Posts Tagged sexuality

Together We Are More

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 19th 2013.  The first service that Sunday featured a “traditional” format based around the sermon, while the second service was “multigenerational” with the three stories told interactively as bracketed by an introduction and a reflection.)

Introduction (multigenerational service)

This morning we’re going to hear three different folk tales from around the world — one from Africa, one from India and one from Japan — as well as a song based on a saying from China.  All of them provide us with some different ways to look at what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Now all of us are part of something larger than ourselves, often more than one thing.  We’re part of our families, part of our communities, part of our society, part of the human race, part of life on this planet.  And all of us here this morning are part of this congregation — even if you’re visiting us for the first time, we welcome you into our religious community for the time that you’re here.

One of the reasons to choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves is that it allows us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.  In the first story, we’ll meet Hare, who realizes he must ask others to help him if he’s to do what he promised Hyena; in return, Hare gives the others a couple of marvelous gifts.

Often we’re part of something larger than ourselves because there’s some bigger goal we’re trying to achieve together.  In the second story, when a fowler or bird-catcher is trying to trap some quail so that he can sell them at the market, we find out what can happen to a community when it loses sight of its own goal.

And our third story is short but makes a simple point about the importance of how we are together making all the difference.  We’ll go with a woman who wants to see both heaven and hell; the monks at the local temple show her two scenes that are exactly the same except in one particular way that turns one scene into hell and turns the other into heaven.

~)<

Anthem: “Where There Is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander

Sermon

[“Hare’s Gifts”, a story from Africa, told by Kenneth Collier]

It wasn’t until I’d completed about a year’s worth of seminary classes that I realized that one of my main interests was in the subject of community.  And this wasn’t just an academic interest in building and sustaining community, I knew, but a deep, personal need to be a part of something larger.  I’ve always been a “joiner” — by which I don’t mean a carpenter who specializes in assembling woodwork but somebody who becomes a member of organizations — and where they was no organization to join, I would create one.

As a young child, for instance, I rounded up the other young children who lived on my street, starting with my sister and one of the neighbors, to form what I naïvely called a gang.  Rather than going out and getting into trouble, though, we met in a shed in my parents’ back yard and held committee meetings.  I guess I was destined for church work.

Twenty years later I was living in San Diego and had become part of an on-line community that was forming under the name of Scientific Pantheism.  I’d been attracted — in spite of the bizarre-sounding name — on the basis of a web page that asked questions such as:

“When you look at the night sky or at the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, are you filled with feelings of awe and wonder at the overwhelming beauty and power of the Universe?

“When you are in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the sea, on a mountain peak, do you ever feel a sense of the sacred, like the feeling of being in a vast cathedral?

“Do you believe that humans should be a part of Nature, rather than set above it?”

Well, my answer to all of these questions was “yes”, just as it is for many Unitarian Universalists.  Only I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism at the time.  Even though there were active, healthy UU congregations in the towns where I’d lived since moving to the United States, none of them offered a campus ministry that had reached me at the universities where I studied and worked, so I was left to my own devices to find religion on-line.

Of course, that wasn’t very satisfactory.  So, discovering that there were a number of other people living in Southern California who had also found that on-line group, I suggested we get together.  Apparently other people felt the same need for seeing one another, as I found that I was welcoming into my little apartment not only people from San Diego, but from Orange County, from Riverside, even from Los Angeles.  To give you an idea of the time and distance, that’s like someone coming here from Fredericksburg, only with much, much, much worse traffic, as well as immigration check-points.

We started meeting every month, for picnics and potlucks, for meditation and story-telling and drumming, to go hiking or to visit places like the San Diego Zoo or the La Brea Tar Pits.  We called ourselves the Pantheists of Southern California, and I even have one of the surviving mugs that I had made for us.  It was community at its most instinctive, its most informal, as is entirely appropriate for a small group of a dozen or fifteen people, but it met a real, human need — our need — for community.

[“The Fowler and the Quail”, a story from India, told by H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas]

Even before I officially began here at the Fellowship, I received a message from someone who wanted to start what he was calling an “Interfaith Communion” to bring together liberal churches around issues of LGBTQ equality.  The inaugural event was to be held at Hilton Christian Church, with a potluck and a showing of a documentary about California’s Proposition 8.  A number of you here attended, and there seemed to be interest in more such events that would bring together Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists and Reformed Jews as well as some of the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

I suggested that it would be good for the ministers from those churches and other clergy to meet, to figure out what we might do next as well as to support one another in our own social justice efforts, and very quickly we got together and started meeting once a month.  Now after a few such meetings, the original organizer of the potluck and movie event told us about a distinguished sexuality educator he knew who’d be willing to visit Hampton Roads to do a weekend workshop for us.  We reasoned that a lot of homophobia, for instance, is rooted in ignorance about human sexuality, so anything we could do to educate people would be a step in the right direction.  We readily agreed to organize the workshop and even received a grant from the Advocacy Office of the United Church of Christ to help with costs.  Again, a number of you here attended that weekend workshop.

Not long after that, though, the group fell apart.  That’s not because we started arguing, but we did stop cooperating with one another.  Those of us who were ministers found ourselves too busy with other things.  A couple of people were ill and for some reason just about all of the Congregationalist churches in the area seemed to be having problems of their own.  We found it harder and harder to keep a regular meeting time that worked for even a few of us, and eventually the attempts to re-convene the Interfaith Communion simply ended.

[“The Difference Between Heaven and Hell”, a story from Japan, told by Elisa Pearmain]

I think that’s the difference between what I experienced with the Pantheists of Southern California and what I experienced with the Interfaith Communion: in San Diego, we figured out how to feed each other.  I’m not talking about actual food, of course — there was always plenty of that, and none of us were hindered by only being able to use three-foot-long chopsticks to pick it up.  No, I’m talking about feeding one another spiritually, something that very few people can do — or at least do for very long — all by themselves.

I’ve heard a number of ideas about the origin of the word “religion”, but the one that seems to make the most sense — at least to me, particularly as a Unitarian Universalist — is that it comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again”.  I don’t recommend looking it up in any dictionary, though, given that a lot of overly specific theology tends to get inappropriately included.  As I said here one sunny Sunday morning a little over three years ago, there’s a dirty little secret about religion that I learned while I was in seminary:

Religion isn’t really about belief, at least not for most people, even in main-line Christian denominations.  Rather, religion is about community.  It’s about family and friends and feeling connected with other people, being a part of something larger that gives us a sense of purpose in the world, that challenges us to be more than we are, that asks us to help make the world a better place, for our children and for one another.  It’s about feeding one another spiritually.

And here’s what happens when we do that: unlike physical food that’s consumed, when we feed one another spiritually, we end up with more, not less, and we find that we are more together than we are as a mere collection of individuals.  When we come together with our preoccupations with time and who’s responsible for what, with concern for who’s getting credit and unresolved disagreements over what we’re going to do together, it’s easy to be less.  That’s not to say that there’s never a group that’s free of such problems.  Chances are, if it’s doing worthwhile work, there’ll be different ideas about the best way to do that work.  But if the people in the group are feeding one another spiritually, those differences are a source of strength, not weakness.

As I bring this sermon to a close, let me give you an example.

The Fellowship’s Finance Committee is responsible for preparing the congregation’s annual budget.  Though the budget is actually approved by voting members at the annual meeting, as will happen following services today, the budget obviously needs to be developed before that.  That’s not something that happens in a vacuum, though.  For one thing, we can’t assume infinite pledges.  Much as our Canvass Chair cooked up all sorts of creative ways we could raise more money — though I’m not sure how fracking in the Sanctuary’s back yard was ever going to work — we can only work with the pledge commitments we actually receive, modestly supplemented by reasonable estimates of income from fund-raising events and things like the re-sale of the books that many of you donate.

On the other side of the balance sheet, we have a lot of known expenses.  Much as we might plead with them, Dominion will not keep the lights on or the air-conditioners running unless we pay our bill from them each month.  We are similarly committed to pay back our own members who bought bonds to help us pay off the mortgage on the office building.  Then there are the congregational goals and priorities for which the Policy Board is ultimately responsible, from being a “Fair Share” supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association so that it can continue to offer programs that are of benefit to us, to ensuring that our own dedicated staff are at least better compensated than if they were employees at Walmart.  Finally, there are common-sense requirements, including that the budget should be balanced.

Now all of that can seem like a pretty tall order.  As anyone who has been a part of it can tell you, it takes many meetings, poring over spreadsheets, looking at past budgets, calculating and re-calculating estimates of this year’s actuals, moving numbers around to try to make it all work.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  In that ideal universe with infinite pledges — or, perhaps, an enormous and somehow completely non-polluting source of crude in our own back yard — it’d be easy.  In the real world, it’s not.  What’s more, it may not even be possible to satisfy all of the requirements at the same time.

But here’s the thing.  When the members of the committee are there not just to do the job, but to be in community with one another while doing that job, not just to complete a far from easy task, but to help one another bring their best selves to that task, then they are not just a committee, but are also a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

~)<

Reflection (multigenerational service)

So heaven and hell turned out to be pretty much the same, except in heaven the people were helping one another and in hell they forgot that they could do that.  It seems like a small thing, but even the simple ways in which we work together can make a big difference in the end.  Sometimes we think that helping one another makes things too complicated, that asking for help from somebody else is being a bother to them, that we should be able to do everything ourselves, but we can only be part of something larger than ourselves if we’re willing to help one another, and be helped, too.

Now in the story from India, do you think the quail ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in hell, too.  And really, it was a hell of their own making.  They forgot that they needed to work together, and their own quarrels with one another became more important to them than the larger goal of saving all of the quail from the fowler’s net.  Okay, perhaps there were some quail who were sometimes working harder, either because they were naturally stronger or because they happened to be in just the right place to do more.  But those quail wouldn’t always be as strong and they wouldn’t always be in a good place, and the time would come when they wouldn’t be able to do as much to help with the net, so really they should have counted their blessings rather than complain.  Perhaps then the fowler wouldn’t have been able to trap them.

And in the story from Africa, do you think Hare and the others ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in heaven, too.  Even Hyena, once he’d realized that Hare had done what he promised fair and square, probably had a good time at the feast and enjoyed the music as much as everyone else.  Maybe, when it was time for him to rebuild his hut, he moved into the village along with everyone else, too.  That’s not to say that nobody in the village ever disagreed with one another or got into arguments.  But keeping in mind the promise of the village — that it really is good to live together, sharing, helping and knowing each other — they’d find ways to resolve their disagreements and settle their arguments so that they could continue to enjoy that heavenly promise.

So the next time you find yourself part of a group of people with a particular job to do, think about how you can be in community with one another while doing that job.  Suppose you’re part of a class project or a team with some task to complete, try to find ways to help one another bring your best selves to that project or task.  Like the people at the feast in the temple, it’s important to be there not just as a group of individual people, but as a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

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How Spirit Mingles

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 10th 2013.)

Even the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi, had to admit that mere language is sometimes incapable of expressing all that can be felt and experienced and dreamed.  “I am out of words,” he wrote, “to describe how spirit mingles in this marriage.”  And so composer Eric Whitacre’s setting of Rumi’s poem ends without words, just sound.

I’m not nearly so good a mystic, though.  Plus, I have almost a whole sermon still to go, and I don’t think that simply humming for fifteen or twenty minutes would cut it.

Marriage is, I think, one of those things that we, as a society, like to think we understand — or, at least, we like to think we have the theory figured out.  Even if that were really true, of course, the difference between theory and practice still provides an awful lot of fodder for television sit-coms.

And if there’s anyone who really does understand marriage, surely, we tell ourselves, it’s our religious professionals: priests, pastors, and the like.  Never mind that those of us called to the life of ministry have the same foibles and failings as the rest of the general population.

Still, the Unitarian Universalist Association recognizes that the ministers it credentials need to be prepared in at least the rudiments of counseling, even if that’s only sufficient to be able to figure out enough of what’s going on to be able to make a reasonable referral to a professional counselor or therapist.  And in recent years the UUA has taken the additional step of requiring credentialed ministers to have some level of competency in matters of sexual health, sexual boundaries and sexual justice.

As the requirements for credentialing explain, would-be ministers “are expected to be knowledgeable about sexuality issues in ministry, including sexuality education, LGBTQI issues, sexuality concerns of adults and adolescents for pastoral care, and public witness.  Candidates are expected to demonstrate a commitment to sexual justice in our Association and in society.”

This requirement was added shortly after I had been credentialed, so I made up for that recently by taking a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”.  This was offered during the Fall by an organization called the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.  These days, actually, they shorten their name to the Religious Institute, but their mission is the same: “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.”

Now since I’m going to be using the word “sexuality” quite a lot in the next minute or two, I need to explain what is mean by it.  It’s actually a very broad term that covers a lot of our identity as human beings.  That’s because sexuality is more than just sexual behavior and generally includes our understandings of our gender, our sexual orientation, our relationships with others, and the ways in which we express and respond to intimacy.  There’s agreement amongst professionals from the Surgeon General to the World Health Organization, in fact, that human sexuality is just as much about psychology as it is about physiology, just as much about the mental and the spiritual as it is about the physical, and just as much about culture as it is about biology.  When we run the “Our Whole Lives” program for our middle-schoolers and others, for instance, we’re not doing sex education so much as sexuality education.

So, under the leadership of Debra Haffner, who is both a sexuality educator and a Unitarian Universalist minister, the Religious Institute is “a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society.”  It works, for instance, with “clergy, religious educators, theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders committed to sexual justice.”  It also works with lay people “who share a commitment to comprehensive sexuality education, to reproductive justice, and to the full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life and society.”  And as well as “helping congregations, seminaries, and denominations to become sexually healthy faith communities”, the Religious Institute is committed to “educating the public and policy-makers about a progressive religious vision of sexual morality, justice, and healing.

As you can imagine, there was a lot for us to cover in a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”, and much of it concerned the work of being a minister in a congregation, from preaching on these issues and doing pastoral care around them, to providing LGBT ministries and engaging in public witness.  Now at the beginning of the course, we each took an assessment about the various areas we were going to cover.  We took the assessment again at the end, with the intention being, of course, to recognize what we had learned.  So we assessed ourselves, for example, on “theological reflection regarding the integration of sexuality and spirituality”, on familiarity with “sacred texts and theological affirmations of sexuality”, on “preaching about sexuality-related issues” and on “speaking out for sexual justice”.

One of the course’s modules, in fact, specifically asked about how we might integrate some of what we were learning into our sermons and services.  I knew that I was going to be here in the pulpit the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, so I looked back at what I’d done in previous years.  Last year, for instance, I shared the sermon with a member of the congregation who has faced and continues to face discrimination due to her sexual orientation; we described how the UUFP became a Welcoming Congregation and we talked about the importance of continuing to be intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ people in congregational life.  And the year before, I preached on how so many Unitarian Universalists have taken up the cause of marriage equality, describing my own history of involvement and explaining why the Virginia Tourism Authority’s slogan that “Virginia is for Lovers” is a flat-out lie.

Now looking back, I realized that, in these and other services, I have often picked the low-hanging fruit of criticizing many of the arguments against marriage equality and LGBTQ rights.  Frankly, many of those arguments are so absurd that it’s not only easy to ridicule them, but doing so is a easy way to add humor into a sermon, too.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported just a couple of weeks ago that the lawyers defending both the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court are now trying to make the case that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples given, in their words, “the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies.”  The lawyers have apparently realized that homophobic arguments against same-sex marriage aren’t going to do them much good — November’s victories in favor of LGBTQ rights at the ballot boxes of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington show that that ship has sailed — so they’re reduced to claiming that hetero couples need marriage — in other words they need to be bribed by over a thousand federal statutory provisions that give special benefits, rights and privileges to married couples — or else they’ll go around breeding all over the place.  When gays and lesbians want to have children, one of the lawyers claims, “substantial advance planning is required”, so society only really needs the institution of opposite-sex marriage to protect itself against the rest of us engaging in wanton procreation.

Good grief.

So, rather than picking apart the arguments against marriage equality, I want to make a case for marriage equality.  And that, of course, means trying to figure out what marriage is.  It means, since I am a religious professional, figuring out my theology of marriage.

Some places are more helpful starting points than others.  The Bible, for instance, is singularly unhelpful.  Amongst its many different stories, the Bible describes at least eight different forms of marriage in families.  And one of the more common Biblical forms of marriage consists of a man and his wives — plural — and, if those aren’t enough, some concubines, too.

Zach Wahls’ testimony to the Iowa Legislature is rather more helpful.  “[Our] sense of family,” he explained, “comes from the commitment we make to each other to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones.  It comes from the love that binds us.  That’s what makes a family.”

I don’t think it’s been particularly well publicized, in amongst all of the newpaper and television interviews that took place after his testimony, but Wahls is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  In an article published in UU World about his experience testifying to the Iowa Legislature, he explains the role his faith played.  His church in Iowa City, by the way, became a Welcoming Congregation in the mid 1990s, when he was only a toddler.  Wahls says the religious education program there taught him about thinking outside the box, about putting others before himself, and about religious pluralism.  More important than these, however, were the Unitarian Universalist values that guided that religious education program, and thus shaped him, too.  “It was these values and these lessons,” he explained in his UU World article, “that led me to speak before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on that snowy January night.  They stilled my shaking hands and gave tenor to my breaking voice.  They shaped my words and my character and where I go from here.”

So whenever we are tempted to complain about how religion is so often used to support bigotry and prejudice, I want us to remember Zach Wahls’ testimony and know that religion is also a powerful motivator for working for justice, for ending exclusion and discrimination.

Take Unitarian Universalism as such a religion, for instance.  It’s not a religion that is based on creed but a religion based on covenant.  We do not require people to believe certain things or to not believe other certain things in order to become members.  Rather, we ask them to join with us in offering a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.  Nor do we have some select group of church elders issuing dogmatic statements to which we must all assent.  Rather, we welcome anyone who shares our values into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

Now accepting the fact that, given our different life experiences, we inevitably believe different things, and even as we encourage each person to figure out what it is they believe for themselves, we nevertheless recognize that something holds us together as a community.  That “something” is covenant.  It can take many different forms in many different words, but at the heart of covenant is a commitment to speak and to act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, and a promise to one another than when we fail to keep that commitment, we give each other permission to begin again in love.

We often think of a covenant as a set of promises that we make to one another, and for the most part that’s the case.  Covenants are often created as lists of promises to behave in certain ways and to not behave in other certain ways.  Most of our Fellowship Circles, for instance, create covenants for themselves that include something about keeping confidentiality within the group.  “What happens in the Caum Room stays in the Caum Room,” a covenant might say.  For Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, though, that wasn’t quite enough.

For Adams, something larger than the people making promises to one another was also required.  “The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality,” he wrote.  “It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  […]  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.

Now what he means by this is, I think, open to interpretation.  Someone who believes in the typical idea of a personal God would say that Adams is talking about God.  Others, and probably many of today’s Unitarian Universalists, would say that Adams was talking about the Universe itself.  I’m less interested in the various possible theological interpretations, though, than I am in how it’s implemented.  After all, in most of those theological interpretations, it’s pretty hard to say how, exactly, “the face of reality” or God or the Universe is actually, actively involved in the covenant-making process.  If it was easy to identify that involvement, frankly, there’d only be one intepretation because we’d all be in agreement.

So while we might be content with Adams’ metaphysics, when it comes to actual practice we usually invite human surrogates to stand in for God or the Universe or whatever Adams meant by “the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”  And we do that, I have come to believe, so that we can be certain there are witnesses to the covenant, particularly in those cases where we think the covenant has some special significance.

And that brings me back to marriage.

In every wedding I perform, my opening words include some sort of greeting to everyone else who is present.  And, as part of that greeting, I specifically note that friends and family are not just there to enjoy a happy occasion, but to bear witness to the commitment, to the covenant that is about to be made.  Because that’s really what a wedding is: it’s the making of a covenant.  And here’s the mystery, the open secret that the people who have enshrined discrimination in laws saying who can and cannot get married simply don’t understand: the marriage doesn’t happen because the officiant utters those famous words, “by the power vested in me by the Commonweath of Virginia blah blah blah”; no, the marriage actually happens when the vows are made and when the rings are exchanged.  It’s the vows and the rings that make real the covenant of marriage, “a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.”  The rest is bureaucracy.

Now that’s not to say that the thousand federal statutory provisions that give particular benefits, rights and privileges to married couples don’t matter, because they do.  And that’s not to say that a covenantal theology of marriage makes easy the hard work, the soul work of marriage, because it doesn’t.  But that is to say that the gender identity and sexual orientation of the individuals getting married is utterly irrelevant.  If two people — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or hetero — are willing to make that commitment to speak and act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, to promise to one another that, when they inevitably fail to live up that commitment, they will try to begin again in love, then their marriage ought to be equally entitled to the same benefits, rights and privileges, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  It’s love that makes a family, no matter how either church or state may try to legislate it otherwise.

The tide has turned, my friends.  A majority of Americans support marriage equality.  And while recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage at the state level had only before taken place in the courts or in legislatures, and while state ballot initiatives have been used repeatedly in the last couple of decades to codify homophobia, last November’s voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington simultaneously chose equality over discrimination.  It really is just a matter of time until the twenty-first century comes to Virginia, too.

So may it be.

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