Archive for June, 2013

Manifest in Beauty

(I delivered this homily at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 12th 2013.)

A seasoned minister once warned me about Mother’s Day services.  “We have people who don’t get on with their mothers,” she told me.  “Or they never knew their mothers.  Or they were abused by their mothers.  We have women who always wanted to be mothers but because of health or relationship challenges never had children.  Or society tells them there’s something wrong with them because they don’t want children.  There are all too many reasons why people would rather not be reminded that it’s Mother’s Day,” she concluded, “or else they’d simply prefer to dismiss it as yet another commercialized, ‘Hallmark’ holiday.”

It’s perhaps not too surprising, then, that Mother’s Day is a fairly popular choice of Sunday for Unitarian Universalists to hold their Flower Communion services.  After all, any Sunday in the months approaching the Summer would do, providing a nice symmetry between the Water Communion in early Autumn as a celebration of everything we share in common with one another and the Flower Communion in late Spring as a celebration of everything that makes us unique and special.  But the more of a Sunday service on Mother’s Day that’s devoted to something like the Flower Communion, well, the less time there is to deal with that fact that it is Mother’s Day.  Plus, there’s already that association between Mother’s Day and flowers, so it’s not too hard to justify.

Of course, Mother’s Day didn’t begin as just another opportunity for the vendors of flowers, chocolates and jewelry to make money: Unitarian writer and activist Julia Ward Howe first campaigned for such a day in the late nineteenth century as a way for women everywhere to bring healing and peace in the wake of the horrors of the Civil War.  And challenging our society’s narrow views of motherhood and the resulting oppression of women, the Unitarian Universalist Association is partnering with the Strong Families Initiative, a coalition of organizations and individuals that crosses society’s often artificial boundaries of “generation, race, gender, immigration status, and sexuality”.  The UUA, by the way, is the first religious organization to partner with Strong Families, joining the effort to broaden Mother’s Day into a more inclusive celebration of motherhood in all its forms.  Jessica Halperin, who is the UUA’s women’s issues program associate, explains, “Strong Families is a national initiative to change policy and culture in support of all families.  Their annual ‘Mama’s Day’ campaign lifts up and celebrates the magic and heartbreak of being a mama and honors the experiences of motherhood that often don’t fit ideas of a traditional Mother’s Day.”

Another dimension to this, of course, comes in association with the word “beauty”.  I actually picked the title of this service, “Manifest in Beauty”, based on my description of previous Flower Communion services, where I explained that just “as the idea of a flower finds expression in many varieties and infinite forms, so too does our shared humanity manifest in so many beautiful ways.”  Then, shortly after I’d chosen my title, the Dove soap people came out with a new advert as part of their “Real Beauty” marketing campaign, comparing a forensic artist’s sketches of women’s descriptions of themselves with those based on other people’s descriptions of the same women.  Putting each pair of sketches side-by-side, it’s clear that the women described themselves in overly critical and, frankly, inaccurate ways, whereas other people — women and men — described their appearances more favorably.  It’s a powerful advert, but it received a lot of criticism because, at the end of the day, Dove’s message seems to be that, simply put, it’s physical appearance that really matters when it comes to a woman’s self-confidence, her success, even her ability to be a good mother.  (Oh, and, of course, that Dove soap and other products from the Unilever corporation can help with that.)

Now there’s a whole series of sermons’ worth of material here — from the complex ways that inner self-confidence and outer self-image are related, including the differences between men and women in how that typically happens, to the intentional marketing of the artificial problem of falling short of some idealized standard of beauty in order to support the growth of the cosmetics industry — but I bring it up here because it does indeed relate to the reason why Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate the Flower Communion.

flowersAfter all, when Norbert and Maja Čapek left the United States, where they had lived during World War I, to create in Prague what would be, for a while, the largest Unitarian church in the world, they wanted to inspire their congregants to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to think of themselves and everyone else, too, as a different embodiment of a spark of divinity struggling for higher expression in its own way.  Inspired by the beauty of the Czech countryside, the Čapeks asked everyone coming to services to bring with them a flower, and to put all of the flowers together to form a huge bouquet.  The assembly of flowers, of course, was just like the congregation of people: remove or change just one flower, and it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  Then, as part of the Flower Communion, each person was to select a flower to take with them when they left, a reminder that each is special in and of itself, simply for being itself, for the carnation doesn’t complain that it’s not a rose nor the tulip that it’s not an orchid.

In a few minutes we’ll be celebrating the Flower Communion ourselves, taking the opportunity to once again manifest in shared beauty our diverse humanity.  But it is Mother’s Day, and so in tribute to everyone — regardless of age, race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation — who deserves to be recognized for their mothering, I’d like to share a reading by mother and writer Beth Brubaker with you.  By way of an introduction, I’ll simply say that this reading is in the style of the books by Laura Numeroff that began with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but even if you’ve never read those books, many of you, I suspect, will find Brubaker’s description of household events awfully familiar.

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Reply from Senator Kaine

(This is in reply to a Letter to My Representatives in Congress.)

Dear Reverend Millard:

Thank you for contacting me about our nation’s fiscal challenges and the sequestration cuts that went into effect March 1.  I appreciate hearing from you.

Our country faces an immense challenge and responsibility to address our country’s unsustainable long-term fiscal position.  We cannot continue to kick the can down the road with short-term solutions.  Neither should we continue “crisis-budgeting” — waiting until a crisis hits to spur legislative action on fiscal policy.

Sequestration — broad, misguided, and across-the-board spending cuts — will reduce federal spending by $85 billion in 2013 alone, ultimately reaching $1.2 trillion in cuts by 2021.  Allowing sequestration to continue is bad policy, bad budgeting and bad governance.  Sequestration will continue to harm our still fragile economy, just as we begin to emerge from a difficult recession and respond to unacceptably high unemployment.  Sequestration is also having a devastating impact on the defense industry, and on many other important priorities, from education and health care to law enforcement.

I strongly disagree with those who think inaction is a responsible policy. The economic uncertainty of sequestration started to negatively affect the economy months before it occurred, and people are feeling the effects in their communities right now. In Virginia alone, up to 90,000 Virginians are at risk of being furloughed.  Businesses and contractors are delaying, or even cancelling, hiring decisions and critical investments in research.  These furloughs and layoffs will have a ripple effect throughout the local economy, on shopkeepers and merchants in those areas.

The job losses alone will have an overwhelming impact in Virginia, especially on those in uniform who protect our nation and the civilians who are critical to our nation’s security.  Virginia is as connected to the military and federal government as any other state in the country.  Active duty personnel, Guard and Reserve members, veterans, civilian federal employees, defense contractors, and military families represent a significant segment of the Commonwealth.  We have a responsibility to protect these heroes and should not break faith with them in a time of economic challenges.

On February 28, 2013, the Senate debated legislation on sequestration.  I voted in favor of a bill to replace the first year of the sequester with a mix of targeted spending cuts and revenue.  This is the balanced approach I believe is a credible solution to this problem.  However, that bill did not pass the Senate and the issue of sequester is still unresolved.

The House and Senate passed an appropriations bill in late March that funds the government through the end of the fiscal year.  President Obama signed this bill into law on March 26.  This is a responsible decision that avoids a government shutdown and shows the resolve of the Senate to embrace an orderly budget process and stop governing by crisis.  This bill allows Virginia shipyards to resume delayed construction projects and repairs to facilities and ships, such as the USS Roosevelt and the USS Lincoln.  It also reinstates tuition assistance for servicemembers that was put in jeopardy by the sequester.

We still have time to replace the sequester.  On March 23, the Senate approved a budget for FY 2014 on a vote of 50-49.  I supported this budget, which is a balanced proposal that will bolster our economic recovery and boost job creation while seriously tackling our deficit and debt in a credible way.  The Senate budget, which calls for the replacement of the sequester, mixes smart and responsible spending cuts with new revenues from closing loopholes and wasteful spending in the tax code.

Congress and the Administration should stay at the table and find a compromise solution.  I will do all I can to replace sequestration, and to push for a normal budgeting process and a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction plan.

Thank you again for contacting me about this important issue.

Sincerely,

Tim Kaine

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A Letter to My Representatives in Congress

To Representative Scott, Senator Warner and Senator Kaine:

[Note: you can read Representative Scott’s response here and Senator Kaine’s response here.]

I write in regard to a number of my congregants who are being directly hurt by the effects of the 2013 budget “sequester”, and to request that Congress act to help them.

The congregation I serve is located in Hampton Roads, a region that benefits economically and culturally from the presence of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, NASA’s Langley Research Center, many military bases and facilities, and the shipyards and other industries that support both valuable scientific research and crucial national security operations.  During the last year or more, I have heard a number of my congregants — including civilians and veterans — express uncertainty about their future financial security, thanks to the sequester.  Well, those people are now being hurt by Congress’ (in)decision to allow that the sequester happen.

Jefferson Labs, for instance, is putting its staff on a 20% furlough, requiring them to reduce their hours by one day a week.  Thanks to on-going pay freezes, their families were already struggling to make ends meet.  This not only compounds the damage to those families, but also depresses the economy of the region — and the state — as a whole, hindering our economic recovery.  The irony is that there is money available in other places within the budget, but the sequester prevents it from being moved so that it can be used for salaries.

Congress has already acted to allow some government agencies the flexibility to fine-tune the effects of the sequester.  And we all noticed that when flight delays threatened to personally inconvenience members of Congress, they did just that for the FAA.  I write to ask you to allow that same flexibility as needed to mitigate the devastating effects of the sequester on the good people of Hampton Roads.

Yours, in faith,

Rev. Andrew C. Millard
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula
Newport News, Virginia

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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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From Where I Stand

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 2nd 2013.)

There’s a story about someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one Sunday morning and immediately starts complaining.

“I don’t feel like going to church.  The hymns are always boring, the readings are so pedantic, the sermons are too obscure, and then, after it’s all over, I get the feeling that nobody there really likes me.  That’s it, I’ve decided: I’m not going to church today!”

“But sweetheart,” her spouse gently replies, “the people do like you and the service isn’t all that bad.  Besides, you’ve really got to go: you’re the minister!”

Well, though I need to get up extra early on Sundays — and though I’ve never been a morning person — I always look forward to being here.  I might be tired or sick, I might not feel as on top of things as I’d like, the weather might be dismal and dreary or swelteringly hot, but I look forward to seeing familiar faces, meeting new people, singing our hymns and sitting in silence together, and always noticing, as if with fresh eyes, how much of a difference this community makes in so many people’s lives.  (And, as much as it’s important for me to practice good “self care” by honoring my Sunday off each month, I freely admit that I am sad to miss the wonderful services that are offered on those Sundays.)

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming to the end of my third year here, my third year as minister to this Fellowship.  The time has gone by very quickly, but it’s been very fulfilling, and I feel privileged to be serving such a congregation with so many wonderful people and with such tremendous promise for the future of our faith.  With Olivia’s birth, of course, my own life has changed considerably, and so I’m particularly glad of the support that Allison and I have received from Fellowship members as we’ve fumbled our way into parenthood.

Now I’ve realized — as have others — that in reaching this three-year point, I will soon have been at the Fellowship as long as any previous minister.  Your last settled minister, Buffy Boke, was here for three years, and Paul Boothby was interim minister before her for two years.  So moving into the fourth year of my ministry will be a new experience for all of us, and I’m excited that we get to navigate this uncharted territory in the life of this congregation together.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s been just a bit of anxiety as we prepare to cross this threshold.  Some of that comes from a general fear of the unknown, and perhaps there’s some worry about what changes might come from a minister who’s been here more than a few years.

Some of the anxiety is more specifically based on the Fellowship’s history, manifesting in concerns that I might be planning to leave.  I remember the song written by Joanne, and sung by our children and youth to the tune for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that lists the many part-time ministers that the Fellowship had before finally making the leap of faith to full-time ministry, and then lists the settled and interim ministers who followed: this congregation has had more than enough practice saying goodbye to its ministers.

So let me put your minds at ease.  I have no plans to leave.

It’s said that there are two mistakes a minister can make: first, staying too long; second, not staying long enough.  Over the last decade, the Fellowship has known life as a church in short cycles — the usual one or two years for interim ministry, but only two or three years for settled ministry — and though there have been major accomplishments — such as buying the office building and funding the mortgage for it ourselves — it’s hard for a congregation to feel like it’s making much headway when the clock keeps being reset on ministry.  (It’s really hard on the Fellowship’s savings, too, when it keeps being spent on finding a new minister.)  So, as I shared with the Search Committee when I first met with them a little over three years ago, I am a firm believer in the transformative effects of long-term settlements.  After all, I’ve seen first-hand the power of Christine Robinson’s twenty-plus year ministry in Albuquerque, something that has transformed First Unitarian there into a thriving, dynamic, boldly imaginative, willing-to-stretch-itself congregation, making it, in fact, one of our faith’s flagship congregations.

I also shared with the UUFP Search Committee that I was looking for a congregation that would grow with me at the same time that I grew as a minister.  And I was told — by the Search Committee, by your former ministers, by other local ministers and by district staff — that this was a thriving, growing congregation with the potential to do great things, by itself as well as in cooperation with our sister congregations in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

Well, all of that is still true. And we’ve seen that it’s not just a matter of potential for some imagined distant future, either.  At the end of February we held the first Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival, using every chair that Christopher Newport University could give us and filling the CNU Ballroom with fabulous music and singing and speaking and fellowship.  We caught the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, with a write-up in the latest issue of UU World.  We’re also poised to make ourselves known in Richmond, since, after taking the lead in getting the Tidewater Cluster started, we’re now building a progressive legislative advocacy network amongst Unitarian Universalists in Virginia.

speakingSo, coming to the end of my third year as your minister, and looking forward to the possibilities of the years still to come, this seems like a good time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going.  I’ll touch on a number of different areas, so keep in mind that all of these interlock with one another in many different ways, but of course I can only speak about them one after another.

Something I’ll mention first is that, after a year’s dedicated work to seek out, gather, process and refine an incredible amount of information, the Planning Committee has issued a report that I ask all of you to read.  It’s on the UUFP website and it’ll be sent out by e-mail next week, too.  Soon there’ll be a survey to collect your opinions about the Fellowship’s future, to help us craft a vision and a plan for the next five years of our congregational life together, so please take a look at the Planning Committee’s report when you can.

Well, the place to start, I guess, is with Sunday morning worship, what we’re doing right now.  It’s most people’s first chance to experience what this congregation is really like in the flesh.  Oh, they know what we claim to be, because almost everyone who visits us for the first time has already seen our website and our Facebook pages and our blog, but there’s no substitute for actually walking through those doors and seeing the people who are already here.  From the friendly smiles of the greeters to the smell of coffee and snacks, from the helpful guidance of the ushers to the uplifting music, we try to make people feel as welcome as we can.

And just as the movement from front door to Sanctuary seat is a unified whole, so are our services, with hymns and readings, music and spoken words coming together to support the message.  Sometimes, a traditional sermon is not the only way to get that message across, or even the best way, so when appropriate I like to share the pulpit or include multigenerational dramas, or tell a story or project pictures or invite you into a hands-on activity.  Sometimes I don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith, after all, and if there’s anyone who should have faith that things will go well, I guess it’s the minister.

This Summer, by the way, marks the latest stage in the evolution of this congregation from where it was — and where most other UU churches were — not all that many years ago, namely being closed on Sundays, with no services, during July and August.  This year, as has been my intention since starting here, I shall be doing services in the Summer months just as if they were any other month.  It’s well known that a lot of people, particularly families with young children, do their “church shopping” during the Summer, and I want to be here for them.  The religious need inherent in being human, the need of people for community and transformation, doesn’t take the Summer off, and neither should ministers.

Next we come to lifespan faith development, which is a fancy way of saying religious education for children, youth and adults.  This is, frankly, an area in which I’d like to be able to do more, but since my place is here on a Sunday morning, I can’t also be part of Adult RE or Spirit Play or the Youth Group.  Of course, for the last ten months I’ve found that I’m doing a lot of another sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer workshops or participate in youth and young adult events, whether it’s working with and supporting our Fellowship Circle facilitators or helping our Coming of Age students put their faith into words and write elevator speeches about what they believe.

Now when it comes to Unitarian Universalism as a faith, you’ve heard me say before that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; rather, what matters is what we do with those beliefs, in other words how we behave toward others and the world we share.  A good number of my sermons touch on issues of social justice, and this congregation has a long and proud history of good works.

Recently we’ve gone through a transition with a restructuring of the Social Justice Committee to be more of an umbrella group, bringing together task forces and groups working on different issues from hunger and homelessness to LGBTQ equality to environmental stewardship so that they can encourage one another and share ideas and resources.  I think that’s great, and I strongly support their efforts to develop more ways for people to get involved with the sort of well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities that prove consistently popular at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry and the PORT Winter Shelter Program.  Given the busyness of life today, most people aren’t willing or aren’t able to commit themselves to the on-going requirements of committee work or organizational responsibility, but offer them a chance to spend a couple of hours making a tangible difference in the lives of others, and they’ll be there — and they’ll bring their children and their friends to help, too. That’s how we show what our faith means.

This brings me to another area, starting with my take on the “hospitality teams” idea that many of you heard about at last month’s annual meeting.  To quickly summarize, the idea of hospitality teams is that the entire congregation, plus any non-members who want to be involved, is divided up into groups of forty or so people.  These teams take it in turn being responsible for everything that happens each Sunday morning between the front door and the Sanctuary doors — from greeting to ushering, from getting the coffee brewing to putting out snacks, from unlocking the doors and setting up the social area to cleaning up after everything’s finished and making sure the building is closed and locked again. There’s something for everyone, since the tasks — which are not always to be done by the same people: well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities work best, remember — the tasks range from simply making sure there’s a fresh carton of half-n-half in the fridge to preparing an entire spread of baked goods, since I for one am not willing to get in Sandra’s way of doing that for us.

I’m excited about the hospitality teams idea for a couple of different reasons.

First, when Cyndi Simpson, who has been minister to the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, offered a workshop to our UUFP leadership a few months ago, she talked about the needs that people have to connect with one another at a variety of levels.  (It’s important to know this, because one of the fears that people often express when talking about congregational growth is that they won’t know as many people or won’t know them as well.)

So people need to connect with one another individually, which is one of the reasons why, over the last three years, we’ve been trying to implement a new way of doing congregational stewardship, where every member or couple or family has someone assigned to them to at least check in with them a few times a year.  People also need to connect with one another in small groups of about a dozen people, which is one of the reasons we offer Fellowship Circles in particular and other programs such as the Book Club and Goddess Circle and Resist Apathy and Fifty and Better in general.  But people also need to connect with one another in larger groups of about fifty people and, other than perhaps EarthRising’s most well attended rituals, we don’t really offer anything that meets people’s needs for connection at that level.  Hospitality teams would do that, and do it intentionally, with each team getting together regularly for purely social events.

And I’m excited about hospitality teams for a second reason, and for this insight I’m grateful to Joanne.  Up until last year, we had a Nominating Committee that, just after New Year’s, would start talking to the UUFP leadership about who was willing to continue serving on the Board or as a committee chair and who wasn’t.  They’d figure out which positions needed to be filled by election at the annual meeting and who they had as potential candidates for those positions.  Then they’d panic, and they’d continue in that state of panic for about two months, and that’s why a large chunk of the UUA ministers’ retirement plan is invested in the companies that make Tums and Pepto-Bismol.  The problem is common not just to churches but also to almost every volunteer group, namely that it usually comes down to re-electing the people who’ve already served many times before or the people who’ve just joined the congregation and made the mistake of telling us that they’re good with numbers or words or plumbing.

That’s why we now have a Leadership Development Committee rather than the old fashioned, gastrically ulcerated Nominating Committee.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the month, but leadership development ought to start when someone first walks in that door, continuing with everything they ever do as a member, and rather than culminating in their election to some leadership position continues after that, too, since the primary responsibility of anyone in leadership is to train their own replacement.

Obviously it’s much easier to find people willing to be elected if they first have some positive experience of the work that’s involved, and it’s much better to have people on a committee organizing some program if they first have some positive experience of participating in that program.  Hospitality teams can do just that, helping people who may well be brand new to the congregation to immediately make a difference in the life of this community, putting them on the very first step of the path toward bigger leadership responsibilities in the future, if that’s something that, in time, they choose to pursue.

And this gets to the heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning.  This community is built by all of us.  Our lay leader wasn’t exaggerating this morning when she spoke the usual words to introduce our offering, that “All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  Growing this beloved community is a ministry in which each and every one of us is involved, a ministry that is found whenever we bring our best selves, whenever we share our joy at the good we find here, whenever we boldly grasp the imagination, whenever we lift up the inspiring work that we’re doing together.

I’d like to finish, in fact, by doing just that, lifting up the good work that each and every one of you is doing, whether you’ve been here for decades or have walked in the door for the very first time this morning, for everything you do is helping to grow this beloved community.

So, if you currently serve in an official leadership position — whether elected or appointed — please stand.  Let’s give them a round of applause to thank them!

If you currently serve on a committee or a planning group or a task force, please stand.  Thank you for your service!

If you help with a program — being an RE teacher or a greeter or an usher or a lay leader or a steward or providing hospitality or music or items for the yard sale or being part of the Casbah or PORT or the buildings and grounds clean-up crew — please stand.  You are truly doing the work of this congregation, so thank you.

And if you are present here this morning, having brought yourself as you are, whether troubled or happy, whether content with your life or searching for something missing, whether curious or tired or hungry or lonely or at peace, please stand.  Thank you for giving us the biggest gift of all, the gift of your presence among us.  I invite you to look around at everyone else standing with you and to give yourselves a round of applause.

All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it.  May we always seek and find new and greater ways to live this gift and this promise.

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Sky and Water, Land and Spirit

(I delivered this sermon for Earth Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 21st 2013.)Born with a Bang

Children’s Story: Born with a Bang: the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story by Jennifer Morgan

Reading: from Song by Philemon Sturges

A few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of SciencePhilemon had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the scientific creation story of the Universe, the Earth and Life as we know it.  As a successful children’s author, he’d accepted the challenge to write not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and to write it not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.

The working title of the book was Song, a metaphor for the creative processes of the cosmos itself.  This reading tells the portion of the story where an ancestral supernova created the heavy elements that would later form our solar system, our planet and ourselves.

Quite long ago, yet not so far
from here, there was a giant star.
Tiamat’s the perfect name
for that great sphere of searing flame.
Her balance-dancing did not last.
She ‘xploded with a thund’rous blast.
That roaring fiery furnace forged
new elements.  They were disgorged
into surrounding space, and then
were gracefully gathered back again.

Her stardust gyred and slowly spun;
soon gravity’s great work was done.
Though Tiamat was sorely riven,
her godlike gift of gold was given.

A mellow star was born — our Sun.
Of his [eight] planets there was one
that balance-danced ‘twixt heat and cold,
and there Song’s singing could unfold.

Air-wrapped Earth was bathed in water.
The circling Moon, Her clinging daughter,
stirred amniotic air and sea.
Soon gyring eddies came to be.

As Earth basked in the warming Sun,
Song’s birthing song was softly sung:

Gently turn, slowly spin,
my warmth transforms what errs within.
What once was simple now shall be
imbued with new complexity.

Then, in a still mysterious way,
near a vent, on crystal clay,
or on the edge of tidal sea,
emerged a new complexity.
Two mirrored molecules entwined.
Our Mother, Life, was born.
(And now, perhaps, Her daughter — Mind.)

Anthem: “Above the Moon, Earth Rises

Sermon: “Sky and Water, Land and Spirit”

When I was seven years I started at a new school.  At the back of the room where I had all of my classes other than art and music, there was a tall bookcase, crammed with books suitable for seven-year-olds.  The teacher told us that we were to choose one of the books, to read it as class-time allowed, and, when we were done with it, to select another and repeat.  All of the other children picked books like The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and The Hobbit.  I picked a book about the solar system.  And when I’d finished reading that one, I picked a book about atoms.

My teacher patiently explained to me that those weren’t really the books that she wanted me to read.  Eventually she succeeded in getting me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and I owe her my thanks for my enjoyment of reading ever since — but I have to admit that my interest in the science books wasn’t because of the science, at least at first, but because of the pictures in the books — gorgeous photographs of planets and galaxies, beautiful illustrations of particles too small to see — and they captured my imagination.  It was an incredible feeling to try to wrap my mind around the immensities of space and time, so far beyond anything I’d experienced in my barely begun life, or to think about how everything that I believed to be solid — books, chairs, my own body — was made up of these miniscule bits of matter that were actually mostly empty space.

And I guess there’s an important lesson for all of us, whether we’re teachers or not.  If you want to get somebody to do something, particularly if it involves thinking in a new way, and not just to do it but really to commit to doing it, you’ve got to capture their imagination.  Because after reading those books on planets and atoms, I was hooked.  I’d had an interest in mechanical devices and machinery, thanks to a few children’s television programs I’d seen as well as some of the toys my parents had given me, but now I didn’t just want to build the machines myself: I wanted to figure out how they worked.  I wanted to figure out how everything worked, how we could be part of the same Universe, from atoms up through planets and with us living our lives there in the middle.

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas
Click for more details.

Humanity’s understanding of the Universe has come a long way in my life-time, of course.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just a couple of years before I was born.  This picture was taken by Apollo 8 only a little before that, on Christmas Eve 1968, to be precise.  It has inspired a generation of would-be astronauts, as well as the words by preacher and poet Thomas Troeger that the choir sang a few minutes ago, and gave its name to the Fellowship’s Earth-centered spirituality group, EarthRising.  Then there’s the cosmic microwave background — the low level hum of energy that fills all space — that had been discovered earlier in the 1960s, a phenomenon that, as we have studied it, has revolutionized our knowledge about the Big Bang and the evolution of the Universe.

Fifty years later, we know more precisely than ever that the Universe is a little less than fourteen billion years old.  Much as we might be tempted to ask what happened before the Universe was created, that’s not a very meaningful question because time itself didn’t exist before then either.  There was no “before” before.  The metaphor that cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives is that asking what happened before time began is like asking what’s north of the north pole.

One idea about how the Universe was created is that there was an unstable fluctuation in what is known as the quantum vacuum.  To try to explain that, let me simply say that in quantum mechanics, what we might think of as nothingness is actually boiling with activity, with energy appearing and disappearing far too quickly for us to notice.  Only, 13.8 billion years ago, some of that energy didn’t disappear and instead blew up.  As described in this morning’s children’s story, the early Universe expanded and cooled down enough for some of that energy to turn into particles.  They were created with their anti-matter equivalents, which annihilated each other back into energy, but as the particle physicists who work at Jefferson Labs can tell us, there’s a very slight imbalance built into the laws of physics and so there was just a little matter left over.  That slight excess of matter, of course, is what everything that exists today — you, me, this building, this planet — is made from.

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe
Click for more details.

After a few hundred thousand years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms to form, mostly hydrogen with some helium.  Now this is a picture of the cosmic microwave background, a map of the whole sky that was completed just last year after nine years of gathering data.  It shows very slight irregularities in the distribution of energy in the very early Universe, as a result of which there were places where, even under the very weak pull of gravity between hydrogen atoms, those atoms could be gathered together and eventually form galaxies.

NASA: Pillars of Creation

NASA: Pillars of Creation
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In places where enough hydrogen could collect, of course, gravity squeezed the hydrogen atoms together until nuclear fusion took place, and stars were born.  This is a process that continues even today, in places such as the Eagle Nebula.  This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; to give you an idea of the scale here, the column on the left is six or seven light years in length.  The Eagle Nebula, by the way, is about seven thousand light years away from us, which means that, given the finite speed of light, we’re actually seeing the nebula as it was seven thousand years ago in the past.

Now only a decade or two ago there was an idea that in our part of the galaxy there was once a very large star, much bigger than our Sun.  In the children’s story, this was called the Mother Star, while others have called it Tiamat, which in Babylonian mythology is the name of the primordial goddess who gives birth to the other gods.  The idea was that this star exploded and, as a supernova, produced carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron and other heavy elements that were scattered across space.  Given another billion years or so, enough of those elements, along with plenty of the original hydrogen that was still around, had condensed to form our solar system, with the Sun shining at its center.  More recently, astrophysicists have concluded that at least twenty such ancestral stars exploded, contributing the elements that made our solar system, so Tiamat was not a single star but a community of stars.

At the same time that we’ve been making these discoveries, astronomers have also discovered planets around other stars — and some of those other planets are about the same size as the Earth or are orbiting their star at just the right distance for liquid water to exist, which is generally believed to be one of the pre-conditions for life to emerge.  Those solar systems were similarly formed from the elements resulting from ancestral supernovas, so perhaps our solar system isn’t that unique, though we cannot say as yet whether any of those other planets have anything we’d recognize as life on them or not.

In any case, our planet, life as we know it and everything that makes us up was produced by dying stars.  As astronomer Carl Sagan and others have since put it, “We are made of star stuff.”  We all come from the same raw materials.  And we are alive today because, billions of years ago, those stars died.

Of course, once the Earth had formed and the bombardment of comets and other space debris had eased off, the story switches from cosmological evolution to biological evolution.  That’s a topic for a future sermon, but I want to note that it’s in biology that the principle of interdependence is particularly obvious.  After all, the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat are all parts of a vast system of cycles that, powered by sunlight and otherwise left to themselves, support life on this planet just as they have for millions of years.  Everything that makes us what we are was once somewhere else in and on the Earth, even as, billions of years before that, it came from a supernova.

Now there’s apparently a Serbian proverb that captures these ideas and suggests what we might do with them:  “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars.”  Actually I suspect that the Serbian word translated “earth” here more literally means “soil”, since I’ve seen another translation that says: “Be humble for you are made of dung.”  And there’s little that’s more humble than that.

Yes, we should all be uplifted to know that we are made of stars, but we need a good dose of humility, too.  It’s all too easy to look at the progression from energy to matter to life to consciousness, even to claim (and not metaphorically) that stars died so that we might live, and then to conclude that, well, the point of the whole thing was obviously to produce conscious beings as a way for the Universe to be aware of itself.  There’s even something called the Anthropic Principle that claims that the Universe must be the way it is in order for there to be intelligent life that is able to see that the Universe is the way it is.  But when we’re talking about conscious beings, of course, we know we’re really talking about human beings.  After all, wouldn’t we like to think that the whole point of the Big Bang and everything that happened in the fourteen billion years since was to produce us as the pinnacle not only of biological evolution but of cosmological evolution, too?  That seems awfully arrogant to me.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to be arrogant, to be conceited, to be unquestioningly sure of ourselves, than it is to be humble.  Humility takes courage.  Humility requires that we question ourselves, that we think about things beyond ourselves, that we think of ourselves not in the spotlight at the center of the cosmic stage but as part of an interdependent web where our true value comes from our relationships and not from our fantasies about self-reliance.  It takes courage to hear the scientific creation story of the Universe and embrace its implications for how we are to live on this Earth, how we are to treat one another, and how we are to treat the special planet that supports such diversity of life, not just ours.

For example, Carl Sagan pleaded with NASA during the 1980s to have the first Voyager spacecraft take a particular picture.  Voyager had swung past Saturn up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Sagan wanted it to glance homeward one last time.  It almost didn’t happen — a few project personnel claimed it wasn’t “science” and the project’s technicians were being laid off — but an administrator intervened just in time and so Voyager 1 took its photograph of the Earth — from a distance of more than four billion miles.

NASA: Pale Blue Dot

NASA: Pale Blue Dot
Click for more details.

You may have seen that photo.  Here it is, in fact.  Against an almost black background, a beam of sunlight, reflected off the spacecraft, slants across the picture.  As if suspended in the light, like a tiny bit of blue dust, is our planet.

Describing the photograph, Sagan wrote the following.

“That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sagan continued.  “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

And Sagan concluded with this.  “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We are all called to embrace this cosmic perspective, and to do so joyfully.  Our Earth, this pale blue dot that is our blue boat home, is small, but it is special and so very precious.  It is unique, so far as we know, and so are we.  For we are made of earth and should be humble, but along with the Earth we are also made of the noble stars.  Rather than being at odds with one another, though, the humility and the nobility go hand-in-hand, asking us not to look down on our world and one another in superiority but calling us instead to look up to creation in wonder.

The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us.  For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in the Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.”  And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can really work, which is in this life — is expressed by the Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.”  The scientific creation story of the Universe affirms that there is a unity that makes us one, but it is up to us, all of us, working together, to ensure that the future is hospitable to humanity.

We are called to honor the Earth and to honor one another, to care for our blue boat home and to nurture the irreplaceable spark of divinity within each of us.  May we strive to answer that call, now and always.

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Freedom from Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his 1941 State of the Union address by describing four universal freedoms that, as the right of all people, justified American involvement in the Second World War.  When it came to the fourth freedom, “freedom from fear”, Roosevelt said more than he did for the first three freedoms — “freedom of speech and expression”, “freedom of worship” and “freedom from want” — making the case for U.S. military intervention in Europe as a means to the goal of “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

This is a dream that still awaits realization.  Universalizing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms beyond the challenges of his time, though, freedom from fear continues to be the most critical of the Four Freedoms, something that we would do well to demand in our own time.  Enshrining freedom of speech and freedom of worship in the Constitution does little good if people are afraid to enjoy those freedoms.  Even freedom from want isn’t possible if people are afraid to grasp the opportunities and securities that are their rights as basic expectations of democracy.

That’s a point that has been part of the good news of Unitarian Universalism for a long time.  There are, for instance, a hundred or more references to freedom in our primary hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  There are even whole sections of both hymns and readings under the title of “freedom”!  There are many references to fear in that hymnal, too, but most of them are about overcoming fear, whether that’s through truth or love or service or fellowship.  And in the newer book, one of my favorite new hymns, Jason Shelton’s “The Fire of Commitment”, calls us “into faith set free from fear.”

In this, we Unitarian Universalists really are living the counter-culturalism we claim.  In some of my sermons I criticize the commercial media that, if it’s not trying to sucker us into buying stuff we don’t need, seems to thrive on making us afraid.  Actually those functions go hand-in-hand.  It’s almost laughable how often some so-called “news” segment on television concludes with an outrageous statement such as “Something in your kitchen could be killing you right now!”  Apparently the assumption is that you’ll sit through as many commercials as can be fit in before it is finally revealed that you probably shouldn’t drink dish soap.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist message of freedom, however, is that we don’t need to live in fear.  We don’t need to live in fear of hell or in fear of orthodoxy.  We don’t need to live in fear of the world around us or in fear of our own bodies.  We don’t need to live in fear of being judged for being ourselves or for having questions.  We don’t need to live in fear of not being perfect when perfection is an impossibility.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the opposite of freedom isn’t captivity or imprisonment or regulation; no, the opposite of freedom is fear.  So to speak of “freedom from fear” is to be redundant.  To speak of “freedom of speech” also includes not being afraid to speak.  To speak of “freedom of religion” also includes not being afraid to think about and ask questions about religion.  To speak of “freedom from want” also includes not being afraid to demand that one of the priorities of the wealthiest nation on Earth be that everyone have access to the basic necessities of life.

As we go about our lives in a world that strives toward peace, liberty and justice like a seedling strives for the Sun, let us cultivate a faith that rises above fear, seeking the wisdom of our heritage and values, seeking the courage to free ourselves from the fear that closes doors, and resolving to offer the world a hope so keen that our souls may hear and our hearts may see.

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