world provides a mechanism for cultivating and re-cultivating that love.

It’s tempting, when first confronted with an issue of injustice, to remain at a certain level of theory and abstraction.  There are certainly no shortage of causes that might impel us to write a letter to the newspaper editor or to a political representative, to educate ourselves on the issues or try to convince others of their importance, even to join a demonstration or a protest.  And those are all valuable activities that are essential to changing systems and structures of oppression.  Also essential — and, in my experience, a powerful source of motivation and resilience — is direct engagement with and service to oppressed communities and those who suffer injustice.

After all, no newspaper article or television report will teach you about poverty or hunger or homelessness like volunteering at a food bank or a shelter.  Nothing will build another’s self-esteem like helping a disadvantaged child to read or meeting a homeless person’s eyes with a genuine smile — nor warm your heart and grow your soul, too.  And nothing dismantles privilege like entering in humility what would otherwise be a relationship governed by relative power, deferring to the wisdom of the oppressed and remaining accountable to those whom society renders powerless.

Rather than denying the world and ourselves, Unitarian Universalism calls us to boldly engage with them, seeking ways of being that strive for peace and justice, and living into the beloved community that fully embraces the humanity of every human being and the preciousness of life on Earth.  If love, in the words of James Vila Blake, “is the spirit of this church and service its law”, how are you answering the call of our living tradition?

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