sermons

The Interdependent Imperative

Author: 
Rev. Fred Small

Delivered on October 26, 2014

at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist

 

As a boy, I was a prince of independence.

White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, tall, raised in middle-class affluence, I was living the American dream. 

I worked hard in school, got good grades, made the football team.

I thought I was pretty cool.

Whenever I helped myself to some ice cream from our freezer, all my mother asked when I was finished was to leave the empty dish in the sink with just a little bit of water in the dish, so the thin sweet film in the bottom wouldn’t harden into an indestructible incrustation. 

If I would just leave some water in the dish, I’d be a good boy!

So I did.

And then the dish would disappear!

Not right away, but pretty soon, when my mother next swept through the kitchen, tidying and cleaning up.

That was her job, right?

My job was to eat ice cream and leave a little water in the dish.

Never gave it a second thought.

Until I was 18. 

When I was 18, I went on Outward Bound in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario.

The very first time we paddled away from our base camp and pitched our tents on an island, we cooked our meal, we ate our meal, and then . . . and then there were all these dirty dishes.

And no Mom.

I was flabbergasted.

All those years I thought I was independent—I was a fool.

All those years I thought I was standing on my own two feet, I had no idea I was being lifted up by others.

The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

It was not always so.

When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America combined in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws said nothing about interdependence. 

They proclaimed “the supreme worth of every human personality” and “the dignity of man”— singling out “the Judeo-Christian heritage” of  “love to God and love to man.”

By the 1980s, led by members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, the groundswell for change had become unstoppable. 

Amid growing concern about environmental degradation, the draft presented to the 1984 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, included a new seventh principle affirming “respect for Earth and interdependence of its living systems”—a formulation ecologically correct and spiritually arid.

Fortunately, the Rev. Paul L’Herrou rose from the floor to propose instead “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” 

With this change, the seventh principle was transformed from an environmental plank into a spiritual truth with roots in ancient wisdom traditions. 

With this change, reflects my colleague the Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford, “We stopped merely being concerned with a description of what we tend to think, and called ourselves to something sacred.”

Our interdependent web evokes Buddhism’s jeweled net of Indra.

Stephen Mitchell describes Indra’s vast net this way:

at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.

This is a vision of radical interdependence.  Radical only because we so often forget it, and even when we remember it, we fail to live by it.

This is the interdependence taught by the Buddha, who explained that “This is like this because that is like that.  This is because that is.”

This is the interdependence divinized by the Jewish sage Martin Buber in I and Thou.  Restarting Genesis, Buber declares: “In the beginning is the relation. . . . Relation is reciprocity.  My You acts on me as I act on it.  Our students teach us, our works form us. . . . Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.  Every single You is a glimpse of that.”

This is the interdependence proclaimed by Dr. King when he wrote from Birmingham Jail of

the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  [We might substitute Cambridge for Atlanta and Ferguson—or Roxbury—for Birmingham.]  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is the interdependence ecologist Barry Commoner articulated in his First Law of Ecology: “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.”  (I would call this, as well, the First Law of Congregational Life and the First Law of Spiritual Life.)  The more complex the ecosystem, Commoner points out,

the more successfully it can resist a stress. . . . Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections.  Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole.

This is the interdependence described by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff  as “the infinite web of all-inclusive relations.”  “[E]verything that exists, co-exists,” Boff reminds us. “Nothing exists outside of relationships.  Ecology reaffirms the interdependence of beings . . . and repudiates the so-called right of the strongest.  All creatures manifest and possess their own relative autonomy; nothing is superfluous or marginal.  All being constitutes a link in the vast cosmic chain.”

This is the interdependence that inspires feminist theologian Carter Heyward to name God as “our power in mutual relation. . . . in which all of us, not just a few, are empowered to live more fully just and compassionate lives.  Injustice, or oppression,” she asserts, “is both source and consequence of evil—non-mutual power relations of domination and control.  We are urged in and by God to struggle for justice, peace, compassion, and liberation.”

This is the interdependence the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City, addressed last month at the Religions for the Earth interfaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine just hours after more than 300,000 demonstrators jammed the streets of Manhattan in the People’s Climate March.  "I see God as relationality itself,” this Christian preacher told us, “connectedness itself."

Interdependence means that there is no Other—no them by which to define us.  There may be opponents but not enemies. 

Interdependence means seeing opponents as teachers and potential allies.  Even Republicans—if you’re a Democrat.  Even Democrats—if you’re a Republican.  Even Republicans and Democrats—if you think party politics is a waste of time.  Because the person who opposes you on one issue may join with you on another—if you don’t write them off or alienate or demonize them first.

Interdependence means that means and ends cannot be separated, because what we do to another we do to ourselves.  When we’re all in the same boat, torpedoes become weapons of suicide.  The drone that kills one terrorist creates three more.

Interdependence means we see ourselves reflected in the eye of the oppressed and the oppressor alike.  Some of us would say we see God reflected there.

Interdependence means that each and every one of us is immortal, because the impressions we make on other people’s souls ripple outward to infinity.

Because everything is connected, we can never anticipate the impact our smallest gesture may have upon our family, our neighbors, and strangers we will never know.

A high school teacher says a kind word to a discouraged student, and instead of dropping out, she stays in school, graduates, and eventually becomes a teacher herself. 

A researcher toiling in a lab discovers that a plant extract has a unique property without any apparent benefit until another researcher on the other side of the planet realizes that that property is the missing piece in a cure for a killer disease. 

A folksinger writes a song so inspiring it saves a life. 

The songwriter was Stan Rogers, the burly Canadian baritone best known for “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a rousing ballad about a fishing boat sunk in a squall only to be raised from the sea bottom and salvaged by her determined crew.

In the winter of 1983, a ship called the Marine Electric was carrying coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Somerset, Massachusetts, when it ran into the worst storm in forty years.  Pounded relentlessly by massive waves and shrieking winds,  the Marine Electric sank at 4 o’clock in the morning.

59-year-old Bob Cusick, the ship’s chief mate, made it clear of the wreck but found himself all alone in the frigid water, grasping a partially deflated lifeboat as waves crashed over him.  Each time he went under, he wasn’t sure he’d make it back to the surface.  As hypothermia set in, all Bob really wanted was to let go of the lifeboat and slip beneath the surface. 

But he remembered “The Mary Ellen Carter.”

Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken

Or life about to end.

No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

Barely clinging to life in the churning Atlantic in the pitch-black night, Bob Cusick began to sing.

Rise again, rise again 

Every time a wave broke over him, he’d hold his breath.   When the wave had passed, he’d sing again.

Like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

Over and over and over.

At seven o'clock in the morning Bob was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter and rescued—one of only two survivors among the 33 crewmen who went into the sea.

When he’d recovered, Bob wrote a letter to Stan Rogers thanking him for writing the song that saved his life.  At the folksinger’s invitation, Bob joined Stan at his next concert.  It was the next-to-last concert Stan performed.

A few weeks later, after headlining the Kerrville Folk Festival, Stan boarded an Air Canada flight in Dallas bound for Montreal.  When fire broke out on board, the airliner made an emergency landing in Cincinnati.  As dense smoke filled the cabin, passengers were evacuated.  Stan was near the front of the plane, and some people later said he had a chance to get out but stayed behind to help others. 

Within minutes after the doors were opened, the rush of fresh oxygen triggered a flash fire that raced through the cabin, killing all 23 passengers still on board.  Stan was among them.  He was 33 years old.

The accident led to tighter aviation regulations around the world, with new requirements for smoke detectors, emergency lighting, and increased firefighting training and equipment.  Air Canada has not had another fatality since.

A song. 

A life saved when others died. 

A life lost when others survived. 

Lessons learned to save other lives.

Ripples of care.  Ripples of courage.  Ripples of love.

We never know the impact we have.

Because we’re all connected.

We are never alone.  We are part of one another.

Each of us in every one of us.

Unity in diversity.  Diversity in unity.

Todos juntos para siempre.

One people.  One spirit.  One love.

Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.

New Shoes

Author: 
Madelyn Campbell

New Shoes a sermon by Madelyn Campbell delivered to the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church on 27 July, 2014   

    I invite you to look down at your feet. Look at your feet and at the feet around you. What are you wearing on your feet today? It’s July in northern Virginia, and we have all sorts of footwear choices for summer, and for church, and there’s a variety here today.
    Is anyone wearing flip-flops? Yes? I have my favorite flip-flops. There’s almost nothing else for the beach or the pool, and some folks like to wear them all the time, even in winter.  How about dress shoes – any dress shoes today? Dress shoes can just make you feel all put-together, can’t they?  How about sneakers of any variety? Sometimes they are just the only shoes for the job. I mean, can you imagine trying to play basketball or tennis without sneakers? Whether you are wearing flip-flops or dress shoes, Sandals or sneakers, Jimmy Choos or chewed up old loafters, Christian Louboutins or Payless specials, you are welcome here.
    I think about shoes more than some people I suppose. This might be because I’ve had a lot of trouble with my feet. I have had some surgeries, and many shoes hurt my feet. So I get pretty excited about new shoes that don’t hurt my feet and especially new shoes that are actually comfortable. I got some new shoes recently and I’m very excited about them. They’ve changed my life. Want to see them? They’re beautiful. I’ll show you. Here they are.
    These are my new running shoes – Brooks Transcend running shoes, and they have changed my life. I have nothing against New Balance, Nike, Saucony, or any of the other shoe companies, but they aren’t mine. These are my shoes. I even love the color. You can’t pick your running shoes by color, but these shoes actually come in three different color combinations, so I even had a choice. These shoes have changed the way I think about myself. Have shoes ever changed your life? These shoes changed my life.
    I’m a very slow runner. Very slow. In the 2003 Disney World Marathon I finished…dead last. Yes, I did finish, and on the same day that I started. But a marathon is an all-day commitment for me. I once got passed by a glacier.
    Now, I’ve mentioned that I’ve had a few foot surgeries and a lot of foot problems. I have been running in another Brooks shoe called The Ariel. That means “Lion of God” so I kind of like that. It’s the most motion-control shoe there is. It keeps me from hyper-pronating – from turning my feet way in and thus messing up my ankles, knees, and hips in the process.  Of course, there are trade-offs. In order to do what it does, this shoe has to be very heavy. 
    I’ve been running in that shoe for about 14 years. I’ve had coaches, and I’ve worked on my running style, and I know my style isn’t great, but it’s ok. You see, I’ve never had a kick. When you run, you want to have a kick – you want to kick your leg back as you pick it up off the ground – this helps to propel you forward. I’ve never had this. I just was unable to do it.
    Well, I needed a new pair of running shoes, and I’d heard about this new shoe – the Transcend, also made by the Brooks, and I decided to give it a try. It has some new technology in it, so it’s MUCH lighter. WAY lighter. Like, compared to my old shoes, this shoe feels like almost barefoot. And it still controls the motion in my foot!  I bought it!  New running shoes!
    Then I went running in my new shoes. The most amazing thing happened. My feet weighed less. I could kick! I had a kick! I was going faster! I thought that I was just naturally slower than continental drift, and it turns out that some of that was the shoes I was wearing.  Wow.
    And then I started to wonder – how many people have I judged without walking in their shoes?  How many times have I decided that I knew what all the facts were when I didn’t really know what was weighing down their feet?
    Our shoes are tools, and we need the right tools for the job. It’s great if we can all have the right tools all the time, but that’s not always the case.
    I just returned from the Far East. In Cambodia, I saw many people who didn’t have the right tools. I saw construction workers wearing flip-flops, or sometimes wearing no shoes at all.  I met many people who worked as tour guides at the temples, leading people over slick rocks and steep stairs, and many of these men were also wearing flip-flops. Flip-flops are cheap. Most people can afford them. Some people don’t even have flip-flops, though.
    I saw many children who were at the temples – some playing, many working. Most had flip-flops, but some had no shoes.
    It is polite to take off one’s shoes upon entering a Buddhist temple. Your shoes carry the dust of the world on them, and you keep the space clean and sacred in this way. But what of the people who have no shoes to take off?
    I wonder what the Khmer people I met thought of me when they saw the shoes I was wearing. I wonder how they were weighed down by their shoes, or how they were set free?
     I can remember being in a rest stop somewhere in southern Virginia many years ago. We’d stopped to use a gas station bathroom. On the way back to the car, I saw a station wagon pull in, and a whole family tumbled out to use the bathrooms. The children were all barefoot, and I judged them. I thought to myself, “How disgusting! How can they let their children walk barefoot into that nasty bathroom?”  I am ashamed of myself. I have not walked in their shoes. Or their bare feet. I have no idea if they could afford shoes for their children or not. I have no idea what was or wasn’t weighing them down. And it was and is none of my business.
    What if Israelis and Palestinians stopped assuming things about each other and spent some time in the others’ shoes? Do you suppose that would make a difference? I live in hope, but conflict in this region goes back throughout history. Today’s reading, though a fiction, takes place during a conflict in the same area.
    People judge Judith, you know. She was a wealthy widow. She had means. You might not be familiar with the whole story, because Judith belongs to the Apocrypha, the Jewish books written in Greek that Jews and Protestants don’t include in the cannon.  Judith saves her people from a siege by seducing and killing the General Holofernes. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Judith lived apart from much of her community. She was a widow of means, and she was pious. She fasted on most days, except for the Sabbath and feast days. She dressed in mourning clothes, and when her city was placed under siege by the General Holofornes, she wore sackcloth and ashes along with the rest of her people. There was much distress in the city, and, as most of the people had to go beyond the city gates for water, most of the city lacked enough water. But Judith had water to bathe.
When her people were threatened, Judith saw what needed to be done. She prayed to God, and then she devised a plan to save her people. She prepared herself, in the passage that we read this morning, and then she got herself captured and brought before Holofernes, and she succeeded in seducing him and getting him drunk so that she could kill him.
Many modern scholars judge her. “Well,” they tell us, “she could afford to do the things she did. Her people had no water but she had water to bathe.” She is often compared with Esther or Deborah. But isn’t it just as bad to judge a rich woman for what she has as it is to judge a poor woman for what she doesn’t have? We say that rich people are well-heeled. We are judging people by the shoes they’re wearing. What gives us that right?
    Judith used the tools she has at her disposal. She was a wealthy widow. Good for her. She was doing all right, and she could have continued to live well. Judith bathes and anoints herself, and then she chooses the right shoes for the job. She puts on her jewelry and she straps on her sandals. She knows what she needs. She has what she needs, and she’s not shy about using it. I wonder if it changed how she thought about herself.
    I have the right tools for running now. I have these spiffy new shoes.  [put shoes on now]
    I had the means to get these. Some people are weighed down by circumstances that prevent them from acquiring the proper tools.  So, should I throw all my tools away? These shoes, these tools have changed my life.
    I will use my shoes, just as Judith used her shoes, and the other tools at her disposal. These shoes have already changed the way I think about myself, and they’ve helped me to change the way I think about the world. And now that I can run faster, who knows what I can do?
    Remember Wendy Davis and her 11-hour filibuster? She wore Mizuno Wave Riders for her historic monologue. There was a boost in sales for Mizuno afterwards. I haven’t walked – or run – in Wendy Davis’ shoes, but from my vantage point, it seems to me that she did, at least, have the right shoes for the job. She used those shoes for doing the work she believed to be right. She used her shoes to help other people. I wonder if those shoes made her feel differently about herself? I’m willing to bet that they made her feet feel different, anyway, standing there for 11 hours.
    So take a look again at your shoes. Are they helping you today? Are they hurting your feet? Are your shoes empowering you? Are they holding you back?
    Now that I’m wearing my running shoes, I have no idea how far I can go. I can surely go faster and farther when I’m not weighed down by making assumptions about others. I have a new kick in my step and I can imagine myself in a whole new way. There are all sorts of possibilities ahead.
    What possibilities are your shoes giving you? Do you have the right shoes for the job today, or are you ready for some new shoes?

Earth Day

Author: 
Madelyn Campbell

Earth Day, a sermon by Madelyn Campbell delivered to the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church on 27 April, 2014   

Happy Easter! Yes, last Sunday was Easter Sunday, but in the Christian liturgical calendar, this is still Eastertide. In the Jewish liturgical calendar this is the counting of the Omer - the 50 days between Passover and Shavout - also known in the Christian calendar as Pentecost.  In the northern European pagan liturgical calendar, this is Beltane-tide - the time between Ostara and Beltane, or May Day, in late spring. 
I like liturgical calendars. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with them and it seems natural to me, but I think I like them most because they tie us into the seasons. There is a rhythm.  Maybe it’s the musician and the dancer in me, but I think we need to pay attention to the rhythms - and the earth has a rhythm.
We had a long, tough winter, didn’t we? It was cold. I know some of you are gardeners. I keep hearing rosemary horror stories. This winter wasn’t kind to rosemary. Did anyone here lose rosemary? Or any other plants this winter? I confess that I’m not much of a gardner. I’ve tried, I really have. I grew a $15 tomato a couple of years ago. I accomplished that by getting all the things I needed to grow my one tomato plant. Which then produced…one tomato. It was a good tomato, though. Even though I don’t seem to have much of a green thumb, I do appreciate the gardeners in my life, and the beautiful fruits of their labors.
So it was a rough winter. My gardener friends have been assessing their losses. And yet. Did you see the cherry blossoms? The Yoshindo cherry trees  - the ones with the white blossoms that line the tidal basin - have already had their peak and we’ve been showered with white blossoms, but the Kwanzan cherry trees are in full bloom just about now. Giant pink balls of blooms hanging like party lights in the trees.
For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
It feels like the trees are clapping their hands now. It feels that way to me. I hope you can feel that. Even after the very long winter, the earth is awakening again, and new life is springing forth. The rhythm of the seasons carries us forward.
The earth is resilient.  She weathers many things. Even us.
We’re a part of creation, and we act in it and on it. We sometimes think of ourselves as set apart from creation - as if humans are one thing and the environment something else. I’ve heard some people talk about the seventh principle - “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part” as the environmental principle, as if that were all it is - as if we, somehow aren’t included in that. But in the Hebrew scriptures, in the language itself, there is no language for the separation of humanity from the rest of creation.
In their book, The Predicament of the Prosperous, Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen talk about our relational responsibility to creation. Bruce Birch is a professor and friend of mine and an all around wise and respected academic. They tell us, “God calls us toward the shalom of the whole creation.” Shalom - that doesn’t just mean “peace” it means wholeness. The wholeness of relational responsibility, then. They go on further to tell us about redemption as new creation - redemption as, quote, “the effort to restore the whole network of relationships that have been broken by sin.” I don’t want to get too off the mark here, but perhaps we should define sin so that we’re all speaking one language. Sin literally means to miss the mark. So when we’re doing things that take us away from relationship - with each other, or with the rest of creation, that is sinful. When we’re repairing that, then it’s redemptive.
Birch and Rasmussen point to today’s passage from Isaiah as the place where this new creation theme appears most fully in Hebrew scripture.  They say, “Here the salvation history and creation history are wedded. They are both a part of the work of one God. God’s redemption of Israel and the nations renews nature as well.” 
Think about that. Renewing the people renews nature. How does that happen? Why are the trees clapping their hands? Why are cypresses growing instead of thorns?
We can’t renew nature without renewing our relationships with each other. It’s all intertwined. Well, that makes sense.
When we don’t treat each other as equals - when we  aren’t in right relationship with each other, it’s much easier to dump our waste on those we don’t care about. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is breaking apart ships. You won’t see this happening in the U.S., though. This work, damaging to the environment, and often deadly to the people who do it, is done in Bangladesh, by “Other” people. People who are poor, and brown. Because they’re desperate for any work. They break the ships, and it breaks the world and our relationships.
But we don’t have to go halfway around the world to find brokenness.  Back in January, a chemical spill from Freedom Industries polluted the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia. Four months later, residents were still using bottled water. But what would happen if we cared enough about everyone to stop manufacturing and storing dangerous chemicals in poor communities?
I’m not saying this is a simple thing. I’m not saying “all we have to do is” - there are no simple answers. But we can start with considering how we are all linked, and how we all deserve to be surrounded by beauty.
How can we make that happen? What happens if we just sit and wait?
We haven’t been kind to our planet. We’re using up fossil fuels and spewing lots of carbons into the atmosphere. We’re demolishing wetlands and then we act surprised when cities flood. And then some among us cling to the belief that we need do nothing, that God will rescue us. You’ve probably heard about the man who climbed up to the roof of his house during the flood and a boat came by, but he refused to get in, saying “God will save me.” Soon, the water was up to his hips, and another boat came by, but he said, “God will save me.”  By the time the water was at his chest and he was clinging to the chimney, a helicopter came by. He still refused the help, saying, “God will save me.” He drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?” and God said, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”
We have to do some of this work ourselves.
I’d said earlier that the earth is resilient. It is. The earth will be here with or without us. Creation will continue. Do we want to take the hand of the Holy and do the work to repair the garden?
There are many ways we can do that work. For some people, it means really getting out there and doing the work in the garden. Have you been in our garden? Whether you’re a gardener or not, I hope you can appreciate the  beauty of the garden.
Of course, we don’t just have a garden. We have 11 beautiful acres of open fields, and woods, and the garden. We have room to run around and fly a kite, or to sit and absorb all the beauty. What a gift! How are we caring for it?
Some of you are stewards of the grounds. You mow the lawn. You pull weeds. You care for the garden. Thank you. You’re doing the repairing work. Working on our own grounds is important, because it keeps us in touch.
We don’t all do that, and we don’t all have to, but there are things we all can do. The Green Sanctuary team has a lot of information they’d like to share with us after the service today.   Information about things you can do around here, and things you can do at home.
And once we’re taking care of each other and our own local garden, well, how hard can it be to move out from there?
When I was little, I lived in Manhattan. If you’re not a city person, you might not think of cities as green spaces, but my parents took me often to Central Park and to Ft. Tryon Park - my favorite. My father took me to Ft. Tryon Park nearly every Sunday, and we’d walk through the formal gardens and then run around and play in the open spaces. Sometimes I’d run around in bare feet and feel the grass beneath my feet. I want all of my brothers and sisters in creation to have that experience. Do you?
Go out. Enjoy the grounds today. See the trees clapping their hands. Look at the Bradford pear trees just outside here. And imagine. Imagine how it can be - how we will go out in joy and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Let us make this garden here. Now. Let us join with all that is Holy in repairing creation.

Ministering To and With Young Adults

Author: 
Alex Haider-Winnett
Members of UU Oakland Young Adults

Ministering To and With Young Adults
Sermon by Alex Haider-Winnett
Delivered at First Unitarian of Oakland May 25, 2014

Friends, it is so very good to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure to worship with you. As our dear Rev. Jacqueline would say, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place” and it feeds my soul. Today’s theme is on “Ministering To and With Young Adults”. You have already heard from some of our congregation’s young adults. The love and support you give this community helps grow strong leaders who are changing the world. Present in our group are peace activists, veterans, civil rights lawyers, teachers, seminarians and ministers, artists, tech professionals, non-profit administrators, social workers and entrepreneurs. But we also have people struggling to find work. People working hard to figure out how to make ends meet or looking to find work that is meaningful. And your love supports us all.

I am familiar with the topic both as a young adult and also because I served this community as the coordinator of the Young Adult Ministries for two years. I am grateful for the opportunities this position has given me, all the friends and connections I have made and the ways it has fed my soul.

Last weekend, we bridged six youth into young adulthood. It is one of my favorite parts of the church year. The bridgers--who are usually, but not always, high school graduates-- take a moment to express their feelings about bridging to the congregation. They often share a fond memory through a short reflection, singing a song or reading a poem. Then we extend a blessing to the bridgers as they move toward the chancel where the church’s young adult community is waiting to welcome them into our circle. The bridge is an apt metaphor. Not only does it represent a transition from one stage in life to another, it also has another meaning. In recent studies, we see that churches in our faith community are doing a poor job at retaining our youth. As many as 90% of our youth will leave our churches somewhere in their late teens and twenties. Combine this with the fact that 1/3rd of people currently unaffiliated with a religious community are under the age of 35, it points to a growing population of young people whose needs are not being met by our congregations. This period of young adult non-affiliation is such a common occurrence, we have term for it: “The Gap”. The theory of The Gap states that our youth leave when they are in their late teens and come back in their 30’s, when they have some stability; when they have a job, are married or have kids. Hence the strange lifespan of UU Young Adult Ministries: 18-35 (Spanning 17 Years). And so, the Bridging Ceremony is one way that we have been working over the years to “Mind The Gap.”

When we think of our Bridging Ceremony, we usually represent it with a large, sturdy bridge. One like the Golden Gate Bridge which has lasted for decades and has thousands of cars, trucks and buses go over it each day. One that needs repairs now and again but pretty much stands the test of time. In reality, our bridge is perilous. It is a rope bridge. It sways in the wind. Some of the strands are loose. And there are crumbling and missing boards. The Bridge is difficult to cross. It takes faith to believe that every step of the way will be supported. And not everyone makes it. Try as we might, there are times when young adults need to take a step back from trying to cross The Gap and move away from UU community for a while. It is common. And I bet that if you ask any young adult here, you would find stories where they took some prolonged time away from church.

I could tell you some of my stories. Stories of making difficult choices between work, school and church. Stories of being in rural Indiana, hours away from the nearest congregation. And stories of over-committing to the point of burnout. I could tell you the things I told myself that made it easier to walk away from church: That I needed some time away for self care; it was a compromise until I got a different job; or, that things would be different if I went somewhere else. And stories of working odd hours which made it impossible to attend church during program hours. Stories of feeling pushed out or underappreciated; of having my voice and experiences silenced and ignored.

I could tell you how since I turned 18, I have lived in 10 different houses in eight different cities. That I have worked at least a dozen jobs. I have attended services at numerous UU churches and also Quaker Meeting Houses, Catholic Parishes, Jewish Temples and a whole slew of other ad hoc, multi-faith communities. My twenties were a lot of things but spiritually-stable wasn’t necessarily one of them.

And I would be happy to tell you those stories some day. But all of those stores pale in comparison to one thing: we have covenanted to be a multi-generational worship community. If we are truly to live up to that promise, that means creating authentic intergenerational relationships and being willing to be changed by the new experiences we share. Creating a multi-generational community does not merely mean taking a few minutes out of worship to have young people participate. Nor does it mean having a few token young people on committees. It means getting to know people all along the age spectrum and making honest, thoughtful and transformative relationships.

There are people out there desiring our community. There are people who are hungering for a community that is spiritual but not dogmatic. They want a community where their questions are honored and accepted. There are people who are looking for a place where they can explore new spiritual practices and find ways to commune with the divine. There are people wanting a community where we can do good works and strive for justice together. There are people who are wanting a community that will accept them for who they are; a community that will love them, cherish them and save their life. Because, if there is one thing I know about Unitarian Universalism--the one thing that helped me hang on when I was struggling with my faith--is that this church saves lives. I know that is what I want. And I think this is true for a lot of my peers my age. So, if we are going to uphold our covenantal desire to be a multi-generational community, how do we minister to young people?

There are a many ways we can do so. But it is going to take some work and new ways of how we we do church. I would like to first say, that our congregation does better than most. We have dozens of active young adults. And we are the fastest growing age demographic for the past two years. But there is still lots of room for improvement. And not everything is going to fit in the last few minutes of this sermon. So I want to look at three broad categories: Welcoming, Hospitality, and Mentoring.

First is Welcoming. In preparing for this sermon, I spoke with a lot of young adults both here and in the wider community. For young adults who tend not to go to church, they say that most congregations they have gone to were not welcoming enough. They went with the hope of finding a community that could be “their community” but in most cases, they found the welcome as well as their worship to be cold. As we know, our welcome and our worship at UU Oakland are anything but cold. But people will never experience the warmth of our community if they never come to the church in the first place. We need to have a visible and appealing welcome mat.

And in this day-in-age, that means a presence on the Internet.

Take for instance, our young adult page on facebook. Currently, we have 125 members (which is roughly half as many pledging members in this congregation) but according to a recent poll, only about 10-15% of members of the group attend church regularly. The others use it as a way to stay in touch with our larger community virtually. While virtual contact may not be the most ideal way of participating with a spiritual community, it is a valid one and, I believe, preferable to no contact at all. And while it is a start, there is much more we could be doing to be present on the Internet.

The next category is Hospitality: Churches usually seek out people who intend to be long-time members who will pledge. There is an expectation that people who come for a few months sign the membership book, pledge all they can and devote their time to the work of the church. I am an active, pledging, voting member. I am honored and pleased to be one. But this is also the first time in my adult life that I have been able to do so. As long as we continue to believe that membership means a long-term commitment, we are going to be convincing a lot of young adults that this is not a place for them. Due to fragile job and housing markets, young adults are reluctant to commit to any institution. We need to recognize that people who become members may only do so for a very short time before they have to move on. I am proud and grateful for any and all people who wish to hang their hats with us. But whenever I meet a visitor, my question is not “When can we get this person to sign the book and pledge?” it is “What does this person need and how can those needs be met?”. By focusing on hospitality over membership, we can make space for people to feel welcome for however long they may be with us.

And this, I think, is the crux of the manner. If we are to say that “All are worthy and all are welcome”, there should be no restrictions, caveats or parentheses. We don’t say “You are worthy if you have a certain net worth” nor do we say “You are welcome as long as you intend to stay.” And this is why I think young adult ministries are important, by working to make all feel safe to be vulnerable, intimate and authentic, we are working to build the Beloved Community. And young adults, who are coming with hopes of finding a supportive community will come as long as we continue to make room for them.

My third category is mentorship: When people join our congregation, we should foster a relationship of mentoring. People should be encouraged to join, learn and work for our common vision as best as each person can. New visitors and members should be able to explore and find which aspects of the church most serve their personal ministries. This may take a while. It could take months or even years. But the best way to help a young adult find their spot in the church is by building authentic interpersonal relationships by getting to know people, finding out what they are passionate about and how it overlaps with the work of the church. Doing so allows committees to pick new members based on their skills and talents rather than merely their age.

I have a story from about five years ago that I feel epitomizes how these three themes of Welcoming, Hospitality and Mentoring can either help or hinder a young adult fully participating in a church community. After the job market collapsed in 2009, I started waiting tables. It was what I was able to do to make ends meet. I would start work at 5 PM and not get off of work until 3AM. I would often be getting to bed when the sun was rising. I had been going to church down the street from my house but worship no longer fit into my schedule. I remember once running into a friend on the street. This friend said, “Alex. We miss you. Where have you been? Why haven’t you been to church?” And I told this friend honestly, “Since I got my job, church is just too early for me.” The friend said, “Too early? 11:30 is too early?” And I said, “Yup. 11:30 is too early for me. I don’t usually get out of bed until 1pm.” I told this friend, “You know what would be ideal for me? If church had a 4 AM worship service, I would be thrilled to go.” There was some nervous laughter and some awkward silence and then we both went on our way. But you know what? I wasn’t kidding. If I could have left work and gone to a 4 AM worship service, I would have gladly gone to it. But there was no late night worship. I never really expected there to be one. But it shows the way that Sunday morning programming just does not work for everyone.

I am thankful that here, our staff and clergy have created authentic relationships with young adults to understand that we desired an opportunity to worship in a different way and different time than we do on Sundays and have helped and empowered us to create worship on Tuesday evenings. It is quickly becoming an important worship space for people of all ages to come and be together in community. And we have found that people who do not come on Sundays have been coming to Tuesday evenings. By listening to the needs of our members and those who wish to join us, we have transformed the way we do worship in a way that makes it more accessible to people who had previously thought that the community was closed to them.

Our young adults are looking for a spiritual community. Despite national reports that young people are rejecting worship communities and studies that say UU youth will leave us to find another home for a while, we know otherwise. We know that our congregation can be a life-changing community for young adults. We have already seen it happen. By supporting things like Tuesday night vespers but also individuals like Kyle (note to reader: Kyle is a young adult member currently participating in humanitarian aid in Syria who skyped in during the service to give a testimonial) and our bridgers last week and every one on the chancel today, you are creating a transformative multi-generational community. But our congregations are not doing enough to help make a safe space for them to explore. We need to widen our welcome, strengthen our hospitality and deepen our mentoring relationships so that those who come through our doors know that there is a place for them no matter how new they are to our faith, how long they intend to stay, and however hurt they have been from previous experiences. By working on these things, we can create a culture where all of our young adults and all people are willing and able to fully participate to the best of their abilities and feel proud to be part of our community. And together, we will transform ourselves, each other and the world.

Thor and Loki in a World of Chaos

Author: 
Madelyn Campbell

By: Madelyn Campbell

Delivered at: Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church, Burke, VA

On: February 23rd, 2014

This sermon is the result of a church auction. Sort of. I’d offered a sermon on the biblical passage of your choice in the auction, and someone bought that sermon, but then someone else came to me and asked me to preach another sermon for a generous donation to the church. Tricky. Oh, and the sermon he wanted? Not a biblical sermon. Very tricky. He had me. Of course, I can tie most things back to the Bible. I’m fairly tricky myself. So that’s how, today I happen to be preaching about Thor and Loki.

If you’re a fan of Stan Lee, Marvel Comics, and the Avengers movie franchise, you know a little bit about Thor and Loki already. Marvel Comics has done a pretty good job of preserving the most important elements of the mythology, so it’s not a bad start. And when we’re talking about Norse mythology, knowing where to start can be a tricky thing.

That’s because we know a fair bit about Norse mythology, thanks to Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic Christian of the late 12th and early 13th century. I’ve actually been to his house. He preserved the stories, the mythology, through his Christian lens. However we know almost nothing at all about the Norse religion itself - the practices, the rituals, the beliefs. These are lost to us - and they probably were to Snorri, too. So we need to be cautious in drawing parallels between the Norse mythology and Judeo-Christian mythology, because it’s been presented to us in this light. Nevertheless, there are certain universals that we can’t help but notice.

One of those universals is the trickster. I do love Thor. I love Thor as he’s portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movies…… sorry - I just needed a moment there. I mean, Thor’s a protector. THE protector. The protector of humanity - of the common person. What’s not to love? But I have to tell you…I kinda like the bad boys. I mean, there’s just something about Loki.

Let’s just have a little primer here. I don’t want to turn this into the Sunday morning lecture, but it helps if we’re all on the same page.

There’s Yggdrasil, the world-tree. All the worlds exist on levels of the world-tree. Asgard is where the Aesir - the gods live. Odin is the king of the gods and Thor’s daddy. In the Marvel comics, he’s also Loki’s adopted father, which works out ok, but this is a contemporary midrash - a retelling or reforming of the story. Loki is a demigod. He’s not really one of the Aesir. He lives among them and does things with them, and is related to them, but he isn’t really one of them. Thor is the god of thunder and lightning, and of fishermen and the average person. He is the protector of the gods, and of humanity, who live in Midgard. Us, here.

Loki is the god of fire. He’s also the trickster - a mischief-maker. There are tricksters in other mythologies. In Judaism, Jacob is the trickster - and we are meant to identify with him. In Native American mythology there is Raven. The Ashanti people of Ghana have Anansi, the spider. Tricksters are important. We’ll get to that. Sometimes Loki works with the Aesir, and sometimes he’s against them. Loki is the father of the Midgard Serpent, also known as the World Serpent, and Fenrir the wolf, both of whom fight the gods in Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon. So Loki is the father of the bad guys.

Still, Thor and Loki do a lot of things together, and Loki often helps out the Aesir. It can be good to have a trickster on your side.

In one story, Loki, who is a shape-shifter, turns himself into a mare to lure away a stallion in order to protect the Aesir from a contract that would have cost the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freya. As a result, Loki then gives birth to an eight-legged horse that becomes Odin’s horse.

But sometimes his mischief goes too far, and that can have dire consequences.

Loki represents chaos. Maybe that’s why I’m comfortable with him. Loki reminds us that we’re really not in control. We think we’ve got things covered, and then the unpredictable happens. Loki is the unpredictable.

Baldur was the most beautiful of the Norse gods, and Odin’s son. His mother, Frigg, wanted to make sure that nothing could harm him, so she elicited promises from all things that they would never cause him harm - but she ignored the mistletoe, because she thought that mistletoe was already harmless. Because Baldur was impervious to injury, the other gods made sport out of attacking him with various weapons, knowing that they could do him no harm. Loki fashioned an arrow out of mistletoe, however, and tricked a blind god into shooting it at Baldur’s heart, thus killing him. The Aesir were beside themselves. Since Baldur didn’t die in battle, he didn’t even go to Valhalla. He went instead to Hel, presided over by the goddess Hel, Loki’s daughter.

Loki had no quarrel with Baldur. He was being mischievous, but he went too far. It’s all fun and games until someone goes to Hel. Then we’re reminded that we need protecting from the chaos.

This isn’t unique to Norse mythology. If you have your handy Bible app available, go ahead and pull it out now, and turn to Genesis - that will be the first book in the Bible - Genesis chapter 1. You’ll see that in the beginning of God’s creation of the world, the world was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. These are the chaos waters. On the second day, God separates the chaos waters from the heavens, and then on the third day God further separated the dry land from the water. Chaos, in the form of the chaos waters, is a big theme in Hebrew scriptures as well. We are always aware that the chaos waters are there, and we are always aware that God keeps the chaos waters at bay for us. God keeps things in control for us. Chaos is close by.

Chaos has certainly been a feature of my life. I’m chronically disorganized, as anyone who knows me can attest to, but I’ve had my share of chaos in my personal life as well. As a widow and also a bereaved parent, I’ve known much loss and grief, times when everything seemed to be out of control - when there was only chaos.

That’s when I needed Thor. In difficult times, we all need a protector who’s ever-vigilant, ready to put the hammer down, as it were, when things get too out-of-control.

In the final battle, Ragnarok, (which was supposed to be yesterday, but apparently it’s been postponed), Thor will defeat the Midgard serpent, but at the cost of his life. He succumbs to the serpent’s venom in the end. Of course, it’s the final battle, and all the gods, and all humanity, are destroyed, before new gods and a new humanity rise again. Is this sounding a tad familiar? This is very much like the book of Revelation - a cosmic re-ordering.

It’s easy to see how Thor ends up as a superhero in the Marvel pantheon. I mean, he’s everything we want a superhero to be. He’s the protector. He’s big and strong. He serves humanity. Who could resist him?

Very few, as it turns out. He, and Loki, show up in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the operas that glorify Nordic heredity and heroism. During World War II, these operas, so closely identified with Germanic culture, became the butt of one of the best Looney Tunes episodes ever - “What’s Opera, Doc?” You might recall Elmer Fudd singing, “kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit…” This was a direct poke at the Nazis and the elitism that many felt the operas represented. And that’s a danger in superheroes.

We fear the chaos. Fair enough. But then we crave the protection, and in our craving, we are easy prey for protectors who aren’t really the protectors of all humanity. We fall prey to those who hold up Thor and tell us that he protects and represents only a certain ideal. A god for some but not a god for all. Oh my. How big is your God?

Superman of DC Comics fights for truth, justice, and the American Way. I prefer Marvel Comics. Why the American Way? Why not the Canadian way? Or the way of humanity? Last night, during the bronze medal men’s hockey match, one of the NBC announcers said something truly remarkable. He said that Team USA fans needed to think of the dreams of others. Wow. That’s way more Marvel than DC. But that’s not often the messages we send or receive.

Without the reminder that Thor has the common person to protect, we risk hubris. We risk thinking that we’re all that - that we have everything wrapped up and under control. That’s when it turns into the Superman ideal, a super-race where ordinary folks don’t matter. And then where would we be? Well, back in the chaos, I suppose.

Nordic - blonde - or, in Thor’s case, red-bearded, blue-eyed, big and strong, and white - doesn’t have to be the standard. Well, we can hardly blame the ancient Norse for having gods who look Nordic. I do like what the current movie franchise has done with the Aesir, however. Thor is known to have traveled in the East - how far east, the Edda doesn’t say, exactly. Hogun is a character who doesn’t appear in Norse mythology, but who is a companion of Thor’s in the comics. He’s played by a Japanese actor in the films. And Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard, is played by the very much not Nordic black English actor Idris Elba.

Still, we must remain vigilant, like Thor, for what we tend to idealize.

I think Loki keeps Thor honest. I think we need that bit of mischief. There’s some playfulness there. Left to his own devices, unbridled, we get Loki as we see him in the reading this morning - going too far. It’s out of control and bad things happen - and then it’s no accident.

We need both. We need to know that we can go into the world and try things - that we can get into some trouble and have a protector to call upon.

We need to know that when all Hel breaks loose in The Ukraine, or in Syria, or in South Sudan, there will be an end to the chaos.

Whom do you call upon? In Iceland, people wear Thor’s hammer, mjollnir, just as frequently as they wear crosses. Both are reminders of protection.

Where do you put your faith? Are you willing to go out into the mischief of the world, knowing that you can call upon the protection of the Divine? What is your bridge over troubled water?

Is the Divine spark within you a haven for those around you? It takes a lot of us, because Thor is larger than life and we’re mere mortals. I hope you feel safe here. I feel safe, so I’ll tell you a secret. My faith is in God. But I still like Loki.

Economic Justice and Moral Injury

Author: 
Suzi Spangenberg

By Suzi Spangenberg

Delivered at The Church of the Fellowship for All Peoples (Fellowship Church), San Francisco, CA

On May 26th, 2013

 

The screaming. 
That's what shook me. 
The fear and terror held in those screams. 
And then the images. 
People panicking...Running...Trampling each other. 

Children separated from parents,
being pushed down...as adults,
stepping on whoever was in the way,
stretched out their arms and flung themselves forward...
not to help their children, but in an attempt to grab hold of what they believed would bring them some happiness.

As I recently re-watched the many videos which depicted the  violence that happened inside Walmart stores across the nation during last November's Black Friday sales, I was stunned that so many people were willing to camp out overnight and then get violent, trading their souls for cheap material goods. 

People who chose to ignore the Walmart workers - bravely standing outside the stores protesting for a fair living wage -  workers they had to pass in order to get inside to begin their feeding frenzy.

Wal-Mart employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal
 government, yet the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line.

"Buy American" banners are prominently placed throughout its stores; however, the majority of its goods are made outside the U.S. and often in sweatshops such as the one that recently collapsed in Bangladesh that resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people.

Walmart has the largest percentage of workers on food stamps and medicaid of any other company in the United States. Workers cannot survive on the wages they are paid and so must rely on government aid to survive.

And while it's easy to point a finger at Walmart, the fact is, their business model is emulated and held up as a success by Wall Street. 

When did we begin to care more about stuff and less about people? 
When did greed become not only acceptable, but celebrated? 
Is this really who we are? 
What are the root causes of that emptiness? 



Theologian Howard Thurman states: "The need for love is so related to the structure of the personality that when this need is not met,
the personality is stunted
and pushed or twisted out of shape."  

I believe many of us have forgotten our interconnectedness and that the absence of love, of deep relationship, creates a void that a person instinctively tries to fill.  

As we feel less and less connected to one another, we feel more and more alone.  That emptiness, that aloneness, that need for love is what we are trying to eliminate with material things, which we hope will mask the pain of feeling this deepest kind of loneliness.  

Something is acquired, a person has feelings of momentary happiness, and then, like a drug, when those feelings wear off, there is a need to go out and get more to feel the same way again. 

People, other people,
are mere obstacles in the way of temporarily easing this empty, yet very deep need.  Unfortunately, the one thing that can fill the hole,
love,
which illuminates our interconnection,
is not something that can be bought. 

I've been thinking about other people who have struggled with feelings of being disconnected. 

Specifically, I've especially been thinking about my dad... a lot.  He was a member of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops during WWII.
He was one of the very few in his regiment to come home alive.
He returned highly decorated with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a broken soul. He became a life long advocate for peace.

He also never spoke about his experiences during the war.

He'd tell funny stories about training at Camp Hale, located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. 
How the men, already elite skiers,
were taught mountain climbing and snow survival skills.
How they burned so many calories during training that they were each given half a pie for dessert.
They were also given free cigarettes and since my father didn't smoke, he'd trade his for more pie.

He said one night he ate 3 whole pies and he was still hungry. I believe it.

One of the few photographs I have of him from that time shows a very handsome, lean man standing on the side of a snow covered mountain with his wooden skis slung over one shoulder. He was smiling widely and looked relaxed and carefree. The photograph was made at Camp Hale before he shipped out.

Once these men arrived in Northern Italy, they did things I have difficulty imagining.
Scaling the 2,000 foot tall vertical sides of Riva Ridge in the Apennines mountains in the darkest part of night with no light to guide them,
all while carrying 85 pound packs, skis, and guns with only strap on metal crampons attached to their boots.

I learned that from an old 10th Mountain Division newsletter. I didn't learn it from my dad because my dad couldn't talk about the war.

Once, when I told him I was going to an anti-war protest in 2003 prior to the beginning of the Iraq War, he quietly said - "that's a really good thing you all are doing. If only everyone understood that war is the hardest on women and children..." his voice trailed off and when I asked what he meant - he quickly changed the subject.

The men of WWII were in a tough place when they came home. They were heroes of "the Good War" and culturally conditioned not to talk about feelings.
So they kept them inside.
They didn't talk about PTSD then. There wasn't a lot of information available about coping with the horrors of war when they returned home.

So they stayed silent and in my father's case, busy. He threw himself into his work and his hobbies. He didn't allow himself time to reflect or remember.  By the time he met my mom, he had gotten pretty good at doing the things that society said a man must do. He had a good job. He drove a nice car. He even got his pilot's license.

He also came home from the war with a temper and you never knew what would set it off.

He was obsessive about security when we were home alone without him. He installed many locks and would get very upset if he came home and discovered we had missed one. I remember one time I overheard him yell at my mom "You don't have any idea what they could do to you and Suzi do you?!?"

I didn't really know what he meant, but it scared me - I could tell whatever it was, it was very bad.

I knew something was wrong with my dad, I just never really knew what it was.

Now I do.

My dad was suffering from moral injury.

What is moral injury? Dr. Gabriella Lettini and Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, authors of the recently released book "Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War" define moral injury as "a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities. It is reflected in the destruction of a moral identity and loss of meaning. Its symptoms may include shame, survivor guilt, depression, despair, addiction, distrust, anger, a need to make amends and the loss of a desire to live."

My father, like many men who came home from WWII, didn't talk to anyone. His unrecognized injury destroyed my parent's marriage.
They divorced when I was 4.

When I was 6, my father married my beloved step-mom Cynthia. For the first time in my life, I saw glimpses of the man my dad must have been before the war. They were never apart from the time they got married until her death many years later. Even so, with the exception of Cynthia, he was still emotionally distant and even though we would do things together, I always felt like there was a barrier between my dad and the rest of the world.

Decades later, when Cynthia was in hospice, we were able to share many deep conversations.

One day I finally got up the courage to ask her about my dad- why he was distant. She grew quiet and then said "First, you need to know your dad loves you very much. When we met, we were both carrying heavy burdens. We were able to share them with each other. He knows I love and see ALL of him. I know he loves and sees ALL of me." She then told me that the war had come close to completely breaking my dad and before they met, only his incredible strength of will kept him together.

After Cynthia died, my dad and I spent a lot of time together. He still didn't talk about the war.

When he was 90 I went to visit him and he suddenly started to cry. I had only seen my dad cry once before-- when Cynthia died. I just held him and he finally cried out "I'm so glad you do what you do. I wish I'd had the courage to go throw my medals in Bush's face!"
That was all he said. But it was in that moment that I realized just how much the war had cost him.

We all can count the number of people who have died as the result of war. We can also count the injured. We can calculate the many MANY dollars spent.

But I wonder if we have ever calculated all that has been lost among the living?

How many men (and now women) return with parts of them missing - invisible parts that they cannot file a claim for?

How many people like my father lose their connection with those they love and the rest of society?

How many families never get to welcome home the person that left?

Never get to see their parent care free and smiling?

These are some of the costs of moral injury. A deeper and more final cost is that many of those suffering from moral injury ultimately commit suicide.

In thinking about my dad, and the cost of moral injury of war, I have found myself returning again and again to the definition: "a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities." 

Is it possible that this widespread emptiness exhibited by our out of control materialism is a form of national moral injury?

We are taught that to succeed, we must put ourselves first.   Instead of helping each other so we all can do well, of coming from a place of love in our interactions with others,
we instead are taught that we must compete to be first,
to have the most,
and if we have to step over, or on, people to get there, so be it. 

We want better cars, better homes, better schools for our kids...even when we know there are people living on the street, and schools in poor neighborhoods, such as those in Chicago and Oakland, are being permanently closed.

And the more selfishly we behave, the more disconnected we become.
Deep down, we can sense this is wrong but we push those feelings aside.

We turn away from things that remind us of how far we have strayed from honoring our interconnectedness.

and as people become obstacles to "winning" or obtaining more stuff
we step right over them...or on them...
and see them as nothing more than collateral damage as we do what we need to do to fill that internal hole.

We may feel a moments triumph as we score a "great deal" at Walmart, but soon after, that internal "hole" becomes larger and we need to keep seeking more and more to fill it, causing us to become even further disconnected.

It's a horribly cycle and one that exacts a heavy price.

Vets commit suicide, and as a society, some may argue that we do as well - whether actively or passively as the stress of living in such a disconnected way takes it's toll on us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I am grateful that my dad did not choose this path.
I am grateful he had moments free from anguish thanks to Cynthia's wisdom and love.

And most especially on this Memorial Day weekend,
I recognize that many do not have those anguish free moments and my heart aches for them...
and my heart aches for all the families of veterans who will never again know their loved ones without injured souls...
and for all the families who grasp for things over people,
and everyone who suffers as a result. 

So, what can we do to address this issue?  is it possible for us to even reach those in the 1%, like the CEO's of Walmart, whose decisions are negatively affecting the lives of so many? 

Is it possible to come from a place of love when experiencing people as callous and unfeeling?

I would answer, "Do we have any other choice?" 

Tich Nhat Hanh, in his book "Reconciliation" talks about the need to look deeply at those we perceive as being the cause of our suffering. 

He explains that we are interconnected, so if we hate them, we hate ourselves. 
The only solution is to expand our heart.

He also offers a healing practice that I have found, after some initial resistance and struggle, to be extraordinarily helpful.  
I recognize that this may be a challenging exercise  for some of you, so do what you can--it's a starting place.

I invite you to place yourselves in a comfortable position and as you are able, allow yourself to really focus and contemplate on his words:

<<RING BELL>>

"In understanding and compassion, I bow down to reconcile myself with all those who have made me suffer. 

I open my heart and send forth my energy of love and understanding to everyone who has made me suffer,

to those who have destroyed much of my life and the lives of those I love. 

I know now that these people have themselves undergone a lot of suffering and their hearts are overloaded with pain, anger and hatred. 

I pray that they are transformed to experience the joy of living, so that they will not continue to make themselves and others suffer. 

I see their suffering and do not want to hold any feelings of hatred and anger in myself toward them. 

I channel my energy of love and understanding to them and ask all my ancestors to help them." 

<<LONG PAUSE>>  <<RING BELL>>




My deepest hope is that we can all learn to recognize our interconnectedness...

and as we channel that love, we are able to inspire others to do the same...

that we fill that emptiness more fully and perfectly than any material thing ever could. 

May it be so.
Namaste. 
Blessed be.

Embracing the Dangerous and Sacred

By Suzi Spangenberg

Delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Fremont, CA

On 6 May 2012

(Winner: Mission Peak Sermon Contest )

 

Indulge me here, as you are able, please stand up or if you can’t, you can also do this
from your seat.
Now streeeeetch as far as you can.
Feel that?
Now…hold it.
Take a breath, let it out and stretch a little bit further.
Not so much that it hurts.
Just so that you feel it.
Now,
Mark that feeling.
Really take heed of it.
Make sure your body really remembers it.
Ok…now go ahead and take your seats.

I want to tell about my name.  When my parents decided to marry, my dad was an atheist and my mom Catholic.  To get permission from the church to marry, my dad had to agree to raise any children they had in the Catholic Church.  My dad agreed, but only if he was allowed to name the kids.

Now my dad had a unique sense of humor.  It took several friends intervening rather forcefully to get my dad to agree not to name my brother Anthony Scott Spangenberg.  They convinced him that the initials would have set my brother up for a lifetime of pain.  So, my dad relented and named him Scott Russell.

10 years later I came along.  My dad, in his infinite wisdom decided to buck Catholic custom and not name me after a saint. To ensure that there was no mistaking his intention, he chose to spell my name S-U-Z-I.

Paragraph 2165 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.

So not naming me after a saint was no laughing matter.  Every year in Catholic School I was grilled about my name.  Every time I fill out a legal document, I am asked, “No, what’s your LEGAL name?”  One day I will have to calculate just how many hours I have spent saying “That IS my legal name!”  Thanks, Dad.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggling, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.  Beautiful people do not just happen.

When I read that quote to a friend, he said "Oh, I wish that were true because then we could all be Brad Pitt" and I replied "Or the Dalai Lama".  He just looked at me and then said "Honey - you go with the Dalai Lama...I'm sticking with Brad"

The thing is, my friend immediately identified with Kubler Ross's statement.  He recognized that the LGBTQ community has certainly experienced defeat, suffering, and loss.  I don't know any member who hasn't struggled on some level.  We know the defeat of trying over and over to secure the same civil rights as straight people in our society.  Not special rights.  Equal rights.  We have suffered when we have been separated from partners in hospitals or until recently, partners who served in the military.  And we know loss - oh how we know loss. Whether it is the loss of a friend when we start to figure out who we are, the loss of a family or job when we come out, or the more permanent losses that we experience as a result of violence or illness, loss is something that most of us know altogether too well.

Perhaps that is why there are so many beautiful people in the LGBTQ community.

Last year, in preparation for a Day of the Dead service, we were asked to bring in icons representing those we have lost.  Along with photographs, I also brought, a small address book.  Remember these?  For those of you who are younger, this is an address book.  Before cell phones we used to carry these in our pockets or purses and they contained the names and numbers of  important people in our lives.  This particular phone book is special - I got it when I first moved to Berkeley for college and used it for several years afterward.

When I started college, I was 16 and didn't know I was bi-sexual.  I just knew I was different from the other kids at my Catholic school.  I know that someone was looking out for me when an apartment opened up next door to Bill-my future best friend.  Bill took one look at me and saw through my punk rock facade.  He recognized the confused, naive, lost queer girl that I was even though I didn't recognize her myself.

Bill took me under his wing, brought me into the community and introduced me to his friends.  They snuck me into clubs so I could dance, helped me with my homework, nursed my first broken heart, and pretended to like the Thanksgiving turkey I cooked which was so dry, it could have been used for kindling.  We all learned to love and support each other. For the first time in my life, I got to experience what it was like to be truly accepted for who I was.  We were a family.

I didn't know a lot about politics then.  I started interning at a radio station and crewed with the news team as part of my internship.  When Dade County, Florida overturned a recently passed civil rights ordinance that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, we covered the protest marches.  You may remember that the legislation was overturned as the result of the “Save Our Children” campaign by Florida Orange Juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.  Her involvement sparked a long boycott of Florida orange juice.  In fact, I still have trouble buying Orange Juice from Florida.

Shortly after that, CA State Senator John Briggs introduced the Briggs Amendment, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.  At a press conference at San Francisco City Hall he called the city a "sexual garbage heap" because of “homosexuals”.  A week later, a gay man named Robert Hillsborough died from 15 stab wounds while his attackers gathered around him and chanted "Faggot!" Both San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Hillsborough's mother blamed Anita Bryant and John Briggs.

The response was immediate and strong.  Weeks later, 250,000 people attended the 1977 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, the largest attendance at any Gay Pride event to that point.  Shortly after that, Harvey Milk was sworn in as a San Francisco City Supervisor - the first openly gay man in the United States to win an election for public office.  What is important to note is that Milk, who won by a landslide, did not focus solely on gay causes.  He advocated for larger and less expensive childcare facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. He opposed the closing of an elementary school-- even though most gay people in the Castro did not have children.  He advanced important neighborhood issues at every opportunity.  He recognized that we ALL needed representing.

When Supervisor Dan White murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, we covered the press conference when then supervisor Dianne Feinstein made the announcement.  I will never forget the sight of normally hardened reporters in tears.  I called my friends -- my family--, and we all took part in a candlelight vigil march through the City.  It was my first, but by no means, my last.

Harvey Milk is in my address book.

A few years later, When LaDean got sick, we were all shocked.  He was young, ran daily, and was vegetarian even before it was cool.  He went so fast we didn't have time to process it.  One day he had the flu, the next he was in the hospital with pneumonia, 3 days later he was dead.  We grieved together, never realizing that LaDean was just the beginning.

Suddenly, men in the community, my family, were dying.  My family and friends were dying and no one outside the community seemed to care.  Sue Hyde, from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, "An entire political movement grew up around the silence of the Reagan administration. The AIDS activist movement took as its call to action 'silence equals death' because literally the silence of the Reagan administration was resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of gay men in our communities across the country."

Once again, it took people organizing to form a movement and demanding change before any took place.

LaDean is in my address book.
And so many more.
Every single male in this phonebook is dead.  Every single one.

The devastation of those early days of AIDS cannot be overemphasized.  Yet, as we grieved, we somehow survived.  We all found ways to do it.  Now, no one talks much about AIDS.  Medical advances have made it possible for those diagnosed with HIV to live a full life.  Yet, we can usually identify each other - those who went through this time.  It's in the eyes.  You see it in the eyes of those who have experienced loss or great struggle.

I saw those same eyes in Sonora when I spoke with a woman who months earlier had been deported with her young children and did not know where they were--ICE deported them to a separate location.  Alone.  She was afraid that they would become victims of the sex trade - the predators wait at the border for unaccompanied children.

I saw it in the eyes of Javier, a 72-year-old widower who was deported after living 71 years in the US.  He had cancer, and no means of even contacting his family to tell them where he was.  When I offered to let him use my phone he told me he didn't know their telephone numbers - they were all in his phone, which ICE had kept, along with his wallet, money, and identification.  He was afraid that stopping his medical treatment would mean that he would die without getting to see his children and grandchildren again.

And yet...they both were volunteering at a makeshift aid center --doing what they could to assist the newly deported.  They were helping others with the kind of compassion that comes from real empathy.  Their ability to practice loving kindness at a time of great loss was a profound and beautiful act.  They both expressed that they felt better when they were helping others.  By helping others, they were also helping themselves.

That interconnectedness, that is something we as UU's know well.  It is one of our principles:  As UU's we commit to affirm and promote our respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  So when a family is torn apart because of our immigration policy, the ripples stretch out and affect us all. When a queer kid is bullied to death, when a transgendered person is brutally murdered...those ripples affect everyone too.  Not just those in the community...everyone.  Because we are all connected to each other through the good and the bad.

It's that connection that compelled white UU ministers to leave the safety of their homes and congregations and answer the call of Martin Luther King, jr. in Selma to march in the Civil Rights Movement.  It is that same connection that compel straight UU's to rally for marriage equality and an end to bullying.  It is that same connection that compels us to speak out against an Immigration policy that tears apart families and destroys lives. And that connection holds true for love as well.  For every loving act we do, the ripples spread out and affect people we may never know.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said  “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”  He also said "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

Sometimes it's so difficult to know which battles to take on.  Sometimes after years of struggle we win a battle like we did for marriage equality in Maryland and after celebrating, our inclination may be to get off the activist train and take a well-deserved break.  You should!  Recharging our batteries is important and taking the time to practice good self-care is critical to any long-term movement.

However, after those batteries are recharged, it's important to get back on that train.  As long as civil rights are denied to any of us, they are denied to all of us.

I have a favorite tree that I like to sit in.  Going there is a form of meditation for me.  I like to climb up into the trees branches and look out over the Bay.  It is one of my favorite places to sit sipping a cup of coffee while I watch the sun set.  The birds’ fly around me and my cares just melt away.  I feel like I am in a sacred and safe world.  I love it.

Sacred and safe.  There is nothing wrong about sacred and safe spaces.  We need them.  We need them to balance out the challenges and realities that we face as we work to create a more just and sustainable world.  We need sacred and safe spaces.  We all do.  And it makes sense that we would want to remain in a safe space.

But what happens when we don't leave those safe spaces?  What happens when we choose the comfort of the sacred and safe over the discomfort that often arises when we actively work to counter oppression and create a just and sustainable world?

Like our muscles that become tight and then atrophy with disuse, so do our spirits.  If we do not stretch ourselves, then we become disconnected from our humanity.  Because spirit is not about closing up - it is about breaking open our hearts and minds and embracing all that life holds not just the safe and sacred but also the dangerous and sacred.

And by danger, I don't just mean the danger that comes from risking arrest for a cause you feel is just, I am also speaking of the danger that comes from opening your mind to people, ideas, painful truths, ugly realities and your own prejudices and privilege.  Because facing these things is dangerous - and probably one of the most sacred things we can do.

Each time we stretch just a little bit, it helps make it easier for the next time...by stretching just a little bit; we can accomplish things we would not have thought possible.  We very well may begin to like that feeling – of being stretched – and especially appreciate learning that we are a lot more flexible than we ever thought.  We can begin to experience interconnectedness in ways that we could not have imagined.  Our capacity for growth is boundless.

And in learning to like that feeling, I also learned what a gift my father gave me in my name.  He helped prepare me for a lifetime of stretching.  Of learning to be comfortable saying "THIS is who I am"

So by all means find your sacred and safe space.  Go there.  Re-charge.  Delight in it.  But don't reside there.  Come out of that space.  STRETCH yourselves.  Reach out.  Remember that feeling of being stretched earlier?  Reach for that feeling.  Embrace the dangerous and sacred.  And remember...to stretch yourselves - a little bit...each and every day.

Night of the Living Church

By Alex Haider-Winnett

Delivered at First Unitarian Church of Oakland

On July 28th, 2013

Friends, it is a great honor and privilege to be here to share worship with you today. After two years of serving this community in planning and implementing worship, I am thankful for this opportunity to preach here in this hallowed space. Here, where so many great people have shared their thoughts. It is a blessing. Thank you.

If you are like me, you come home from church and check-in with a loved one or friend about the service. You may say that the it was nice but you may struggle for a moment on how to accurately and eloquently describe the ideas expressed during the service. Well, I will make it easy for you. Today’s sermon is about stories. The stories we tell matter. Also, zombies. We will be talking about zombies today.

One of my most favorite movies in recent history is actually not about zombies. It is a documentary by Werner Herzog called Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It follows a group of archeologists, geologists, and paleontologists as they explore and decipher the Chauvet cave in Southern France. This cave is a significant find for having the oldest known cave paintings in human history. Dating back 32,000 years ago, these paintings provide an important insight to the dawn of humanity. The cave’s walls are covered with abstract patterns as well as figurative drawings of local animals. The paintings are amazing. They depict mammoths, lions, camels and wooly rhinos in stunning detail with a complex understanding of anatomy, motion, and perspective.

I won’t go on to tell you how because I think it is much better to see the movie for yourself, but the anthropologists have figured out that this site was used for ritual purposes. This cave is a prehistoric religious site. We know that in this cave, stories were told and rituals were performed. The essence of worship is found in the cave. And it draws a direct line from what was being done 32,000 years ago to what we are doing this very moment. At one point in the film, Herzog asks an anthropologist if the Chauvet cave is the dawn of humanity as we know it. Without a doubt the anthropologist believes this evidence of early religiosity is one of the earliest signs of humanity.

The stories we tell matter.

Of course the stories from that cave are lost to history. We have no idea what those drawings meant or which rituals were performed there. But there are lots of stories we do know. Students of anthropology, sociology, and philosophy will most likely be familiar with the works of Jung, Campbell and Armstrong. These three point to deep, universal elements that draw our stories together into a unifying human experience.

We have origin stories. Stories of how the universe, the world and living things have come to be.

We also have destruction stories. Stories of how creation will come to an end.

Between creation and destruction, we have the stories of everyday life; heroes and monsters, and stories of morality. All of these stories help to create meaning in a world that is vast, confusing and even frightening. By telling these stories we get to explore deep theological questions about the nature of the spirit, humanity and society. To have origins, to have influential leaders, and even comfort in knowing how the world may end all help us to create certainty.

These stories undeniably bind humanity together into a single world history. The stories we tell matter.

“But, Alex” some of you may be saying now, “those are ancient stories told by ancient people. We know those stories to be not true. We have science and reason to find why things *really* happen.” And you would be right. Sort of. We do have science and reason but these stories are still important in our lives. They can still be a source of inspiration in a brutal world when we look beyond the details and see the deeper, more universal themes below. Plus, even with science and reason, what we know of the universe is still mysterious. Take for instance the ultimate question-How did the universe come to exist? We have the Big Bang theory. All of the universe has been created through the cooling and condensing of a gigantic explosion that began billions of years ago. And as far as we call tell through physics, that it is correct. And yet, that story is still as amazing and as mysterious as any ancient creation story.

Contemporary theologian, Karen Armstrong writes about what makes a story “true.” For her, it does not matter if a story is factual as long as it helps us make meaning. Facts are a construct of modernity and belong firmly in the world of science. But myth, legend and stories are concerned with the greater truths of making meaning. Rather than asking if a story actually happened, we should be asking “does this story help us make meaning of the world we experience?” More importantly, I believe Armstrong would ask, “Does this story give us greater compassion and strength to make the world a better place?” The stories that do so are, arguably, the truest stories of all--whether or not they are factual.

And the very fact that we continue to write fiction shows that in our age of reason stories still matter. Harry Potter, Star Trek, and even Twilight are all fantasy stories we tell that are extremely popular for what they tell us about ourselves. They all take ancient stories and adapt them for our modern questions. Which brings finally brings us to zombies.

As I am sure you are all aware, the zombie is a fictional creature that represents the dead resurrected. In zombie stories, the dead tend to be hollow shells of humans; stripped of all thinking and personality, they are a walking/crawling mass that mindlessly roams the earth consuming all in their way. It is not too uncommon to hear people critically call modern culture “zombie-like” as we travel through our daily routines consuming food and resources without thought. The zombie image is appealing as allegory because the zombie itself is a blank slate on which the storyteller can put their own spin. Over the past century, the zombie trope has changed and altered with the times.

The term “Zombi” originates from West Africa. It referred to someone who was in the healing trance of a medicine man. It came over to the New World with the slave trade in the 17th century and became part of the Caribbean Creole religions related to Voodoo.

Usually, zombies take on a new mythology in order to reflect the societal anxieties of the time.For the most part, early zombie tales reflect the theme of someone controlled by a mysterious other as well as our inherent fear of death. In the 1930’s and ‘40’s, it was used by racist white America to demonize black spirituality. In the 1950’s zombies represented the Soviets. In the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, counter cultural director, George A. Romero made zombies a symbol for the dominant culture; representing consumerism with movies like Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead. In the later ‘70’s, movies like The Omega Man see the rise of the Zombie Apocalypse; a world destroyed by environmental degradation or nuclear fallout, reflecting the growing Environmentalist and Anti-Nuclear movements. Although, zombie stories fell out of favor for a while, since the turn of the 21st Century, Zombies have come back. With a vengeance.

A quick search of The Internet Movie DataBase shows that since the year 2000, more than 200 zombie movies have been made. This does not include video games, novels, comic books, television series and other popular culture references to the living dead. Not only that, but a quick search of “UU Zombie Sermons” brings up no fewer than six examples including a list of hymns that apply to zombies. So, here is the question on my mind. Why now? Why are zombies so important to us?

In short: The stories we tell matter.

In the past 13 years, our lives have been radically shaken by terrorist attacks, global outbreaks, government crackdowns, shifting urban landscapes, global climate change and rising ocean levels. The world we experience day-to-day is chaotic and unpredictable. And we can allow ourselves to look our anxieties in the eyes by making them zombies. The modern zombie is very different from the ones we had to face in the past. What once was a slow, unthinking shuffling corpse is now graced with speed, agility and strength. In movies like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and World War Z, the Zombie Apocalypse is the result of an epidemic, chemical weapon or some other widespread disaster. It shows the fear we hold deep inside. Fears for our health and safety. Fears of terrorist attacks and even the fear of ourselves and neighbors. Just as important as ancient stories about the creation and destruction of world, modern stories of the same themes can be just as cathartic.

Watching modern zombie movies, there are certain plot devices that are resonant to today’s viewer. There is the scene where people run through city streets, attempting to outrun an unseen presence in the distance. Those of us who remember 9/11 will recall the denizens of Manhattan outrunning falling debris and dust clouds. Many zombie stories depict the spread of the zombie apocalypse much in the way that we have seen pandemics such as H1N1, HIV and Bird Flu grow. In most of these stories, there is a scene where a trusted friend or ally succombs to the infection and becomes part of the zombies--pointing to the fear of our neighbors as well the fallibility of our own bodies. Through these stories, we get to look directly at our anxieties and find catharsis.

My favorite piece of zombie storytelling is the comic book series The Walking Dead. In the series, we follow Rick Grimes, a small town sheriff’s deputy, who wakes up from a coma to find that civilization has fallen due to a mysterious pandemic that causes the recently dead to rise and consume flesh. These zombies are fast and travel in packs. They have the capability of basic problem solving and they are terrifying. Rick roams the land with a small band of survivors. And, in the comic, it has now been three years since Rick has awoken. And in those three years, he and the fellow survivors have had to deal with questions of morality and natural law, loyalty and family, birth and death, crises of faith, leadership, safety, terrorism, health, mobility, resource use, trust and many more issues. A close reading of Rick’s life story being pursued by flesh eating monsters helps bring me surprising comfort in a world that, at times, is complicated and frustrating. I can relate to Rick’s struggle to re-imagine leadership, masculinity, and responsibility in changing times. Through this lens of Rick and his interactions with zombies, I get a safe space to reflect on my role in this world and how I am going to live in it. It is a cathartic experience. Not bad for a comic book about the living dead.

Yes, the stories we tell matter. Even stories about zombies.

Here at UU Oakland, our mission is to promote transformation. We come here to be transformed so that we may transform the world. We strive to end oppression and violence in the world. We learn about ourselves and eachother. And we build community together. One of the ways we do that is by telling each other stories. During worship, social events and the covenantal work of our committees and ministries we tell stories. From our shared religious heritage as well our own diverse individual experiences, we tell stories to interpret our life experiences and learn from one another.  During services, our Pastoral Associates give a search for meaning--a brief time where we apply the theme of the service to our life experiences--just as Michelle did today about finding inscriptions in used books. Our covenant groups allow members to discuss our lives within and beyond the church and allow us to find deeper intimacy. During our committee meetings and personal ministries, we share of ourselves to find new and exciting ways to serve the church. Giving of ourselves and telling our stories, we do the good work of this church. We must take the opportunities to tell one another our stories when they arise.

But we also write communal stories together through our shared experiences. Together, we build stories that, hopefully, teach us greater compassion and strength for the journey. And by taking the opportunity to tell each other real stories, stories about our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and our successes, we not only relieve the anxieties of our community, we get to learn from one another and build a world we wish to see.

Yes the stories we tell matter.

Whether they are ancient myths told long ago, or told today by popular culture, or our own personal stories; the stories we tell matter and need to be told. If we are to build beloved community. If we are to set the Welcome Table and say that all are worthy and all are welcome, we are going to have to come willing to listen to the stories that matter. We will have to listen with open ears, minds and hearts. And we will have to be willing to listen for the deeper truths. And we are going to need to be prepared to create the space so that people are willing to share them. We will need to share our stories that create community, promote growth, work for justice and bring about change. And by telling our stories and listening together, we will go on this journey together to hold, heal and build a world we want to live in. By telling our stories that matter.

Benediction:
The stories we share and write together will be legacy of this church. Let us continue telling the stories that create community, promote growth and work for justice. And let us listen together for the deeper truths and the greater messages; the messages that give us more compassion and strength. The stories we tell matter. Friends, you matter. The service has ended but of our work has just begun. Amen.

All Souls Day / Day of the Dead

By Kat Liu

Delivered at Firstt UU Church of Second Life

On  0ctober 30, 2008

Reading

"The Open Door at Samhain"

Between the heavens and the earth
The way now opens to bring forth
The Hosts of those who went on before-
Hail! We see them now come through the Open Door.
Move beyond the fiery screen, Between the seen and the unseen;
Shed your anger and your fear, Live anew in a new year!

- Unknown Author

 

Homily

"All Souls Day/The Day of the Dead"

When I was six years old, my mother took my brother and me to Taiwan to visit relatives for the first time.  Having lived my only six years of life up until then in the U.S., it was quite a culture shock.  One of the most memorable shocks for me was visiting a Buddhist temple full of spooky gods with multiple arms, eyes, and sometimes heads.  Another memorable shock was seeing the ancestral altar in my great aunt's house.  There, was a picture of my deceased great uncle, along with a tablet bearing his name, on an table with burning candles and incense and fresh flowers.  But more than that, there was food and tea and wine.  It seemed to me as if his picture was watching the family. But it was the food and drinks that got to me most, as if my granduncle were still with us, with a hearty appetite.  As a six year old, it evoked fears of ghosts. This weird culture that my mom had thrown us into was scary.

When I was nine years old, my parents sent me to a conservative Lutheran school, and one of the many things I learned there was that my family engaged in ancestral worship, idolatry.  In so many words, I was informed that my ancestors were in hell, and that my extended family members would shortly be joining them there.

When I was in high school and then college, I came to believe that both the Christian hell and Chinese ancestral worship were just the superstitions of an unenlightened past. The future, based in science, would be free of such nonsense.

Within the span of a few years, I went from fear to disdain to finally indifference. I had no use for ancestral tablets and offerings.

---

Tomorrow night is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, followed by All Saints Day on Nov 1st, and then All Souls Day on Nov 2.

As many of you know, what we have now is the result of Christian traditions being overlaid on indigenous traditions.  And so the Celtic new year of Samhain - the end of the light half of the year and the start of the dark half - became All Saints Day.  And the night before it, a time thought to be when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest, that became Halloween.  But unlike our Halloween, Samhain's eve was not a night of fear (nor crass commercialism, but I digress).

It was instead, a night of celebration.  Returning ghosts of the deceased were not terrifying; they were welcome.

When Christianity moved to Latin America, it mixed with indigenous practices there too.  And so in Mexico, there is the Day of the Dead celebrations on All Souls Day, Nov 2nd.  It used to be a whole month in August; now it's just a couple of days tied around the Christian calendar, but the idea is the same.  On Día de los Muertos, people celebrate, eat pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) and skull shaped candies, and tell joyful stories of family and friends who have passed.  In preparation, they make colorful altars upon which flowers (usually marigolds), photographs, and mementos of the deceased are placed.  And also on these altars, people served the favorite foods of the deceased.

The Chinese also have a Day of the Dead. It takes place in April and is called Ching Ming, which means "clean and just."

On Ching Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day, people weed and clean the areas around ancestral graves, offer fresh flowers, light incense, and burn imitation paper money for afterlife spending needs.  Participants bow three times with wine cup in hand, then pour the wine onto the ground as an offering.  In addition, the favorite foods of the deceased are also laid out as an offering.

Favorite foods of the deceased...

as if they were still with us, with hearty appetites.

---

In high school, college and then graduate school, I tried to dismiss such "superstitions" of the past.  But try as I may, I have not been able to dismiss death.  Some people think superstitions arose about ghosts and afterlives because people are afraid of their own dying.  I think that's a rather ungracious interpretation.  I'm not afraid of my own death.  But I am aware of the palpable absence of my loved ones.  Both friends and family have died, some way too soon.  I can no longer talk with my grandparents. Soon I will no longer be able to talk with my parents.  I think people developed the concept of afterlives to remain connected to those they love and have gone.  And to feel connected to something bigger than just ourselves.

A world view that says that life is nothing but a complex set of biochemical reactions, and death but the cessation of those reactions does not provide much comfort for the loss of a friend or loved one.  If we're just individual bodies that pop into existence for 70 some odd years, give or take a couple of decades, and then pop out again, what is the point?

There is a song that was introduced in the new hymnal supplement. The words go:

Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?

Age old existential questions.  The questions of religion.

For me, the daughter of immigrants, who has never known any of my ancestors beyond my grandparents, I have felt cut-off at the roots. "Free" to be anything I want in this land of opportunity, but unanchored. Rootless.  I have learned that a lot of Americans feel this way, whether they are the children of immigrants or not.  Once in a while, I think, it would be nice to believe that my deceased ancestors are keeping me company.

And recently, I've come to realize that they are. 

My paternal grandmother died when I was thirteen.  I have not seen her face since, except in photographs, nor heard her voice, except in memory. But she is with me every day.  I am especially aware of her omnipresence during the winter holiday season, which is fast approaching.  Every year, I amaze my colleagues by cutting paper snowflakes in perfect six-fold symmetry.  It was Nai Nai (or grandma) who taught me how to do that.

When I look in the mirror, I see my mother's face, which is my grandfather's face.

And even tho I've never met my great-grandparents, I know that my Dad's morning sneezing fits, which my brother has inherited, must have come from one of them, and from a great-great grandparent before that.

And that my Dad's deep sense of duty to country, even at one's own expense, comes from teachings handed down for generations.

Through the study of Buddhism, the religion with the many armed gods that had scared me witless as a child, as well as science, as well as personal reflection, I've come to understand interdependency.  Not interdependency as an ecological concept - protect the earth, etc - but all pervasive metaphysical interdependency.  EVERYTHING arises out of other things. We do not, it turns out, just pop into existence and back out. We are because of those who came before. Connected with them in one web of interbeing.

----

All Souls Day is preceded by All Saints Day.  The latter is just for those who are seen as worthy enough to get into heaven.  The former is for everyone ALL Souls.  I think it's fitting that Día de los Muertos, that "pagan" holiday of ancestral "idolatry" is on All Souls Day.

Last week I asked my father to take out his old calligraphy brushes and write the names of all four of my grandparents.  You see, I'm going to take digital pictures of the writing and turn them into ancestral tablets in Second Life for my little Chinese temple.  Then I will light virtual candles and incense and place virtual food for them to partake.  And when I do it, it won't be because I believe their virtual ghosts are hungry.  It will be to honor that part of them that has made me, my brother, and cousins who we are.

Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

Gethsemane & the Gita

Gethsemane & the Gita

By Kat Liu

Delivered at the First UU Church of Second Life

On April 1st, 2010

Reading:

From the book of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 36-46:

Then Jesus went with [his disciples] to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to [them], ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not have to be tested… Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed …

Sermon:

Gethsemane and the Gita

There is a reason why I wanted to lead the service this particular week, this Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday. According to the story in the bible, it was on Thursday that Jesus and his disciples held what is called “The Last Supper” – when they broke bread and drank wine together for the last time. After which, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, was apprehended, beaten and interrogated overnight, and then crucified the following day, known as Good Friday.

So the story goes.

Now, I know that it is not without risk that I preach about the Passion Story at a UU service. In fact, I would not be surprised if one or two of you have already logged off, if not physically then at least mentally. But for those of you who are still listening, please hear me out.

Of the many positive traits that Unitarian Universalists are known for, one is our tolerance for diversity, openness, willingness to learn. But that same tolerance does not always extend to Christianity. Often, one can talk about stories from Buddhism and Hinduism and many other faith traditions in a UU setting much more easily than one can about stories from the bible. If I stood up here and told you how Isis painstakingly collected the parts of Osiris after his brother Set had betrayed him and cut him into pieces, and resurrected him, few would protest “But you can’t prove that Osiris even lived!” Instead, we might talk about what the story could mean, what different events symbolize, and maybe even how we might relate to it today.

In contrast, a good number of UUs might be ok with talking about Jesus just so long as it’s only the parables and the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus as human teacher. But if I start talking telling the story about Jesus dying on the cross as part of God’s plan, my guess is that even if you are too polite to say it, a significant number will be thinking “That isn’t true.”

And I’m not asserting that it is true. What I am suggesting is that there may still be something that we can learn from the story. Often times liberals will dismiss the bible as “myth" and what we’re saying is that it didn’t really happen that way in history. But myth has a deeper meaning than just not being historical. Saying that Columbus sailed in 1972 is not historically accurate, but that doesn’t qualify it as a myth. Myths carry truths bigger than just history.

So what I would like to do tonight is suggest that we take the claim – “That story is a myth” – seriously. Meaning that we set aside the question of whether it “really happened” and look to see whether it seems “true” in some other way.

And at the same time, I’d like to juxtapose another story – one from the Hindu tradition. One that I’ll probably have no trouble convincing you to approach as myth, but with which you might not be as familiar – that of Arjuna the archer.

Jesus and Arjuna. Two men on the brink of something momentous, undergoing existential crisis, talking with their God – or, if you prefer, mulling things over with their higher self. ;)

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane pleading with his Father on the eve of what he knows will be his death, and Arjuna, the great warrior, talking with Lord Krishna, on the eve of an epic battle where he will have to kill family and friends. Whether you believe that either of these are accountings of Divine Will or just made up stories is not the point. The more interesting question is what these stories might mean for us today.

Let me start with Jesus. And many of you may be familiar with his story, as accounted in the Gospels.

Here he is. He’s been touring the country for about three years now and has developed quite a following. A group of people travel with him everywhere he goes. Just a few days ago (Palm Sunday), he entered the city of Jerusalem to adoring crowds, proclaiming him king. But he knows that he’s about to lose everything.

It doesn’t matter how he knows this. Whether it’s because he’s God, or overheard Judas talking to the Sadducees, or has a keen sense of intuition, or maybe the author just writes the story that way. The point is that Jesus knows that something very hard is coming up that he doesn’t want to do. “Father,” he says, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” In other words “I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me.”

He is now alone. Judas has betrayed him. Even his most loyal disciple, Peter, can’t stay awake with him in his time of need. In the version of this story according to Luke, it even says that he’s so stressed that he sweats blood! He is in anguish. He is scared. He so does not want to go through with what is facing him that he is pleading.

But…

He still says “not what I want but what you want” and “your will be done.”

Some people will hear this and focus on the interpretation that God wanted a blood sacrifice. But what captivates my attention is him saying, I don’t want to do this (whatever “this” is), but *if* I have to, I will. If the circumstances demand it.

To me, this is the true power of the Passion Story. If you see Jesus as an omnipotent God who knows he’s going to be resurrected, then what’s the big deal? Instead, Jesus in the Garden is much more like a human being under extraordinary circumstances who says “I don’t want to go through with this, but I will if I have to... If the circumstances demand it.”

Unitarian Universalists adore Martin Luther King Jr., and rightfully so. What we sometimes forget is that he was a Christian minister. I don’t know how many of you have been to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. It’s the home congregation of Dr. King, where his father had preached, and where he preached after his father retired. It is at Ebenezer Baptist Church that King first taught the doctrine of non-violence.

The congregation has since moved to a larger, modern building across the street but the original building is now part of a National Historical Site. And if you visit it, what you will see on the back wall of the sanctuary, above the pulpit, so that every person can see it, is a stained glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Just think of what that image and that story must have meant for Dr. King. Jesus on his knees praying, “God, please don’t make me go through with this. I’m scared. I don’t want to do it. But I will if I have to.”

Think what King might have felt as he sat in jail in Birmingham. Or the night before Selma. At any given time, he could have stayed in Atlanta, where the situation was better. Heck, he could have had the pulpit of a Unitarian church in DC (my home congregation, All Souls) and been quite comfortable. It was offered to him. Instead, he chose to lead a movement that could and did get him killed. Because he knew he had to. The situation demanded it.

But surely there were times when he was scared and tempted to pack it up and go home.
King learned non-violence from Gandhi but it was the thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that pulled him through.

And what can the story mean for us?

Heroes aren’t necessarily the brawny guy who knows no fear and is just itching to fight for his country. In fact, in most cases, not. Heroes and prophets are every day people who, when the circumstances call on them, say yes. It’s usually not easy. It often ain’t pretty. But you don’t need to die, most of the time. All it takes is to say yes when the situation demands it. For us it might be something as simple being willing to be late for a meeting in order to help someone out in need. Being wiling to extend oneself when there is no reward and it might even be an inconvenience.

The decision that faced Arjuna was similar in striking ways. But since Arjuna’s story is less familiar to most of us in the West, a little background is in order. The Baghavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata, an epic story in Hinduism. In a nutshell, it involves two related families – the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas.

Leading up to the part that is known as the Baghavad Gita, the Kauravas have treated the Pandavas HORRIBLY. Cheated them, abused them, abused their common wife Draupadi (the five brothers share one wife but that’s a whole other story)…forced them into exile, took their land, refused to give it back, insulted their Lord God, Krishna….they were just plain mean and rotten … to the point where the two parties are on the brink of war - the five Pandava brothers and their allies on one side, and the 100 Kaurava brothers and their allies on the other.

But remember, the Pandavas and the Kauravas are first cousins. So each side has close relatives and friends and mentors on the other side. On the eve of battle, which is where the Gita starts, Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes and their greatest warrior, surveys the troops on both sides lined up for war. He sees his relatives, friends, and mentors on the other side and realizes that he either has to kill them or be killed by them. And his heart fails him.

Seems reasonable, no?

He says “O Govinda, of what avail to us are a kingdom, happiness or even life itself when all those for whom we may desire them are now arrayed on this battlefield? O Madhusudana, when teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law and other relatives are ready to give up their lives and properties and are standing before me, why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? O maintainer of all living entities, I am not prepared to fight with them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth. What pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarashtra?"

Arjuna, like Jesus, doesn’t want to go through with what he believes/knows that he has to do. Arjun was the son of the great god Indra, and a master archer. While not immortal, he had no fear of dying or harm to himself. Rather he was afraid of having to live with the consequences of his actions. Afraid of hurting people in the course of pursuing justice. But through the counsel of Krishna, Arjun finally resigns himself to his destiny. What Krishna told him in a nutshell was that the situation demanded it.

Here I must make a personal aside: I am not in any way advocating for war. When I read the Gita I am still troubled by the choices facing Arjun. And many people have interpreted the war to be metaphorical, thereby side-stepping the troubling image of God/Krishna demanding and arguing in favor of slaughtering kinsmen. And they may be right. During the course of arguing in favor of war, Krishna schools Arjuna on the Dharma. It’s clear that Arjun is meant to represent “every man,” represent the best of us, and we are meant to learn from Krishna’s teachings. And how many of us are faced with really having to slaughter our cousins and other loved ones? So it’s not unreasonable to see the great, bloody war as just a metaphor.

But I also think to dismiss the war lightly is to miss a large part of the point. This was an extremely difficult choice for Arjun, with negative consequences either way. If it were easy, it would not have been much of a story, nor be very relevant spiritually. While we may never have to kill our 100 cousins, perhaps there are other times when we’ve been faced with the choice to do something that hurts a loved one or do nothing and let injustice continue. How many times have we failed to do what is right for fear of upsetting people? I’ll speak for myself. I know I have.

The discussion between Krishna and Arjun is one of the greatest existentialist treatises of all time. At issue is the balance between the wisdom to be gained from pursuing knowledge (retreating, gathering information, reflecting, meditating) and the results to be gained from actually acting. Krishna lifts both up as ideals to be pursued but ultimately favors action.

The reason why, I think, is because at times our heads can talk us out of doing what is right. Especially when the circumstances are complex. My brain can rationalize my way out of doing just about anything, and it almost always seems perfectly reasonable at the time. How much more easy can it be to not act when the consequences are hard like those facing Arjun?

I remember the first time I heard the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp – only the second and third Americans to be honored for helping Jews and others in Nazi-occupied territories during WWII, at great risk to themselves. The Sharps were Unitarians and their work led to the start of the Unitarian Service Committee, which became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, still working against human rights abuses today.

Waitstill and Martha left their two small children behind to go risk their lives.

When I heard that I was deeply torn. On the one hand, what they did was amazing. They saved dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives. On the other hand, they could easily have been killed and left their children as orphans. It would have been perfectly reasonable for them to have said, “No I cannot go. My children need me.” Who would have blamed either one of them for staying home?

Yet they said “yes.” And even after they made it safely back to the States, they went a second time, because the situation demanded it. And what a huge difference they made.

Now, I don’t know if you will ever have to make the choices that faced Jesus or Arjun -
to be betrayed, tortured and killed (rather than running away) or to kill your loved ones, friends, etc, in the name of justice. I most fervently hope that you never face anything like either. As I fervently hope you never have to make the choices that faced Dr. King or the Sharps. But we still do make smaller choices in our daily living, on whether to act or not, when facing something that we would rather not do. How do we say “yes” in those situations?

And it may be that Jesus and/or Arjuna can serve as inspiration.

May it be so.
Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

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