Archive for January, 2017
The Big Chair
January 22, 2017
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words – from Shirley Chisholm
My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference. …. You have looked at us for years as different from you that you may never see us really. You don’t understand because you think of us as second-class humans. We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal. …. All we want is what you want, no less and no more.
Reading A Vision of Beauty, by William Watterson, Brown Alumni Magazine Fall 2016
“None of my teachers believed I could get into college,” says Shruti Nagarajan. “My friends laughed. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. I hope that I can be that one person to tell a young person that they can do it.”
Nagarajan, who is originally from the U.S. territory of Guam, won the Miss Rhode Island contest in May with a platform of “Upward Mobility: College Access for Low-Income and Minority Students” and a talent for Bollywood fusion dance. She is the first woman from Guam to participate in the Miss America Pageant.
The road from Guam to Miss Rhode Island started with a mango tree.
When Nagarajan was a high school freshman, her mango tree died. “I was very young and very upset that my tree had died. Guam problems.” She laughs. But she wanted to figure out what had happened to her tree. So, Nagarajan cut the mango tree open and found that it was hollow. This led her to discover that the problem was a borer insect infestation. She devised a novel pest management system that would control the borer population. Her system not only worked but was a finalist at the Intel International Science Fair in 2007.
For her college essay two years later, Nagarajan wrote about her mango tree. Brown was one among many colleges she applied to. “From Guam, all U.S. schools sound the same,” says Nagarajan, “and I couldn’t afford to visit.” The Brown admission officers were so taken by her ingenuity in fixing her tree that they wrote her a personalized acceptance letter. This impressed Nagarajan, and in 2010 she arrived on College Hill.
Nagarajan says it had been only by chance that she’d written about the mango tree. No one guided her to the topic. She had no college adviser and neither did her peers, most of whom would never leave Guam, much less attend an American university.
When Nagarajan started at Brown she was shocked by how far behind she was. She had achieved honor roll status at her high school on Guam, but there was no parity with her new classmates. She studied public policy and education because she “wanted to know why [she] was different” and why geography and socioeconomic status affect access to college.
After graduation Nagarajan took a job with an investment advising firm, but started to feel it was taking over her life. Struggling with a lack of balance and self-confidence, she needed a positive outlet, and went back to one of her favorite past-times – Bollywood dancing. She ended up jumping into pageantry after discovering that two Brown women had won the past two Miss Rhode Island pageants. With zero pageant experience, Nagarajan took the leap – and won.
She is using her platform as Miss Rhode Island to boost college acceptance of low-income students. She works with a nonprofit providing advice and resources to low-income and first-generation college-bound students to help them enroll and persist; to claim their place in the world.
Sermon – The Big Chair
If my grandmother had not died in 1986 – long before I married and had children — , she would turn 119 on Thursday. Lately, my youngest son has begun referring to her father as “the Evil One.” This was puzzling. My son did not know this man. In fact, I never knew him, and neither did my own father. Levi Greenwood died in 1929, while still in his fifties. We don’t talk about him, really, because the connection is tenuous. It consists primarily of a few visits to an enormous chair, sized for a giant of beyond Biblical proportions. Kids and other adventurers can climb the 21 foot chair, although it cannot be done alone. You need a boost up; some helping hands. But if you get to the seat, the name Levi Greenwood can be found; a commemoration of the family furniture business, of which he was the president when the chair was erected.
My oldest son, as some of you may know, is named Levi, and all three of my boys have Greenwood as a middle name. I liked the name Levi, which means “joined,” and of course the Levites are the priestly tribe. That seemed appropriate for the poor doomed son of two ministers! So I thought maybe Asher was referring to his brother. Why do you call him the Evil One?, I asked.
And Asher explained, well, Mom, the guy was a creep, he hated women, and that’s why he lost his job. Would that it all worked that way. So, we have Wikipedia combined with my son’s personal interpretation to thank.
There is more than a grain of truth to the characterization Asher gave us. Levi Greenwood was the President of the Senate in Massachusetts, back in the early part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that he seemed poised to rise in the ranks of government, he did not last long in that position. Because he was against women gaining the vote, suffragists organized in protest, got a rival candidate, and threw all their support to him. Mr. Greenwood lost his senate seat. Thus a new president had to be elected. That man was Calvin Coolidge, who of course went on to much bigger things. Not so for The Evil One. He went back to managing his banks and newspapers and his furniture company.
Since there was no such thing as Wikipedia 22 years ago, I did not know these details when Mark and I chose the name. Family lore passed down an edited version of the events. And even now, when I look at the entry, what strikes me are not the biographical details, but the picture. It looks exactly like my father, who also died while still in his fifties. When I first saw the photo online, I thought someone had made a mistake, and that it WAS my father. And what had seemed a distant and fragile connection suddenly is much more complicated. What do we inherit from the past? What do we carry forward without even realizing? The information we have, and our relationship to it, shifts. The grand story is never a straight road.
Last weekend, I was highly aware that it was the last Sunday of official public service for Barack Obama. The church where I am filling in for a colleague on sabbatical uses a prayer book, and among the rote words are prayers for the President of the United States; for our senators and the governor of the Commonwealth. I can’t decide how I feel about this. On the one hand, the new president most certainly could use some prayers. And I know that there are countless people who work for the common good all over our country – on Town Councils and School Committees and Commissions on Disability and as Library Trustees. These people deserve to be remembered, and held up. But there is something to be said for a sacred zone, too – a place not permeated with anxiety about a new world order, or dominated by a political talk that divides. So the key is learning how to talk about prayer as an activity that brings our deepest values to bear; as a way of building beloved community. Our prayers must not be limited to a protest against misogyny and racism and xenophobia. We have to live the unity and inclusion and peace that we claim.
Trump believes in the prosperity gospel; the idea that wealth is proof that God favors a person – which means that if you live in poverty, it is because God wants it that way; that you are not favored. Obviously, this means it isn’t likely that much change will happen in any power structure. And so my prayers for the good of the nation are directed not so much at the powerful, in hoping that they will open their eyes and hearts and become wiser and better; but instead are with those who have been disparaged and disenfranchised. We pray for inclusion, for empowerment, for the will and the strength and the might to cause change. We pray not to be reconciled to the way things are. We pray that a moral voice will matter as much as gold. We pray that we be guided not by fear or anger or hatred, but by love.
Although it was barely mentioned; given only a line or two, Shruti Nagarajan’s love for her mango tree completely captivated me. The point of the profile about her was giving kids from economically depressed and marginalized areas a real chance to go to college, but I loved how it also upended the assumptions of what Miss America contests are for. The article never once calls it a beauty pageant. There is no imagry of parading in a bathing suit and high heels, or leering judges. Instead it is about how Nagarajan felt a bit lost and disconnected, and went back to dancing to get out of her own head – to recover some of the sense of self she felt as a kid. And she was working in investment banking, but wanting to help other kids like the one she had been; one that no one fully believed in.
What propelled Nagarajan forward was love, and the recognition that something she loved was imperiled. There was no straight road from Guam to New England. But she loved her mango tree, and couldn’t just move on when the tree died. Love motivated her to dissect the tree; to cut it open and figure out what went wrong. Hollow at the core, she then wanted to know why – what caused the middle to be emptied out? Something had bored into the trunk of her tree and robbed it of life, and she was determined to learn how to make sure that did not happen again. Maybe along the way this work ended up meaning she got science awards, and accepted to college; she moved far away and became interested in public policy; that she got a job making lots of money, and was able to help other kids with backgrounds like her – but the thing that made her who she was and that carried her through all these experiences was that she loved her mango tree. Hollowness at the core doesn’t have to mean bitterness and emptiness. It can mean there is room to learn; room to grow and to change. But we have to understand and see the truth before that can happen. Laying reality bare is not about assigning fault or claiming blamelessness. It is about moving forward together.
Years and years ago, I remember my history professor telling me that Louisa May Alcott – whose mother once declared “I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me” — was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts. It was three years after her mother had died, and 35 years before my ancestor lost his job for failing to support woman suffrage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a law that allowed women to vote, but only in elections that had to do with children and education. Therefore, women were allowed to vote for local School Committee members beginning in 1880. Alcott seized the chance and tried valiantly to register other women. Who mostly had less than zero interest. In her journal, she wrote about trying to stir the women to action, but they were, in her words, “timid and slow.” She motivated them by scolding, and then almost forcibly corralling them into her carriage so she could drive them to the polls.
A total of twenty women voted that year. Once the women voted, the judge presiding motioned that the polls be closed, and so not only had these twenty women voted – they were the only ballots cast in that election. There were some men present, who had planned to vote, and were not necessarily happy to have been shut out of the process. Alcott responded that for nearly two centuries, men alone had been able to vote, and so one day in which the opposite was true might provide the beginning of a balance.
But of course, that is not balance. It’s retribution. We have to learn how to include everyone. Justice does not mean going back to how it was, or asserting our power over others. It means we cannot stay broken and fallen; alone in pits of despair. We have to be gathered in. There is no winning or losing for sides or factions; there is only being whole, or being broken.
Three years later, only seven women voted – Louisa, her sister Anna, and five others. Alcott was bothered by such a poor show from a town so proud of its culture and intelligence, but she kept insisting on the importance of participation all her days. It is not clear that she ever connected her tactics with the response of the women.
The road is never straight. It is peopled with those who hold on to ideals, and who stick firmly to convictions, but it is not usually clear which of those we will come to see as right. We have to search our hearts, and lead with love –of truth, of justice, of each other – and then pray that sets us in the right direction. My youngest son asked me, “Can you imagine what Levi Greenwood would have thought about his great-granddaughter becoming a minister?” Well, no. I really can’t. But you know, it was completely normal in his day to think the way he did. Massachusetts was generally anti-suffrage – a 1915 popular vote on the subject was defeated, and that was the year AFTER Greenwood lost his seat. Voting was considered a responsibility that women shouldn’t burden themselves with; an imposition that they didn’t consent to, and a grand set up – if women were given the right to vote, and then didn’t, they could be called shirkers. Their character could be impugned. We can laugh at this now, and wryly note the various ways so many different kinds of human beings have been denied their full humanity, but while events are unfolding it is usually only the prophets who can point the way forward; who notice the perversions of justice.
I do not know why my forebear was against women getting the vote, except that most of the people around him felt that way. I like to imagine that there was something personal about it — he was from Gardner, and Lucy Stone famously first preached her women’s suffrage message from her brother’s pulpit in that town. The Reverend Stone lived on the same street as my ancestors, and maybe it was irksome that the Congregational Church – far more conservative than the Unitarians – was hosting abolitionist meetings and letting a woman preach. But I have no idea, really. Maybe he just didn’t think his wife and daughters would vote for him.
My grandmother once told me that when her father died, her hair turned white overnight. I always took that to mean she adored him; that grief hit her at the root. But maybe that is not what she meant. She did not seem the type to put up with anything less than full freedom for herself. She was what most people described as a formidable woman; independent, quirky, smart. But who knows when she became that way? She was 31 when her father died; still living at home, taking music lessons and drifting about the rooms. She was in her 80s when she told me these stories. It strikes me now that she grew up in a country and a family where she had no expectation of ever voting, and then suddenly, just as she turned 22, all that changed.
And, in fact, in a way we can credit her father for that fact. It isn’t because he changed his mind. Rather, his stance on suffrage invited organized resistance, and the Boston Equal Suffrage Association formed in order to oppose him, and this association evolved directly into the League of Women Voters. Perhaps a similar change is happening right now. Last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that they have formed a new working group to advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Revealing the hostile environment; exposing the hollow core allows us to start treating the disease.
The grand story is never a straight road, and the servants are often unlikely. Humility comes in many forms, as we serve purposes that we might never have intended. Let us pray that this be true for those with great power, and let us also remember to lead with love and kindness, to show the way.
Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime.
Young people can understand, and must understand, that we had success, we had failures, but we never gave up. We never gave in. We never became bitter. We didn’t hate. We continued to press on. And that’s what we’re saying: There are some ups, there are some downs, and when you’re not down, you must have the capacity and the ability to get up and keep going. – John Lewis
“Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti – January 15, 2017
OPENING “The Only Ones Who Ever Win” by Eileen B Karpeles
Out of our separate lives we come,
to walk this path together for an hour or a day,
for a week or a month or a series of months and years.
For this space of time we travel together,
making much or little or nothing at all of the fact
that another walks beside us.
We can keep our eyes cast down
protecting ourselves from the pain we risk
whenever we allow another human being to touch us,
living safe little lives inside our sterile wrappings.
Or we can reach out,
risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,
because we believe that loving and being loved
is the only game in town.
The choice is ours.
Those who risk much lose much.
But they are also the only ones who ever win.
READING from “Against Innocence: A Dispatch from the Political Wilderness,” by the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.
I have come to the painful realization that we sometimes conflate our dreams of the Beloved Community with the difficult and grueling work that might lead to its achievement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” It isn’t hard to notice that power without love surrounds us in this country today. But think too of the extent to which we live our lives amid expressions of love without political power. Think of the countless acts of mercy with which each of us may have aligned ourselves: We work with Habitat for Humanity, we volunteer at shelters and mentor children, we testify before hostile legislators unwilling to extend human rights to the whole human family; we lobby for an end to punitive drug laws that target people of color; we do a thousand things in an effort to make our love visible. And yet, if we had power, real political power, would not the hungry already be fed, those children already joyful? Would not Habitat be out of business and our legislators obsessed with supporting human dignity rather than denying it? Would not captives of every variety already be freed? If we had real power, is it not possible that our work would already be done? . . .
This is the hardest essay I have written in some time, and it took some time for me to discern the reason. I wanted to be triumphant, filled with hope, or at least optimistic about our common lives and future. Being a cynic is frankly against my religion, and a betrayal of my religious heritage as an African American that includes knowledge of a God that “makes a way out of no way.” But this reflection is, in fact, a dispatch from the wilderness. Religious leaders loathe being called to the wilderness—despite the fact that it really does come with our territory. But the wilderness is precisely where we are. …
I believe that many Unitarian Universalists are serious about creating a world of justice and peace; that is, I think we think we mean it. What I believe we are less serious about is what it will take to create that world, particularly in a society filled with people and circumstances actively opposed to a whole and holy life.
Our troubled world is filled with difficult and dangerous people who will not always respond to kind, thoughtful words and good intentions. A time may be coming when the love we hold dear will require a more practical expression. It may no longer be enough simply to counsel peace in a world where there is no peace; as the life of this world grows more violent and dangerous, perhaps the time is coming when we must give up our culture of witness and pick up the heavier burden that the twentieth century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called discipleship. It may not be long before we risk becoming aimless hypocrites if we are not willing to put our own bodies and lives on the line to protect those who stand in harm’s way. . .
We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.
None of us can ever really be innocent again, and frankly, innocence is overrated. But we can be givers and receivers of a more demanding love and a more focused power, starting with one another in the religious communities that shelter us and support our lives… We feel betrayed and doubtful and disappointed too much of the time. … We are failed and imperfect and not at all pure. But in the gathered religious community, we are given the gift and the opportunity to pledge ourselves, to offer our very lives, not simply as witnesses, not just as sacrificial symbols of love or power alone, but as true agents of Creation.
SERMON: “Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti
Perhaps you’ve heard by now: I’m pregnant! I’m preaching about risk today. I’ve never been a parent before but I get the sense that there are some risks involved. I’ll get to that later. Actually maybe not till the very end. I just didn’t want you to be distracted the entire sermon wondering if I was going to bring it up.
Instead, I’m going to start in a very different place: my own adolescence. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a crush on one of my best friends. I kept it to myself for two whole years. I recall during our junior year, driving in his parents’ minivan, when the crush was finally loosening its hold on me, he was flabbergasted when I offhandedly mentioned that I had like liked him for our entire friendship thus far. He asked, “How was I supposed to know, if you never told me?” The thought just hadn’t occurred to me. What held me back? I wasn’t brave enough to disrupt things. I felt more comfortable with the status quo of our friendship. I couldn’t risk being that vulnerable and exposed.
Last spring, I was sitting on the floor of the lobby in the Mayor’s wing of Boston City Hall. I was following the lead of a group of young people who were calling Marty Walsh out because he was going back on his promises to fully fund youth jobs programs. It was a sit-in. We were singing and chanting and taking up space until Marty agreed to meet with the young organizers. Youth of color from Boston’s working class neighborhoods led this protest. They know these jobs can help their families out financially, build skills and resumes, and are part of breaking the cycles of intergenerational poverty and institutional racism that feed interpersonal youth violence.
Once security arrived, I got nervous. I caught myself inching away from the center, as if I was unwilling to be identified as one of the protestors. I wanted to shrink to the side, maybe sit in one of the chairs along the wall, as if I was an orderly adult who just happened to be in that lobby at the same time as these protestors. I took a deep breath and re-committed to being there. I kept chanting. I moved back into the crowd. Why did I almost let myself back off of this very moderate form of civil disobedience? It’s hard to be brave enough to disrupt things. It’s easier to be comfortable with the status quo. For me, the status quo as a white middle class adult is comfortable. It’s hard to risk being vulnerable and exposed.
When I was a teenager, George W. Bush was elected president. Some of my classmates slept on the steps of the Supreme Court when they were reaching their decision about the vote recount, but I didn’t even risk asking my parents if I could join them. I have some friends now who as young people were very politically active: protesting the Iraq war, and participating in the anti-globalization movement, which included the powerful disruption of the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Unlike those friends of mine, and unlike the youth chanting in the lobby of the Mayor’s office, my teen risk-taking was pretty limited and my political engagement was mostly nil. My status quo was comfortable, like I said. I don’t think I yet understood how my own worth and dignity is wrapped up in the worth and dignity of others. I thought the UU principle about the interdependent web was just about the environment, I didn’t realize it also includes the whole human family.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to have shared a story about a high school crush in a sermon that will shift to focusing on considerably higher-stakes risks. But there is a connection there:
The same reluctance to speak my personal truths to the people I care about for fear of disrupting things can also be a barrier to speaking truth to power, because it’s scary to disrupt things.
Friday is Inauguration Day. I am afraid of all the bad things that will be made worse under this administration. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. MLK’s rhetoric, his lived example, the legacies of all the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, and the ongoing brilliance of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other freedom struggles strengthen me to action, call me to take risks, to defy and deny the hate that the coming administration intends to turn into policy.
Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the early 20th century. While he began as a nationalist who supported Hitler, he underwent a conversion and became part of the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who came up in the reading. Niemöller and Bonhoeffer were both imprisoned in the concentration camps for their role in this movement. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Niemöller survived those years, and he later lamented not doing enough to resist the Nazis. After that, he became a lifelong anti-war activist. He preached the words that have been altered and adapted to create this familiar refrain:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
In his situation, it was dangerous to speak out against persecution of the Jews, the Communists, and so many other groups targeted by the Nazis. What about in our time? What about the dangers of speaking out against the persecution of Muslims? What about the dangers of speaking out against the oppression of Black people, the devaluing of Black lives? Against the demonization and deportation of immigrants? Is it risky to speak up against homophobia and transphobia? To insist upon reproductive justice, and refuse to be silent in the face of violence done to women’s bodies? Isn’t it worth the risk?
It can be daunting to speak up, let alone to know how to do it so that anyone will heed our words. Rosemary Bray McNatt challenges us to consider speaking out in such a way that goes beyond acts of mercy and witness, and that truly disrupts the forces of evil. To throw a wrench into the machine of hate. The political wilderness she addressed 15 years ago is the same political wilderness we face today. The brambles alternately clear and thicken over the years, the beasts that stalk these forests are beaten back and then return, but we remain in the wilderness, and a new wilderness is imminent.
McNatt writes, “We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.”
She calls upon us to recognize our situation, however difficult, and suggests that “the love we hold dear” may “require a more practical expression” She invokes Bonhoeffer and ventures that it may be time to pick up the “heavier burden… [of] discipleship” It’s a brief mention, but Bonhoeffer’s reference calls to mind the incredible risks that Jesus’ disciples took, as did the early Christians, persecuted by the Roman Empire. It’s time for us to take some risks.
And I have to admit, I am still afraid of taking risks. I absolutely still harbor the same reluctance to be vulnerable and exposed, the same instinct to hold back, to not make waves. The first sermon I preached here, I told you about my personal journey away from cynicism and towards faith in humanity. I have gained much of this hope in our ability to take good care of each other from community organizing. I have received an education in solidarity from people dependent on public transit fighting fare increases, from tenants fighting no-fault evictions, from youth of color subjected to stop-and-frisk searches demanding an end to racist policing, and especially from all the ways that these different groups with their seemingly different issues support one another, come together to fight.
I am learning there is a difference between safety and comfort. Safety is not a guarantee for anyone, but my access to the comforts of class and race privilege makes me disproportionately comfortable, safe from harm. So I can risk a little discomfort for the sake of justice.
These 10 or so years of this work have released me from lonely and hopeless individualism, and dared me to believe that I am part of a community, really many intersecting communities. I am called to believe that all of our destinies are shared, that none of us is free until all of us are free. Even after a decade supporting and participating in these struggles, in my more cynical moments, I ask myself, what good can it do to go against the grain, especially when the grain is so ingrained in our political order? It can feel futile at best, and frightening at worst.
Even though “it’s against my religion to be cynical,” as McNatt said, it is very hard not to be cynical. But I am fortified by the strength of my convictions. I’m not here to claim I am an awesome risk-taker – far from it! It can still be intimidating to take a public stand, or potentially endanger myself. I sometimes catch myself wondering, “What will my father say if I end up in the paper?” Who will judge me or reject me if I speak a controversial truth? Will I get harmed if I try to put my own self on the line for the cause of justice and peace?
We may all be asking ourselves such questions. What if we feel too tired, too sick to march in the streets? How do we take risks when it’s hard enough to just get through the day?
Risk is relative. We are all of us needed, to offer whatever gifts we have, in the best way we can. We need to begin with that that very recognition: that all of us are needed. We all have something we can share, something we can risk giving of ourselves.
As our opening words noted,
“we travel together,
making much or little or nothing at all of the fact
that another walks beside us.”
We can tell ourselves we’re safe in our own personal bubbles,
“Or we can reach out,
risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,
because we believe that loving and being loved
is the only game in town.”
This what Unitarian Universalism calls us to believe: “Loving and being loved is the only game in town.” It has been said that love is a verb. That’s what can help with the shift from sentimentality to powerful love that King was concerned with, if we live love as a verb. Mark declared that UUism is “deeds, not creeds” in his sermon last week. To me this means, we can best discern our faith through action, through engagement with the world. Mark said – can I quote him? – “your faith journey is a process of living into the truth, and not a wordy definition of the truth.” And I believe what we are striving to live into is the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King so often preached about.
I have been afraid to bring a child into the world. I still am. (See, I promised to come back to this at the end.) Because precariousness is inherent to our existence. I can scarcely fathom that I will be responsible for introducing a new being into such turmoil as is this life. I know there will be nothing I can do to fully protect this child from the world. But it’s worth the risk. Perhaps parenthood will be heartbreak in the sense that, for me and Adam, this child will break our hearts wide open.
I have this idea that parenthood will bring a truth into sharper relief: the truth that we are all in this together. That especially as we continue to face the wildernesses of vested interests that calculate war to be more profitable than peace, a warming planet, the shape-shifter white supremacy’s voracious appetite for domination, especially as we face all this, we need to find ourselves in the inescapable network of mutuality that King so often preached about. It’s true regardless of if we are parents: We are in this together. And we must risk connection with one another in order to face this wilderness. We can’t do it alone. And our inherent interconnectedness calls us to take risks for one another. Parenthood in precarious times, all human connection in the face of cynical, inhumane drives to power, requires love. Defiant love, risky, difficult, powerful love. We are facing the political wilderness, a retrenchment of wilderness. Let’s take some risks for each other.
CLOSING WORDS by Anne Braden
In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.
“The Unsectarian Sect” Mark W. Harris
January 8, 2017 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – from Edward Schempp
“Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child,
confidence in a continuity that spans all time. It looks not to a perfect
heaven, but toward a good earth. It is respectful of the past, but not
limited to it. It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change. It is
spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.”
Reading from Born Again Unitarian Universalism by the Rev. Forrest Church,
Longtime minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City.
In the book, Church recounts a dinner-party conversation.
Seated between strangers at the party, he is caught off guard when someone asks:
You are a what?
A Unitarian Universalist.”
“Oh, I see,” says the questioner, but obviously doesn’t. He is rescued by the woman on the right.
I’ve never really understood just what it is you Unitarians believe. You are Christians, aren’t you?”
“Not exactly. I mean, we were and some of us still are but most of us are not.”
“You don’t believe in Jesus?”
“Not in an orthodox way, certainly. Many of us value his teachings but few, if any of us, believe that he was resurrected on the third day or that he was God.
“What about immortality?”
“Well, I guess you’d have to say that we’re pretty much divided on that one.”
“But at least you all believe in God?” interrupts the man across the table.
“Not exactly. Many of us do, if each in his or her own way. Others of us do not find the concept of God a useful one.”
“What then do you believe?” the bewildered hostess politely asks.
“Actually, nothing,” you sputter. “Well, not really nothing, more like anything.” You then rush to assure them that you don’t believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected on the third day, you almost never read the Bible, and you certainly agree that religion is the most dangerous force in the world, especially today. To which your friends respond that these are the very reasons they don’t attend church.
A little more than two months ago Jolie and I led a workshop here on multicultural welcome. The basic idea behind the session was to encourage First Parish members to be welcoming to all visitors who pass through our doors. I began the workshop by telling a true story about a visitor to the UU Congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee on February 12, 1960. Jim Pearson walked through the front door, and then he noticed a sign which said, “Everyone Welcome.” As he prepared to enter the church, he approached the greeter, and said in reference to the sign, does that include me? Why do you suppose he asked that question? He wanted to know if, in that time, and in that place, a black man was welcome at that church,. Is a person with a strong foreign accent welcome at this church? Is someone who did not go to college welcome at this church? Is a transgender person welcome at this church? Is a Christian welcome at this church? Do all our visitors feel welcome at this church? This morning we have some evidence that at least four people felt welcome here, at least enough to join the church.
We began that evening by asking the participants how they would define greeting. Every Sunday morning at least two people are assigned the volunteer task of welcoming all those who come to church. The participants variously described their job as welcoming people, making them feel comfortable, orienting them with orders of service and hymnals, answering questions and being friendly and approachable. Eventually I asked the question, Does anyone think of themselves as an ambassador for Unitarian Universalism? Let me be honest, and tell you, I was shocked by the response. People invariably said that they thought their job was to welcome people to our church, or to our community, but it seemingly had nothing to do with Unitarian Universalism. Does that mean that people’s religious identity is with this specific church or the community and not the faith?
Perhaps there are two issues here, and one is clearer than the other. First, Unitarian Universalism has an organizational element. It is a religious movement that is governed by a bureaucracy. It has an administrative headquarters, and regional offices. In fact, the regional office for New England is located in Watertown. How many of you knew that? There is little evidence that most members of churches are especially interested in the political organization, except the ministers and a few rabid adherents. That is to be expected. But there is also a larger world wide faith that is not only has an organizational structure, but also has devoted followers or practitioners of a particular religious orientation. But this becomes complicated immediately. Most Unitarian Universalists would say religious authority lies with the individual, and so these freedom loving folk begin to balk when they words like practitioners or particular orientation. They think of liberal religion as “freedom” to pursue your own truth from whatever source seems spiritually nourishing at a particular time in your religious journey. It is all very personal with few people believing there is a particular path to follow.
All of this makes it complicated for the ministers and active lay followers who are charged with defining what the faith is, and then figuring out how to hand the faith on to those who follow. More often than not we have made jokes about the lack of belief, such as they pray to whom it may concern, or they believe in one God, at most. The message may be that we are not serious about our faith. Jokes or not, it is difficult to capture a religious identity that can be easily disseminated to new followers. Even long term members have difficulty explaining exactly what Unitarian Universalism is. I don’t know if that is the reason that our greeters do not consider themselves ambassadors of our faith, but it doesn’t help. They don’t know how to explain it. Newcomers often like the people they meet and the values they espouse. They feel they belong in this liberal community that is open and welcoming, and so they love the community, but are less clear about the religion.
I would suggest that the community is what it is because of the faith, and grasping that might help all of us feel a deeper kinship to Unitarian Universalism. The great Unitarian leader Henry Whitney Bellows once referred to us as the “Unsectarian Sect.” Our faith has always included people who wanted to be part of an organization that was anti-organizational, and have an identity but not want to claim a sectarian name. Remember the old song, “Don’t fence me in.” Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters once collaborated: “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, Don’t fence me in.” Are we so open and free that no one can figure out where our boundaries lie? Someone once said there is “No sectarianism in God’s work.” Perhaps our freedom leads us closer to a universal spirit of love or God.
I would like to hope that is true, but there may be some pitfalls. There is a new history of nineteenth century America called A Nation Without Borders. A review in the New York Times quotes the poet Charles Olson, “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.” Space can be defined as geography, property, intellectual expression, or even Emersonian nature. While we may think of space as freedom to adopt whatever ideas about faith we wish, it can become a kind of consumerism where everything is valid, and so nothing means anything anymore, or everything is meant to be devoured. Historically this meant that people within the borders of America were conquered, and expansionism and colonialism went hand in glove with American freedom. Listen to a later verse of “Don’t Fence Me In.” “I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences, And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.” So, we must ask if there is an element of the American appetite for conquest, or refusal to accept borders in this liberal theology, and if so, what is the antidote? Do we just lose our senses in trying to absorb so many perspectives?
The temptation, as with the jokes about UUism, is to focus on the negatives, that UUism rejects this belief or that, or that we are always on the defensive trying to explain ourselves, and so we may end up feeling like Forrest Church does in the reading, that we don’t believe in anything, and so we go to church for the community, not the religion. But again I believe the community is created from the religion, and I will spend the rest of the sermon telling you why. Several years ago Andrea told me the story of a former member of this church, who while she was still active, used to refuse to recite the church affirmation that we repeat every Sunday. She said this refusal was based in the truth that we don’t practice the words: “Love is the spirit of this church.” I think part of the reason she said this was the expectation that love meant being nice to everyone no matter how they behaved. In this case, some boundaries had been set restricting the freedom of one particular member. We all define love differently, but perhaps the more pertinent point is that love is an aspiration, and not a fact. Most of us are only able to act loving some of the time. The rest of the time we are difficult, stubborn, unforgiving and judgmental. In other words, we are human. Love is a goal, and not a fact of our existence. We say love is an aspiration, not a fact.
Now we come to William Ellery Channing. Today I have asked you to donate to an effort to restore Channing’s grave at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I do have a local angle, so it feels like we are centered in our community, and we are especially fortunate because our backyard includes this amazing historical, natural and artistic wonder. As someone who teaches aspiring ministers the particulars of our liberal religious history, it is dismaying to visit Mt. Auburn Cemetery only to see the grave of the spiritual founder of our Unitarian faith looking like it is slowly washing away. We need to honor Channing’s memory and the UU tradition by restoring this stone to its original beauty. I hope all those who love our free faith will back this important project. Channing was special because he had an enduring message, delivered with a spiritual depth that not only provides the foundation of our faith, but created a new spirit in America that gave a sense of personal worth and hope to countless people.
A native of Newport, RI, Channing served only one church in his life, what is today the Arlington Street Church in Boston. Once upon a time, his words were included in literature anthologies, but now he is unfortunately considered a literary relic of the past. From the pulpit of his church and in his essays he was the first to call for a national literature, he became an advocate for the abolition of slavery in the later years of his life, he was a peace activist, and a progenitor of Transcendentalism. Emerson referred to him as our bishop, and one sermon called “Likeness to God” affirmed the basic radical belief that humans have the potential to be like God. He said divinity is within us, and we have but to realize it: “The adoration of goodness,–this is religion.” We can encounter the divine in the world through God’s creation. In 1819 he delivered what became the manifesto of the movement, the sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” These were among his contributions to the foundations of our faith.
Can Channing help us cultivate more of a sense of ourselves as holders of a Unitarian Universalist faith? The long standing issue we have with identity is that right from the start, Channing and others were trying to create a different sense of religious identity than one that had been known before. Christianity was grounded in correct belief, and not right action. Liberals didn’t want to define Christian as dogmatic beliefs, but instead advocated a broad Christianity that was to be founded upon how we behave towards one another. As Channing said, the adoration of goodness embodies religion in our ethical actions. This was true for Bellows when he named us the unsectarian sect. He defined Unitarianism as a movement away from dogmatic Christianity to spiritual Christianity. It was not a body of opinions, he said. It is a habit of mind, a principle of conduct.
Part of the reason they did not want to call themselves Unitarians was that it meant defining what was necessary to be part of the faith, or a particular theological correctness. Channing wrote that Christianity had dishonored its founder, and the way many people experienced Christianity. He said it had been dishonored by gross and cherished corruptions. Channing’s faith provided a salve to people who had been wounded by Calvinism and its tenets that each person was totally depraved and there was nothing you could do to redeem yourself in God’s eyes. What happens when you are told over and over again that you are a horrible person? This was the faith I rejected as a young person because it continually reminded me that I would remain sinful until I accepted Jesus as my savior. As a graduate student it was Channing who converted me to Unitarianism with his balm of affirmation in human potential rescuing me from bigoted and irrational beliefs.
I think what happens to members of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that they begin to stumble when questioned about whether UUs believe in God or Jesus or the Bible, and because much of our authority is found with the individual we get tongue tied, and end up saying some do, some don’t, and it all becomes confusing. Think of Channing’s approach to some of these basic questions. Is the Bible the revealed word of God? No, he says, it is a book meant to be read and understood like other books. We have always seen it as a chronicle of people’s struggles to understand truth in the world, and find meaning. Is Jesus God? No, Jesus is someone who understood divine truth because he lived with great integrity. He is true to what is in you and me, Emerson later said. Is there a God? While Channing would have said that God is moral perfection, the idea is that you find God in life the more you strive to achieve personal truth and love. It is not that you already have it, but it is the goal of spiritual fulfillment.
Channing saw how cruel people could be. He lived in the South for a time as a young man, and served as a tutor. He was sickened by the evil of slavery. The potential of the slave to experience moral development was destroyed. The story we have repeated here about Channing was when he was a young man, and he heard a preacher put the fear of God in his heart, convincing him that the world was going to end because God was so angry. But then he saw that his father didn’t seem to even notice that these horrible words had been preached. He went home, lighted up a cigar, and acted like it was nothing. But the young Channing was fearful of a thunder storm that day which seemed to predict the very end of creation. He took words seriously, and did not want to be afraid. He grew up to preach a faith that did not promote fear, but true words of hope about human potential and worth; that people could elevate themselves, and learn to live in love.
What this means is that you as greeters might be worried about telling someone or even understanding for yourself what Unitarian Universalism is, but you already know by your striving to live the truth in love. Many of you may remember my short definition of Unitarian Universalism – “DEED NOT CREEDS.” Your faith journey is a process of living into the truth and not a wordy definition of what is the truth. We are followers of Jesus, not worshippers of Christ. And we might add Buddha, Mohammad, and many others. As a greeter you are a human doorway to Unitarian Universalism, and you reflect the faith by making it a practice to be welcoming to all because you have a faith obligation to see the divine, or see God in that person. Channing was a person who was full of doubt, and constantly questioning his positions. He speaks to us in the 21st century as one who worried, as he told a young colleague that “there was a danger that your mind may be frittered away by endless details, by listening continually to frivolous communication.” This sounds like electronic communication at its worst.
Because we have to live amidst endless details, he said, “the great art of wisdom, is to seize the Universal (the one inner spirit) in the particular.” Channing related this to the slavery crisis, when he said that if you cannot see a brother (or a sister) under a skin darker than your own, then you long for a vision of a Christian, but you cannot have it, because you worship the “Outward.” Unitarian Universalism is embodied in you, and in your striving for a spirit that knows love for all brothers and sisters, based not on the Outward, but on the loving spirit you embody with your life. Earlier this fall I told you the story of being greeted by a woman as I came down from the peak of Mt. Kathadin. She noticed my yellow t-shirt emblematic of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. We UUs have always been reluctant to proclaim our affiliation because it seems so sectarian. But she named our faith by saying thank you for all you do to make the world a welcoming space for all. But it was nothing I did. It was her recognition of our UU faith, and how important it is to let others know such a faith exists. Would you be an ambassador for it? Your calling as a greeter is to greet one another in the spirit of love. You are already ambassadors of Unitarian Universalism, but have only to proclaim it. Channing preached lofty goals for people imbued with faith, but he knew that it is not what we are already, but rather what we might become.
Closing words – from David Bumbaugh –
We are here dedicated to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. We pause in silent witness to that unity.
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