Sermon from March 10: Yes, And… (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

Thin January sunlight filtered through leafless trees as about a half dozen people gathered a little self-consciously along a sidewalk in the hills of Berkeley, California. Facing them, along the doorway of a small, squat building that is Starr King School for the Ministry, were about 30 others, standing in silence. At some unspoken cue that group began singing the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:

Come, come whoever you are

wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

Ours is no caravan of despair.

Come, yet again, come.

At the song’s conclusion, Rebecca Parker, president of the school, began reciting her poem that you heard earlier:

“We are at the threshold; we are here.”

And then other members of the group took turns reading:

We who have crossed many thresholds already

to arrive at this space and time” and so on:

Coming out – coming across – coming with – coming to – coming again.

Crossing a threshold, poised for possibility.

Then, the new students standing on the sidewalk were invited to enter and be greeted.

This was the scene I witnessed nearly two months ago when our daughter Erica, one of those people gathering on the sidewalk at the start of the ceremony, formally took her place in that student body, beginning the challenging walk of ministry.

It came to my mind as I reflected on this service today where we welcome newcomers into this community. I don’t presume that joining this congregation is anything like entering seminary. That place, after all, is in many ways a rarified setting, removed from much of the daily flow of life so that students have room for a depth of study and reflection that few of us have time for, and the commitment of leadership it demands is far greater than what we seek as being part of a congregation. But the parallel is not as far off as it might appear.

We hold up this moment of joining this community, we take time for it in our Sunday worship because we believe that this is something that matters – to you who are joining us, and to us who welcome you. As I told our newcomers our Connecting Points class, when you join a congregation like this you are making a statement. You are taking a public stand. In the words of UU minister Roy Phillips, you are making a declaration “about who you are and who you intend to become.”

The culture we live in today atomizes us. It breaks us up into the tiniest possible bits, disconnects us from each other, and then spins us around. We either fly off in random directions or bash into each other. In between the work of getting and spending we look up in despair and wonder what on earth we are running so hard to accomplish.

Meanwhile, there is in us a yearning for integrity in our lives: to make some sense of the world, to raise our children as decent people, to live with character and compassion, to lift our dull gaze from feeding our own hungers so that we might make some difference in the world. But all of this is too big to figure out on our own, and besides we quickly run out of time and energy to accomplish much.

Rebecca Parker tells of a time at the start of her ministry when she was a young pastor at a tiny congregation that was on the verge of closing. Still, she saw hope in the caring of those who remained. So, she began a practice of watching for visitors and calling on them in the following week. Though often surprised, she said, most people were hospitable.

She says that she found that no one ever came to church casually, as if they had nothing better to do that Sunday. Instead, Parker said, most of them came for, in her words, “life-and-death reasons.” One woman who had finally given birth after years of infertility and miscarriages was looking for a way to offer gratitude for life and to find a community to help her raise her child. A man came with his partner after he had lost his job because the school district was firing gay teachers. Angry and heart-broken, they were looking for an expression of kindness that might ease their pain and give them hope. One woman had just been diagnosed with cancer and was feeling scared and overwhelmed. Another had spent years working to defend the Earth and was looking for something deeper than anger to keep her going.

Change some of the details of these stories and add a few more and you would describe many of the people who I have welcomed into membership in this congregation. Our congregations are not just convenient places to spend a pleasant Sunday morning. They are places where people bring some of the deepest struggles of their lives, hoping to find a community that will take them seriously, that will confront head on some of the gnarliest knots that living presents us and will stick with them and stay in conversation when the going gets tough, that will support them in their struggles and the twists and turns of life, and that will celebrate often and with great joy the wonders of this good life and how good it is to be together.

And so I begin each newcomer class with a chalice lighting and reading from our hymnal: “We bid you welcome who come with weary spirit seeking rest, who comes with troubles that are too much with you, who come hurt and afraid. We bid you welcome, who come with hope in your heart, who come with anticipation in your step, who come proud and joyous. We bid you welcome, who are seekers of a new faith, who come to probe and explore, who come to learn. We bid you welcome, who enter this hall as a homecoming, who have found here room for your spirit, who find in this people a family.”

So, welcome! Now what? Some weeks ago I introduced you to comedian Tina Fey’s “Rules for Improvisation.” You may recall that one of her principle tenets was that when you enter a scene you should begin by saying, “Yes.” Rather than question what your partner offers, begin from an open-minded place. In Tina Fey’s words, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” But she also said that “Yes” alone is not enough. Your partner depends on you to help keep the action going. She or he expects you not only to play along, but also to add something of your own: not just “Yes,” but “Yes, and . . . .”

As she said, “don’t be afraid to contribute. Your initiations are worthwhile.” And so it is here. Having said “yes” to becoming a part of this community, what might you contribute to helping keep the action going?

Because, you see, I believe that this practice of “yes, and” is not just a good idea; it is integral to who we are as a religious community. To make this case, let me bring in Bernard Loomer, who we heard from earlier. Loomer was a theology professor associated with the University of Chicago, who late in life joined a Unitarian Universalist church, as it happens it was in our daughter Erica’s haunting grounds in Berkeley, California.

For a good part of the 20th century he was an important figure in process theology, a movement that sought to bridge the gap between science and religion, arguing that creativity is woven into all things and that the universe is constantly growing in size and complexity.

Loomer reached the conclusion that this growth occurs in the making of relationships. What matters in the end, he said, are the relationships that this process working in the universe makes, and the making of these relationships is what creates us as individuals and a society.

What determines how effective these relationships are, Loomer said, is their size, their ability to grow and expand, and also to accept tensions and contradictions. At the Berkeley church in conversation with other members, he was said to challenge them to reflect, “What is the size of your soul?” Here’s what he said about that: “By size I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality.

“I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.”

As Unitarian Universalists we understand that our relatedness to one another and the Earth is not some random fact of our existence. It is essential to our nature; it defines us. And so, returning to Loomer’s remarks, when we look for the source of love in our lives, we see that there is no external principle of love that determines our interdependence.

“Love,” Loomer said, “is an acknowledgement of our interdependence. We love because we are bound to each other, because we live and are fulfilled in, with, and through each other. We love because a failure to love is a denial of the other, a denial of ourselves, a denial of our relatedness.”

By expanding our souls enough to add the “and” to the “yes,” – “Yes, And . . .” – bringing ourselves, our own creative capacity into play in the communities we join, we affirm what we already know in our hearts: that, while we see ourselves as many, in the end we are one.

So, here we stand at the threshold of this evolving community, a community that changes as we change, as the world changes, yet remains routed in the possibility of relationship that links us with each other and all things, that finds the sacred in this world, in this life, within and among us.

It is space where each of us seeks to grow, and so as those of us who have been here a while welcome newcomers, we also welcome each other in our continuing journeys, some of us also still coming out of identifies that didn’t embrace fully who we were, crossing boundaries that once limited our lives; coming with our loves, our partners, our children, our memories, our wisdom; coming to our senses, our awareness of that which holds hope and possibility; coming again to our commitments, to our deep knowing:

Come, come whoever you are;

wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.

            Come into this space, into this community that we create together, poised with possibility of thresholds yet to come, joined in the commitment to say, “Yes,” and with that affirmation bring our full selves into relationship with all that is and all that might be with our common endeavor.

Sermon from March 3: The Pebble in My Shoe (text & audio)

Rev. Michael Carter, Guest Minister–

Shortly after the attacks in New York on September 11th, a close friend of my wife Judy and I got together for a drink at our local watering hole. This friend was an educator and a very progressive thinker as well as a lot of fun to be around, and we are very close friends with him  and his wife to this day.

As we sat at the bar, I noticed that he was wearing an American Flag pin in the lapel of his suit jacket. Now, unless you were in New York City at the time, you would have witnessed the ground swell of nationalism as if all differences were forgotten and we were all Americans now that we had been attacked (granted this was temporary). This nationalism was at it’s zenith right after the Twin Towers came down.

Because I was very familiar with his political thinking and progressive politics, or so I thought, I asked him about the lapel pin. I had only seen, in my estimation, very politically conservative individuals wearing these pins as an unquestionable display of their patriotism and “America right or wrong” worldview. So, quite naturally, I inquired why he was wearing the flag on his jacket.

He said that he was wearing the flag to let other Americans know that one could be progressive and liberal and still love and care for this nation. I was shocked. I challenged him by asking, “Who is going to know your politics just by wearing the flag?  He responded that perhaps a conversation would ensue and a meeting of the minds would follow. I could not see his point, or perhaps I did not want to see his point, but we moved on an enjoyed the rest of the evening. Now, although it is not something I would have done, to wear the flag, I understand what he was saying, if only to himself. There is more than one way to be an American. There is more than one way to think about this nation and its principles.

When I left my job last April, I was not a happy camper about how the event transpired and the way it was handled. I will not get into the details, but suffice it to say that I am extremely happy to have moved on. However, I was angry about the way in which the events took place and the enormous stress I had to endure along with my family.

I have long believed that where you go in time of crisis or need is where one’s home is. When I left the hospital I went to the Bible for my spiritual comfort. Yes, I have studied other spiritual traditions and techniques ranging from Buddhism to New Thought Metaphysics. I have read the great existential books and texts from Camus to our own UU authors and ministers. I have even declared my self an agnostic and atheist at times in my life. If I am not mistaken, I may have mentioned those sentiments from this pulpit and others. The truth is, I am not orthodox or traditional in my Christian beliefs. I am a UU Christian, and more specifically, a Universalist Christian. Ironically, when I first joined this denomination, I self-identified as a UU Christian, and there were some rough times even then. I had known UU ministers who, when candidating for work, would not tell congregations they were Christian for fear of not being hired. They would often self-identify as a Theist. It was a shame. I was a minority within a minority, if you will. The words of T.S. Elliot come to mind about exploration.

We shall never cease from exploration and at the end of exploring we shall arrive at the place we started and know it for the very first time.

And yet those teachings of Rabbi Jesus have always remained the pebble in my shoe. Irritating, even painful at times but always calling me to revisit the teachings and life of this man, this Palestinian man of color from the First century C.E. And yes, you say, the teachings of Jesus and our post-modern Christianity are not the same thing. You are correct.

I asked myself how could these teachings and stories assist me in working through this anger and frustration, this lack of ethics, this racism that I was dealing with at work? How could I keep my humanity and thereby maintain theirs?  What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian in this technological world of ours, when to be a Christian today for many means to be judgmental, small-minded, bigoted, socially and politically conservative, afraid of change, patriarchal, etc? How could I wear a flag in my lapel to start a dialogue or conversation as to what it can mean to be a Christian or follower of the teachings of Jesus today? You have heard me say that the highest evolution for a human being is not from Theism or Christianity to Humanism or Atheism. There are times when it is the other way around.

First of all, I had to revisit those stories from the Bible and about this Jesus and to move from head to heart. I had to put aside the human craving for what is rational and logical and to have the courage to feel as well.

UU Christianity assisted me a great deal with this, as I could focus now on the humanity of Jesus instead of the dogma of orthodox Christianity.  You see, all of the work of theologians like Marcus Borg and Jack Spong—Jesus Seminar scholars—among others, is truly wonderful and much needed. But UU Christians were already involved in the “historical Jesus” studies back in the ‘fifties.

Ironically, the same denomination that gave me “permission” to look at Jesus as a human being, was hostile to Christianity because of the wounds its members had suffered in childhood. No problem. We’ve all been there. But I believe that if one is 40 years old and is still angry at one’s parents, one has never really left home.

Malcolm X once said that you can’t hate the roots without hating the tree. Our denominational roots are from the Judaio-Christian background. This is not to say that everyone should be a follower of the teachings of Jesus. No, not at all. But we welcome so many other paths with open arms, but our own roots we shun. There is an old African-American saying that one should never forget the bridge that brought them over. It’s okay to be seekers, but let’s remember that the goal of seeking is to find something.

In our market-driven culture which is so preoccupied with titillation, stimulation, infatuation, and fascination rather than deep spiritual empowerment, I had to decide where these teaching fit in for me. Well, first of all the teachings say that he or she who would be great among you must first be a servant to others.

These teachings have been toned down for many in our generation and culture. The courage, the audacity to be a follower of Jesus is serious business indeed. We are bombarded every day with the notion of conformity and to place a premium on this notion of being well-adjusted and complacent. To just go about one’s own business in an individualistic, isolated, hedonistic way, holding at arm’s length community, public interest, and the common good is the key to success. We are encouraged to nurture life in our own little bubbles and parochial worldviews.

I have rediscovered that being a Christian or follower of Jesus, UU or otherwise, is to move beyond dogma, doctrine, creeds, and guilt. It means having the courage to examine our hidden assumptions about ourselves and each other, the attitudes that cause us to shatter our prejudices, and that cause me to lose sight of the humanity of other people. Being a Christian resonates with the Socratic imperative echoed in line 38 A of Plato’s Apology that states that the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s about making the effort to get to know ourselves, warts and all, with all of our strengths and inadequacies. It’s also about knowing that the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Market-driven culture says be successful, gain status based on financial gain. The message of Jesus says no! Become great, and the greatest among you will be a servant. The greatest among you will keep track of “the least of these.” The greatest among you will know yourselves and learn to love your neighbor as yourself, therefore and thereby in essence loving your God. This wisdom is not only counter- cultural but counter-intuitive to our way of thinking as children of the Enlightenment and the West.

This agape love speaks to the radical Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth, for he expounded on the prophetic Judaic thought of his time of not only loving your neighbor but also loving your enemies and those who spitefully use you as well. He preaches about the healing power of forgiveness, which makes the wisdom of this world mere folly. Giving and forgiving is the key to humanness and of his teachings.

This does not mean that I am a follower of the teaching of Jesus and everybody else is inferior or somehow less than. This does not mean that I am a UU and everyone else is somehow not as enlightened. T.S. Elliott uses the phrase, Hollow People, when referring to those who suffer from a spiritual malnutrition and/or an existential emptiness or arrogance.

For me, the message of the teachings of Jesus is boiled down to this. There is nothing you or I could ever do or be that would separate us from the love of God. Even if you don’t want the love, it is there for you. We are called to transcend our boundaries, to be the best UU’s we can be, the best Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists, Humanist, Theists, Agnostics, Goddess Worshippers, Earth-Centered Spiritualist,  (or however we choose to self- identify), that we can be and to eventually transcend even those labels and boundaries to embrace one another and the world. I’m not interested in converting anyone.  I am interested in sharing my “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) and to hear about yours as well. We share our truths with each other. This is about learning to love.  Howard Thurman reminds us that the truth found in any religion is there because it is true. It is not true simply because it is found in a religion. The Gospel news is good news because you can come as you are. All are welcome! Men and women, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red, Democrats and Republicans, moderate Republicans and Tea Party Republicans, those for and those against new gun legislation,  all are welcome!

How is this lived out by Jesus? He was betrayed and he loved them. He was denied and he loved them. He was persecuted and he loved them; he was killed and he loved and forgave them.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that these events happened literally or historically, although I must admit that I do happen to believe that.  What matters to me is that his life was no longer concerned with survival as its highest value! Life is more than mere survival and living lives of quiet desperation. Those who do not know how to live cling to life in desperation born out of fear, but those who posses life are free to lay it down because death no longer has dominion over them. In many ways his story is not about theology for me; it is about experience. Theology explains experience, but experience gives life.

I also happen to believe that if we are to grow and to become more welcoming as a denomination, we will have to be able to accept those who treasure the Jesus story or myth. This is what we say we are about in our principles. Let’s be true to what we say on paper. We treasure King and Thurman. They were Christians folks! In closing, let me just say that for me Yehsua Ben Yoseff is the great example, not the great exception. He lived fully and loved wastefully. His life exhibits what it is to live abundantly, he speaks to what it means to be fully human. He reminds that God is not a person; God is not a being. God is being itself.  No one can know God, but perhaps one can experience God, or whatever name suits your taste. Yes, Christianity must change or die, to quote, Bishop Jack Spong.  UU Christianity can be the vehicle for this change.

Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Religious Studies, at Stanford University says,

If we perform the radical surgery on Christianity that is required, not only will certain traditional formulations of faith fall to the wayside, but also much of the presumed content of Christianity, and rightly so. Our only consolation is that if we do not intervene radically and soon, the patient will die.

Yeshua, his life, and his teachings have been the pebble in my shoe for all these many years. Universalist Christianity’s path is not the only path to truth, but it is the path for me. In hindsight, it always was, I just did not see it at the time. The Philosopher Kierkegaard reminds us that life is lived forward but only understood backwards. Jesus’s life as a human being bears witness to Dr. Thurman’s statement that the contradictions of life are not final. Indeed there would be no Christianity, UU or otherwise, without this example.  And so this morning, with great joy and relief, I can now remove that pebble form my shoe and continue on my journey. Thank you this morning for walking with me.