Posts Tagged Welcoming Congregation

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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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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