Reflections on ministry

Reflections on Ministry

By Shawn Koester (as Kwana Rosca)

Delivered at the First UU Church in Second Life

On Saturday, December 15th, 2007

My sermon today will focus on the meaning of ministry. Certainly I like so many others in the professional, and lay clergy are ministers to be sure in that we are offering our wisdom, and experience, to deepen the meaning of what it means to be human. Forrest Church, the great minister of All Souls in New York says countless times that religion is the dual awareness of being alive, and of knowing we must die. We seek to awaken to what is around us, and make sense of it all, even if there is murkiness and uncertainty. But each of you sitting here today and indeed all people are prophets, ministers, and healers. Each of you bring your own talents, experiences and wisdom in such meaningful ways that impact the world, others, and even bring a person brighter days. Gautama, the Buddha, in his first incarnation was living a common life to most people of India in a state of squalor, but as he encountered a lady ready to be swallowed whole by a tiger, he willingly offers himself to be eaten by that tiger. As a reward he is reincarnated as Prince Sidharta. Prince Sidharta was then born into high society, and among the ruling classes. Seeing the pit of despair, and the plight of the oppressed peoples of his land and time, renounced his power, and title, and sough to bring enlightenment to all who would listen. The Rabbi Jesus sought to bring back to Judaism the prophetic stances of Micah, Amos, and others. He openly sat with those who society and the mainstream religious officials deemed worthless including sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even his bitter enemies. He saves a woman, an adulterer who is ready to be stoned saying, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" In turning the original idea of Sabbath on its head, he is heard to remark that the Sabbath is made for humanity, and not the other way around. John Murray as he was preaching the great gospel truth of our Universalist faith in the final harmony of all souls with God, one of his critics threw a rock into the window of the Boston Church he was preaching in, took the rock and he noted, "This rock is weighted, and pointy but is neither convincing or solid lest all the rocks in Boston stop my breath". The great Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker went on a limb to protect slaves in his parish to the point of wielding a gun behind his pulpit to defend them against the Fugitive Slave Act. James Reeb, a UU minister in the Civil Rights Movement headed Dr. King's call to inter-ethnic harmony, in going to the South. Unfortunately, he was killed at the hands of segregationists. Ministry requires that one give up their comfort, their security, and their lives to be able to lend a healing hand. And it's not simply just being present, and attending to people's needs, it is also simply listening, and in that act of listening we able to attune ourselves better. Comforting the sick, or the dying, or witnessing a birth are indeed miracles seeing the ebb and flow of life itself. In our individual ministries, we must be reminded that we are the vessels through which divinity can act, and bear witness to the idea of the Beloved Community free of strife, and hardship, where all seen as sisters and brothers of God. That no one person be seen as a stranger. Ahisma, the release from suffering must not only focus on conscious suffering that we do between others, but the impact it has on larger systems of life, even if what we do is unconscious. Even if we have impacted the life of one person, we know we will be at peace knowing that the world just got a little brighter. As it says in the Talmud, "To whoever destroys one life, destroys the world entire, and to whoever saves one life saves the world entire". In closing, we are each prophets speaking truth to power, we are each messiahs with the ability to bring about redemption, and each of us are the creators of our own destiny. May it be so. Amen

How Universalism affects modern day Unitarian Universalism

How Universalism affects modern day Unitarian Universalism a sermon preached by Shawn Koester (as Kwana Rosca) at the First UU Church in Second Life September 27th, 2007 Tonight I'm going to discuss Universalism and its impact on our free faith. this comes with a confession- I am an unapologetic Universalist. Universalism since the merger of the Universalists and the Unitarians in the early 60s has been lost as the Unitarians had stronger finances, with a larger population. Since they were stronger they had substantial influence. What is Universalism? Universalism can mean one of two things- our founding doctrines of God as love, there's no hell, and all souls reach salvation. or if looking back at the new generation of Universalists starting with Ken Patton can mean universal religion. Now some of you are asking- How does Universalism distinguish itself from Unitarianism? Good question Universalism seeks to express our values through Biblical, theological language, and the tradition symbolism in new ways. Take for instance the cross- I recognize some of you came from backgrounds where the cross was seen as buried in dogma- of God requiring a sacrifice of an innocent- Jesus- to accomplish atonement. Instead, Universalism seeks to use the cross as a sign of empowerment. the Romans used crosses to silence those who were deemed threats to the Empire, Jesus being the itinerant Rabbi, and prophetic voice he was scared the living daylights out of those who would seek to embrace the letter of the law, and not the spirit. Preaching a message of radical inclusion, the transformative power of love, and that each person is worthy in the eyes of the Eternal no matter who far-off we stray. This is a love that will never let us go.So with that in mind the cross becomes a warning that among other things, "Defending the powerless is a risky business" Universalism seeks to solve the class issue in that Universalists were of the lower strata of society farmers, workers, and students. Whereas the Unitarians were drawing the professional trades in. So this too might solve the ethnic diversity issue as well. An example of how Universalists framed their faith in a non-creedal sense was in the 1935 Principles. We avowal our faith in God as eternal and all conquering love. By linking God to love that people are in harmony with the divine when they are in right relations with one another.that God is the x, the mystery at the heart of the universe. So love is the closet thing we will understand to this mystery. In the spiritual leadership of Jesus. this does not mean the leadership only of Jesus, or referring to the Jesus of orthodoxy. Since 1805 Universalists have been drawing from world religions and other sages as Moses, Confucious and Lao Tzu the supreme worth of every human personality basically the first principle of our denomination today. the authority of truth known, or to be known. a responsible search of truth from where ever it may come from. and the power of persons of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. the Kingdom of God in Universalism is right here and now, the world made whole. Universalism deals with those coming out of oppressive backgrounds in that it challenges people to look at their childhood faith and tear it apart so the poisonous aspects of the faith can disappear, and those positive and enriching can stay to form your current theology. another interesting feature of Universalism is the off-centered cross. the circle representing the universe, God. at one end is the cross, representing our liberal Christian and Jewish witness is set to the side to leave room for other paths towards the holy and truth. Universalists also had a claim on the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus before the Unitarians. It was in 1805 with Hosea Ballou, a popular Universalist preacher who wrote Treatise on Atonement stripping Universalism of Calvinism, legalism, and the trinity. That was at least 30 years before the Unitarians under Channing formed in the 1820s. Bringing out our message, or evangelism was a major point for Universalists taking it to whoever was willing so by going out they were able to be in the marketplace of ideas. May our lives preach more loudly than our lips. Amen and Blessed Be.

Going to the deep waters of the Lord's Prayer

Going to the deep waters of the Lord's Prayer

By Shawn Koester (as Kwana Rosca)

Delivered at the First UU Church in Second Life

On Thursday, December 13th, 2007

My sermon today will focus on our relationship as UUs with the Lord's Prayer. I recognize for a lot of you that hearing about Christian tradition, or anything related to the life and teachings of Jesus may open some wounds left by those who seek to do damage. But alas this important prayer is still useful. Lets break it down word by word.

Our Father

Jesus, in his ministry sought to bring Judaism back to its prophetic stances in the tradition of Isaiah, Elijah, and the rest and in manifesting divine love. In prayer, as a itinerant rabbi, and loyal Jew saw God as directly relational, and affectionately called God "Abba" roughly translated means "Daddy" or Papa. By having Our in front indicated that God rather than being the God of one tradition, or one set of people was the source of us all. Also this first line points to God being a parent like figure who seeks to correct us, rather than to judge or damn and a God that is not exclusively male. As to put any label, or sex, or name to the eternal one would limit our perception of the imperceptible

Hallowed be thy name. Hallowing the holy one's name(s) is if anything else, an act of making sacred the Spirit. As not to use the divine name to injure or mistreat

Thy kingdom come. This line is a bit more difficult than the others as thy kingdom come often implies a reign when God will destroy others, and uplift others. And that is contrary, I believe to the divine character, and the God who Jesus had deep communion with what this line means is in scripture, Jesus teaches that heaven, or the Kingdom of God is not in a far off place, but the realm of God is within, and all around us. It is the realm of wholeness when the least among us will be able to have a voice, and be treated as worthy, a time when forgiveness, mercy, and love prevails that the welcome table includes all or in the words of Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream"

Thy will be done. Thy will be done is that often in our lives we get caught in the rut, and follow actions and decisions that are contrary to our best selves, and embracing a higher call. When Jesus was being executed at the hands of an oppressive empire for his heretical stands he said, "Your will be done, not mine" that we are to trust our conscience, our still small voice

On earth as it is in heaven that in following the call of the divine, and conscience we hope to bring about the divine will on earth as things are in the whole of creation

Give us this day our daily bread. This refers back to the time of Jewish enslavement in Egypt, and their eventual liberation. As there was not enough bread, that they hoped in God to provide them bread for sustenance. Unfortunately, we cannot just wait on God to act but we must the arms through which those who hunger, and those out on the streets will be able to have to be filled

and lead us not into temptation. This is kind of self-explanatory but this line evokes that we'll be stronger than what challenges us, and will have the strength to endure

But deliver us from evil is the deliverance of evil by challenging unjust structures, and having the strength of will to ensure liberation for all

Forgiving debts, as we forgive others is important in the struggle towards reconciliation. Often it is hard to forgive when others have harmed us, because for many of us we would like to see them get their just deserts. So by forgiving, we must be able to reconcile with ourselves before we ask forgiveness in the eyes of the eternal. Jesus and the other wisdom teachers have freely forgiven that that have harmed them, and so was deemed radical to those in power

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever. This refers to back to the principles for which Jesus died, and to the God he was serving.

May we have the courage to forgive others, to love and to act freely in the name of justice and healing. Amen and Namaste.

Superbowls and Under-dogs

The Super Bowl is today. In case it's possible that you don't know who's playing, it's the undefeated New England Patriots versus wild-card team, the New York Giants. Almost every time there is a major sporting event my brother and I get into a polite argument. It's the same argument every time. My brother roots for the team with the better record, on the assumption that if they have the better record they must be the better team and thus deserve to win. I otoh almost always root for the underdog.

My brother does not understand this. "Don't you want the better team to win? Are you gonna hold their superiority against them?" I've thought about this a lot now. Certainly some of it is just emotional. I feel sorry for the underdog team. I feel empathy for them. But then again, I feel sorrow for the team with the better record when they lose; how much more disappointing it must be when you were expecting to win.  Is it that I only like losers? because suffering is redemptive?

But there is something more than just the emotional reaction. My brother assumes the team with the better record has a better record because they're better. I assume that the team with the better record has a better record because they're lucky. By that I don't just mean that plays have gone their way. I do understand that sometimes teams will have a greater number of superior players. But that to me is luck too.  It's "luck" to have a wealthier owner.  Or, if it isn't luck that causes one team to be able to afford a better roster, it's still not something inherent.  

Deep down, I do not believe that any team is superior to any other team.  Deep down, I think they're all the same (unless it's my home team in which case they're not the same).  So if one team has a disproportionate number of wins, I am rooting to even things out.  And I'm rooting for the story, the story that no matter how the odds may be stacked against you - the other side may have better resources, more people backing them - if you perform well, then you can do well.  That is what I want to believe.  

And that's what makes sports so wonderful and relevant.  Just as in the rest of life, in the end, it doesn't matter how much talent you have or what your previous record was. In any given game, even the Super Bowl, it all comes down to who can deliver when it matters.  Even an under-dog can win.

The Power of Connection

Our office is up in Boston for a staff retreat, to have "face-time" with people with whom we closely work, to build relationships, to learn from UU clergy and social justice leaders on how we can better serve them, and to meet with the UUSC.  In all, the last two days have been informative and exhausting and, as always for me when we talk of social justice, there is the tension between the urgent need for action and feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless.

I've been told that historically there's been tension between the UUA and the UUSC - perhaps a sense of competition, I'm not sure.  Whatever it was it was before my time, those problems addressed by the hard work of my predecessors and supervisors.  The experiences I've had with the UUSC have all been amicable, and when we were told we were going to have a joint meeting, that made sense.

But what I didn't expect was to experience a very palpable lesson in the power of connections - in collaboration.  Today, as we walked into the new UUSC conference room (they recently moved), I was struck by how crowded the room was.  Our UUA staff groups, which seem so small were joining UUSC staff groups, which probably aren't much bigger, and instantly our power was doubled.  Instantly we had twice the number of people working on Darfur, twice the number of people working on the Gulf Coast, twice the number of people working on environmental justice.

Alone we are weak and easily overwhelmed.  Together we are strong.  Isn't that what religious community is all about?  I will never forget it.

There IS an Elephant

One of my pet peeves about what passes for "liberalism" these days is moral relativism. Don't get me wrong, I am a post-modernist through and through. I do believe that things must be judged in the context in which they are created and that people with different experiences can interpret the same thing differently and both be right.

But it does not follow from that that anything goes. Even if morality is contextual, there are still some things that are always wrong. For example, I can think of no context whatsoever where torturing a baby for the fun of it would be considered ok.

I understand to some extent the motivation for eschewing judgment. So many times in the past, moral judgment has motivated great harm. If we say something as stupid as "Christians good, Jews bad" then yes, it is the judgment itself that is the problem. But it doesn't follow that all judgment is to be avoided. The laissez-faire kind of "liberalism" is morally lazy imo. If we can't respond to the immorality of something like the holocaust, then what good are we? When someone else is killing people, "live and let live" is not an appropriate response. And really, that kind of liberalism is an option reserved only for the privileged, only for those who do not suffer.

Another common argument that I've heard is that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that it's all a human construct. Ironically, many of these folks point to eastern traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism to bolster their arguments. But it's based on a false understanding of these traditions, imo.

For example, some people point to the balance between Yin and Yang in Taoism - between light and dark, male and female, heaven and earth - and extrapolate from this that Taoism advocates for a balance between good and evil. But comparing good and evil to things like light and dark immediately begs the question, which is which? Is darkness evil? No. In Taoism, "evil" is not darkness, or Yin. Instead, evil arises from the imbalance between Yang and Yin. Taoism, like all the other great religions, seeks the balance - the good.

I've also heard people use the parable of the blind men and the elephant as an argument for relativism. They argue that the parable teaches us that there is no objective Truth, and therefore we can't judge. This is a distortion of one of my favorite parables. Indeed, the story says we can never know Truth/God's will with certainty. By perceiving Truth subjectively we distort it, but subjectively is the only way in which we can perceive it. Therefore the story cautions us to be circumspect in our judgments, but does not negate their validity.

What some people forget in this story is that there IS an elephant. Our limited sense may allow us to only experience a small part of it, but the elephant (Truth/God's will) still exists. The corollary to that is ALL of the interpretations of the elephant are valid. They are REAL experiences of the Divine. The mistake is to then try to impose one's own experience and subsequent interpretations on others as the only valid viewpoints.

There IS an elephant. We ARE capable of perceiving it, albeit in our limited ways. And we ARE capable of perceiving what is right and what is wrong, albeit in our limited ways. It would be far easier to give up due to the difficulty in navigating this terrain. But as moral agents who carry the divine spark in each of us, we have the capacity and obligation to respond to injustice.

The Theology of the Privileged

UU World published an article called, Not My Father's Religion in its Fall edition that I didn't think much about. I didn't think much about it because I agreed with what it said and thought it fairly obvious. Ours is a religion of the privileged. It is less likely to appeal to those who are working class. This is something that we need to work on.

But the latest issue of UU World is out and a firestorm of angry letters by supposedly open-minded and enlightened UUs made me take another look. Not everyone was critical, but for those who were the gist of the argument is that UU is welcoming of all folks, and that it's the author (Doug Muder) who is biased for thinking that our message would not appeal to the working class.

This is very similar to how some people accuse us of being racist for wanting to address racial privilege. At the heart of the disagreement is the inability to see how one perspective is just a perspective, not universal. It is invisible to them, so they angrily think we are inventing problems where none exist. They think that it's the messengers who are the problem.

We who have grown up middle to upper-middle class, we who are mostly college educated if not more, we who had family who were able to assist us when we needed it, our experience tells us that the world is full of possibilities and all we have to do is be smart enough to make the right choices and work hard and we'll succeed. And if we do make mistakes there will be other chances. Our experiences influence our world view influence our theology. And our theology is based on the celebration of choice. Mine certainly is.

My theology says that when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the apple, they did not "fall" but rather opened up a world of exciting possibilities. I celebrate the story as our collective claiming of our freedom (and responsibility) to choose and to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. And in our history, early Unitarians emphasized a spiritual practice of "self-culture," believing in our potential to grow to become more and more like God by the choices that we make. Early Unitarians were also the cultural elite of New England, the "Boston Brahmins."

What does this theology mean for whom the next paycheck is the difference between a roof over head and being out on the streets? For whom contemplating a career change at mid-life because the current one "isn't fulfilling enough" is not an option - not if you want to be able to feed your kids. What does the theology of choice mean for someone whose choices are extremely limited?

I am deeply invested in the theology of choice, and yet I also know this theology has little meaning for someone like my parents, who did what they had to do so that my brother and I could be angsty about "personal fulfillment." I don't know how to reconcile these things. But I know these issues are important for us to hold.

The Spirit in Islam

I am feeling that shiver of excitement that I feel every time I discover a connection.

Over the last few weeks, a discussion group at church, has been reading "No god but God" by Reza Aslan. For those of you who still don't know about it, I can't possibly praise this book enough. It's a loving yet critical overview of the history of Islam, starting with an account of the religio-socio-political environment into which Mohammed was born, then the Prophet's life, then the four caliphs up until the Sunni/Shi'a split. The insights that Aslan presents are astounding, describing Islam as in the throes of a Reformation, with its future dependent on which side wins.

But that's not why I bring it up tonight. I'm excited because of the following passage in his description of Sufism.

During the first stages of the Way (where the majority of humanity find themselves), the nafs, which is the self, the ego, the psyche, the "I" - however one chooses to define the "sum of individualistic egoistic tendencies" - remains the sole reality. As the disciple moves along the Way he discovers the ruh, or Universal Spirit. The Quran refers to the ruh as the "breath of God" blown into Adam to give life to his body (15:29). In this sense, the ruh is equated with the divine, eternal, animating spirit that permeates creation - that is itself the essence creation. The ruh is Pure Being. It is that which Hindus call prana and Taoists call ch'i; it is the ethereal force underlying the universe that Christian mystics refer to when they speak of the Holy Spirit.

Not only are there the wonderful similarities to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism with reference to the Way, ch'i, prana, and the expansion of the understanding of self from individual self/soul/atman to Self/Soul/Atman/God. But there is ruh, in Hebrew Ruach. The breathe of God. The Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Life.

The Enneagram

I learned something new today - the Enneagram.  It's kinda like the Myers-Briggs, a personality "inventory."  A colleague shared it with us today. 

The word enneagram actually refers to a nine-pointed geometrical structure (just like a pentagram is five-pointed). But in terms of the enneagram of personality, it is the belief that all people fit into one of nine different personality types - nine archetypal ways in we view ourselves and the world and our relation to the world.

It's thought that these nine types originally come from Sufi beliefs, and that together the nine types of people make up "the face of God." (This is interesting to me because I know that in Islam, nine is the perfect number, the number closest to God.) In that context, contemplating the enneagram is more than just a way to understand psychological interactions, but is a means to enlightenment. 

I'm still digesting it, and frankly find it to be more difficult to grasp than the Myers-Briggs but that may just be familiarity.  Anyway, I won't go into detail except to mention one thing I noticed with respect to the ennegagram as a spiritual tool.

According to Susan, the nine types are grouped into threes.
Types 8, 9, and 1 are motivated more by anger - they think w/their gut.  They are doers.
Types 2, 3, and 4 are motivated more by need for recognition from others - they think w/their heart.  They are relators.  
Types 5, 6, and 7 are motivated more by fear - they think w/their mind.  They are thinkers.  (I'm a 5.)

Well these three groups remind me of the three margas (paths) or yogas (unions) of Hinduism - karma (action), bhakti (devotion), and jnana (wisdom) respectively.  Hinduism recognizes that different people have different natural proclivities, and thus are suited to different spiritual paths.  No path is better than another, tho a path may be better suited for any one person than another path.  In short, there are those who prefer to act/do things, those who prefer to relate/show their devotion, and those who prefer to philosophize.  In the end, all three are necessary for moksha (liberation).  That is, all three are necessary for union with the Divine, much like the three groups of the nine types of the Enneagram.

And I do truly believe, lest we end up in feckless navel-gazing, maudlin sentimentality, or blind action, that all three - head, heart, and hands are necessary for the full spiritual life.

If you're interested in learning more, I found this site to be very helpful:

And here's an online diagnostic:


The Fall and the Fall

Happy Autumn Equinox Everybody!!

And Happy Fall. The "Fall" of Adam and Eve, that is. I would like to take time today to celebrate what Milton called "the blessed Fall."

In standard Christian theology, the Fall is seen as a tragic event. Humanity entered into sinfulness and were tossed out of Eden as punishment. I believe that the Fall was not only a blessed event, but inevitable, in "God's plan." The "Fall," the conscious decision to choose something different from "God's will" was necessary for humanity to grow up - to take moral responsibility, and thus be able to co-create (as partners with God) our own "destiny." Not something "pre-ordained" by another but chosen by us.

The loss of Eden was not a punishment; it too was inevitable. A&E learned the difference between good and evil and were no longer innocent. With their new-found knowledge they simply could not stay in that state of blissful ignorance. Before A&E ate from the tree/disobeyed, they theoretically could have been torturing baby animals and it would not have been a "sin" because God did not say they couldn't, and they were incapable of knowing why it was wrong. That was the "paradise" in which they lived. But after gaining the knowledge between good and evil, then they did not need commandments to tell them what was right and wrong. They knew it for themselves and could not help knowing it even if they didn't want to.

We leave Eden when we separate from God, or from Ultimate reality if you prefer. And yes, it is painful and yes, we want to return. Many would like to return to that exact same state of innocence/ignorance and lack of responsibility. It is the wrong kind of innocence to be pursuing. The only true option is to go forward. The Paradise/Heaven/Nirvana ahead of us is not the same as the one we left. The paradise ahead of us is the one that is without guilt because we do not do those things that would make us guilty. It is the Beloved Community.

As a questioning Christian teen one of the things that I never understood was why it wouldn't start all over again. Ok, so Adam and Eve ate the fruit and now we're all cursed with original sin. Then Jesus died for us so that our sins washed away and we can get into heaven. But then.... what's to prevent the whole thing from happening over again? The only way it wouldn't all happen over again is if there is an internal transformation, not just external "salvation." Christ may show us the way but we are our own "saviors." Ain't that both awesome and an awesome responsibility?

Celebrate the Fall. Celebrate your moral agency. And work towards our Paradise. Happy Fall.


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