Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon - On Social Graces

On Social Graces
I want to share with you two quick stories of my life, two stories that I think illustrate pretty well what grace is, and what it is not.
The first of these stories occurred when I was probably 13 years old. My parents were out of town, and I had been signed up to attend an etiquet class with many of my peers. We learned basic dances and the basics of dining. We learned how to escort a date properly, you know, all that really crucial information. So the time for our first class came, and I was told only that I should wear a collared shirt. To me at the time, that meant a polo shirt. Besides, this was Oklahoma in the middle of the summer. So a friends mother picked me up to carpool to the golf club where our classes were being held. We all gathered, probably forty kids. And as the class began, my clothing attracted the attention of the teacher. Apparently my choice of shirt was unacceptable, I needed a button-down shirt. And clearly the sandals I was wearing were unfit for dancing. So, a complete stranger to me, was selected to drive me back to my home, where I could change clothes and then return to the class when properly attired. It was probably a thirty minute drive.
I was embarrassed; I was angry. My time had been wasted, and all by a woman who was enlisted to teach me appropriate ettiquet. That was a moment profoundly lacking in anything that I would call grace.

The other story I have to share with you is a very simple one. It’s not so much a story as a moment. One of the most memorable meals of my life was in the Peace Corps. In West Africa where I was a volunteer men ate their meals together and they ate first. Women and children presumably ate what was left over. I don’t exactly know because I never ate with them.
One evening I was preparing to eat dinner alone at my house in the village. This was a rare time because I usually ate with other families. Well that night, I had one dinner guest. He was a six-year-old boy named Quam. Although he spoke no English, we had become good friends. We walked through the village together nearly every day. So that one night, we shared a meal. I think it was Ramen noodles with some canned green beans. We shared a meal sitting on wooden stools on the front porch. Breaking every social norm of my culture or his, we shared a meal and we slurped our noodles in grace.
This morning we are talking about social graces, the way we treat one another and the way our culture expects people to behave toward one another. There are some generally acknowledged rules about how we treat one another, but this is also a very personal thing. The things that bug you are most likely different from the things that bug me. To really get at this morning’s message, I want you to keep in mind what those pet pieves are of yours. What are a couple of things people do that really bother you? Maybe it’s not saying thank you, or not offering to open the door. We usually have one or two pieces of manners that we expect everyone to live by. What are yours? And also ask yourselves, “How do you like to be treated? What makes you feel like someone has respected your presence as a person?” Keep these questions in mind. These details are different person to person, but keep those in mind for yourself this morning as we explore social graces.

The first thing that comes to my mind about social graces, is that it is a form of communication. It is a set of ways of acting, that one invokes to convey respect, or in some cases disrespect for the other people in the area. Much like language, the way we hold our bodies, the way we enter a room, the way we sit, all of those little details are forms of communication.
But lets go back to regular speaking or writing of communication. A very simple way of understanding communication is that person A says what they want to convey to person B. And person B hears that has been said and knows the information. Ah, wouldn’t that be a lovely and simple world to live in. WE all know that communicating an idea, at least one of any complexity is much more nuanced than that. We don’t usually have the perfect language to express our thoughts, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand what someone else is getting at. Even when we try to be as clear and concise as possible, communication can be messy business.
Back to the model of person A and person B. Sure, person A wants to get a specific message across to person B. To do that most effectively, person A is selects a set of words and a way of expressing those words that person B is most likely going to be able to absorb. Communication isn’t just about saying simply what you want to say. There are choices involved. We choose the words that we use and the way that we say them, depending on who we are trying to speak to.
And so to, we choose the way that we use our bodies and the social graces that we invoke, depending on whom we are trying to communicate with. I have gone through this rather elaborate explanation of communication and social graces to make two points. One is that it is a simple choice of respect to attempt to engage the language or social expectations of the person you are spending time with. And secondly, no matter how hard we try, sometimes we won’t succeed in that communication, because in the end, we all expect slightly different manners. It is no secret that culture to culture, social graces are different. Even within one single culture the expectations change dramatically over time. Still, in the midst of all that uncertainty and difference, we can make and effort, we should make an effort to communicate with the language of those around us. We should do our best to invoke the social graces of those we are trying to build a relationship with.

That all sounds well and good. I have given a little road map to interpersonal relationships and showing respect. So what. Well, There’s much more to it than that. There’s more to this conversation than the one on one exchange or opening a door, or standing to greet someone.

Post-colonial lens

Manners and social graces have a much larger impact than individual relationships. They can have a huge impact on the way we interact on a societal level. Two men of American history seem to embody this reality. The impact of their understanding of manners and social graces meant the difference between harmonious encounters and cultural genocide. Those two men that I am speaking of are Benjamin Franklin and Captain Richard Pratt. On the one hand Franklin knew that every culture had its own etiquet, and by appreciating one another’s social graces, we might not only better understand one another, but build deeper relationships.
As I was researching this sermon, I was absolutely stunned by the perspective that Benjamin Franklin brought to bear on cross-cultural communications with American Indians. He details some of the cultural differences at the time and eloquently lays out how some of the American Indian practices most baffling to whites, were actually far more respectful and humane. In the opening words of his essay “Remarks concerning the Savages of North American,” Franklin writes, “Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.” I love that quote, because it is so on target, and such a recipe for cultural conflict. “Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.” He knew that American Indians simply acted out of a different set of cultural norms. And within their own norms there was a meaningful and loving way to express human relationship and social order. He respected that difference deeply.

Now compare that with Captain Richard Pratt, the man associated with the initial effort to create American Indian “Boarding Schools.” This is one of those often ignored by deeply important pieces of American history. In 1875, Captain Richard Pratt took 72 Indian warriors suspected of murdering white settlers to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Once there, Pratt began an experiment which involved teaching the Indians to read and write English, putting them in uniforms and drilling them like soldiers.” His theory was that he could “civilize” these Indians, working under the strict motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” From then, a whole network of camps was created to do just that. The federally sponsored program recruited or simply took American Indian children from their families, kept them against their will in residential schools and enforced English language and culture, mostly through corporal punishment and fear.

For five consecutive generations from rough 1880-1980 American Indian culture was systematically stamped out through “boarding schools” that originated with Pratt’s disturbing motto, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

When I first started thinking about this sermon title, I was concerned that there wasn’t going to be much substantial to say about social graces and how we understand manners. But quite the contrary, the way we understand cultural differences is in many ways the foundation for how we build relationships with people who are different. Social graces matter, maybe not so much in our mastery of every little rule of etiquet, but certainly in our ability to appreciate other peoples expectations. All this talk about social graces does have more impact on selecting the correct fork to use for the correct course at a fancy dinner. It has meant life and death, it is a lens, through which some have seen an array of beautiful contrasts and variety, and where others have see hate and fear in the world.
How did I get onto the topic of Social Graces anyway, that’s a very good question. You may remember that this month we are talking about the theological theme of grace. Not graceful dancing or being a debutant, or even a woman named Grace. We are talking about grace as the unearned gifts from the universe that make everything okay. Grace is relief; it brings salvation and forgiveness. Grace gives us strength and power to heal ourselves. Grace is a particular theological concept that we have been exploring through a few different venues.
For most of the month, I have been talking about it as a Christian concept, but really every religious tradition has some concept of grace. Within Buddhism some believe in Bodhisattvas, or beings who have already achieved enlightenment, but continue to exist for the purpose of helping other achieve enlightenment. They offer help along the way. Within Hindu traditions, an array of God and Goddesses are available for special favors. And just about every religious traditions and culture that I know of has some concept of angles ghosts or ancestors. Regardless of where you live or what you believe in, there is always something out there that is available to help bring some relief to your life, some grace.
And all of these angels and favors from God or Gods. All of this divine intervention, it brings comfort and solace. Sometimes eternal life or major mystical benefit, but in large part, they bring comfort. And that to me is the only type of grace worth having.
I want you now to think back to that question that I asked you about the social graces that you appreciated, or even expected. What was it that made you feel welcomed and comfortable as a person? I’m guessing it wasn’t a huge deal. It’s something that anyone in this room could do for you, if they knew what it was that you wanted. But more importantly, the feeling or comfort and support are not so different from the feeling of comfort and support that come from theological notions of grace.

This theological notion or grace and the social notion of grace are actually profoundly intertwined. Just this past week I heard an amazing story from one of you about just this sort of thing. During some challenging years of her life, one member of this congregation had a regular habit of cooking wonderful food. To keep the loneliness at bay, she cooked wonderful food and had dinner parties nearly every week. They were great fun and the friendships that developed were delightful. But for one of those guests the connections have essentially saved her life. One of the members of that circle eventually became deeply mentally ill. For years she has struggled with unemployment, poverty, and near homelessness due to her illness. She had no family to speak up, but that circle of friends that grew out of shared meals continues to be this woman’s safety net. They have literally kept her going for years, decades now actually.

At those dinner parties, in those relationships, there was grace abundant. But it the grace was not in the correct folding of linen napkins, but in the network of love and support that grew out of those times together. Human connection can save souls. I’m not sure if you call that getting serious about etiquet, or theology, but it is real. Making the time and effort to be together can save souls.

Real social graces, are the things, like theological grace, that make us feel safe and secure. Real social graces, at least the ones worth having are about recognizing and celebrating a whole person, and making them feel welcome and heard. Real social grace is about building the beloved community, building a place where all are welcome and all are heard. And that invitation, the invitation to the beloved community, does not require you to RSVP ahead of time.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sermon: Beyond Our Dreams

Beyond Our Dreams

Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech has to be the amazing “I Have a Dream” speech delivered August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It may be because of the magnitude of the gathering that this speech has become the hallmark of Dr. King’s legacy. But there seems to be something more to it. It was this particular speech in which Dr. King had the audacity to dream of a world that was fundamentally better, a world where the tables had turned. It was a world some believed could come into being only after revolutionary change had occurred.
Dr. King had the passion to have this dream, and to share it publicly. Today I want to talk about what it meant for Dr. King to dream, and what it means for us to dream about our future as a religious community.

Since the time the Dr. King gave that speech, the world has changed tremendously. The rights of the Black community and access to political power have increased phenomenally. Women’s access to power has increased, and the BGLT movement that was just getting started when King spoke has made tremendous strides. And then there is the obvious leap that occurred last year. The United States of American has its first Black president.

This all begs the question, has the dream come true. Or are we at least closer to the world that Dr. King envisioned not so many years ago. Well despite some of the over inflated language of political pundits basking in the glow of Obama’s inauguration, no, the dream has not come true. There is still tremendous economic and political disparity between whites and people of color in the United States. Women still earn less money than their male counterparts of the same jobs, and BGLT people still struggle for simple legal rights.

But, we are closer. We are not there yet, but we are closer. And such is the nature of a dream. We are forever moving closer, even if we may never get there. This was the truth about justice work that King new. The perfect world, the beloved community, they are a dream, a far off goal. Certainly a noble goal, but a goal that we may never, most likely will never see in this lifetime.

There is another famous speech of Dr. King’s probably the second most famous. This was the speech that he delivered in 1968 the night before his assisination. It was filled with images of Moses going to the Mountain top. King said:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The delivery of these words that night before his own assassination is perhaps one of the most poignant moments of American history. It is almost as if King knew that his life would be cut short, if not by a bullet then some other embodiment of hatred. He knew deep down that he would not live long enough to see that the end of the struggle for justice.

On the night before his own death King proclaimed that he had been to the mountain top and assured his people that they would indeed get to the promised land. What a powerful night.
However, if we are to really know Dr. King, and know about his sense of a dream, we should realize that that fateful night was not the first time he used those words. In fact he used the same mountain top images in many of his speeches throughout his public life. King knew, that not only would he not see the promised land, but also we might never see the promised land. He knew that it was a long, long ways away. He knew that dreams, are not a blueprint for the future. Dreams are an inspiration that keep our spirits alive and keep us moving forward.

And that’s what makes the dream so powerful. Because it is just outside of our grasp. It is out there, it is revolutionary. King went to the mountain top; he had the audacity to dream of a different world. But those dreams were not a specific plan. Remember the dreams that he spoke of.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

All men are created equal, sitting together at the table of brotherhood, people being judged by the content of their character. This is the language of dreams. This is the language of a revolutionary change, a change that cannot be measured in dollars or votes, or even who sits in the oval office. This is a dream that King knew, and we still know is a long ways off. It’s a dream that’s nearly impossible, which is the only type of dream worth fighting for.

Following our dreams means engaging in some very hard and scary work. Remember our responsive reading today. Those words from Desmond Tutu were also inspired by the story of Exodus. The same story that King refers to when he talks about having been to the mountain top. It is the quintessential story of liberation in the Bible. And the story is a long and painful one. It is a story of a few weeks of liberation from Egypt, and then forty years of wondering in the dessert.

So our dreams are way off, we may never see them realized. And any movement toward our dreams is hard work, with years and years of waiting in the desert. Hm, that doesn’t sound like such an attractive offer does it. What makes this all worth it. We may never see our dreams become a reality, and it’s really hard work, so why bother? What’s the incentive.

I think relief comes in two different ways. First grace comes in the moments of knowing that we are doing the right thing. So much of our lives are tied up in deadlines and things we have to do to. But occasionally there are moments of real meaning, moments of realizing what I am doing here and now is making my world a better place. Those moments are brilliant and rare. That’s the first piece of grace that we see. But, conviction and confidence can be dubious. These same rewards are available to people throughout the world, some showering the world with love, and some engaging in violent acts, I would even say evil acts.

I imagine most of you have heard by now how Pat Roberson suggested that the horrible disaster, the earthquake that struck Haiti was some how God’s revenge for the country’s “pact with the Devil.” One can only presume that this is a reference to Haiti’s history with religious practices of voodoo. His comments are absurd, they are hurtful, they are blasphemous. Normally I would avoid acknowledging them. However it is simply too good of an example of what is NOT the beloved community. Pat Robertson’s message of violence and hatred and exclusion is in fact the antithesis of everything that we are trying to do. So I thank you Mr. Robertson, wherever you are, for giving us such a wonderfully absurd example of bad religion.

Conviction alone is not our reward, for conviction comes easily when one feels a deep calling. Our reward, our grace is in the community that we create with every step following the dream It is the beloved community. The community where we sit together and share together and struggle together. The community where we come to know each other deeply, so that we might finally come to realize that all people are created equal. In pursuit of our dream we pause to sit together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood. And in that community, in our community, we know that we will not be judged by our outside appearance, but by what resets in our hearts.

That is why we follow the dream. That is why we walk through the desert, year after year, knowing that someday our people will see the promised land. It’s not just for the destination that is still such a long ways off, it is for the company on the journey. The beloved company. The beloved community.

I want to wrap up today’s worship with a little bit about my dream, and what I have understood to be more or less our dream as a congregation. I’m not talking about a five-year plan, or objectives, or time-lines. I’m talking about a dream of who we can be in this world, a promised land that we might strive for.

I tread lightly piggy backing on one of the most amazing and influential men in modern history. King’s I have a dream speech has been used to market all sorts of things, some of the noble, others simple profiteering. The last thing I want to do is cheapen the legacy of Dr. King and I don’t think we are. When we have the audacity to envision a religious community that changes our world, our dream is a fitting comparison. When we have the audacity to dream of a church that stands up for the rights of all those who are disenfranchised, we are in the company of Dr. King’s legacy. When we dream of a church where all people are welcome, not part of them, not where they are invited to leave a part of themselves at the door, but a church where all people are welcomed and embraced for who they are, we take up the call of Dr. King and other dreamers throughout time.

My dream is that we become a congregation that will nurture the spirit and heal the world. I dream of a Sunday morning that comforts and challenges and inspires anyone who walks through our doors, anyone, regardless of age, theology, race or education, or any other false wall that divides us. And I dream of a church that changes our world. I dream of a church that changes the world not just talking of justice here between these four walls, but making justice out there in the world. I dream of a church that will nurture the spirit and heal the world.

I have to tell you now that I do believe this dream is possible. This is deeply personal to me. Believe me, I would not be here in the pulpit, I would not be the minister of this congregation, or any congregation for that matter, if I didn’t believe deep down that churches can nurture the spirit and change the world. It is a real possibility my friends.

It is a big goal, it is a dream. Many of us may not be around long enough to see that dream become a perfect reality. But, remember our reward, our grace is not dependent on the completion of the project. Our grace comes with the beloved community that we create along the journey.

So won’t you join me on the journey toward that dream, our dream. Because together I do believe that we can nurture the spirita and heal the world. Together we can do amazing things.

I want you to join me in singing now. Our closing hymn isn’t so much a closing hymn as the last piece of my sermon. And it’s a piece that we’re all going to do together. I’d like everyone to stand as you are comfortable a join in singing, hymn # 95. Because, There is more love somewhere and We’re gonna keep on, till we find it. Won’t you join me in singing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A handful of you have been to Family Fun Night at the church. But I want to take this opportunity to talk not just about that evening, but about playing games in general. Friendly competition is a great way to build relationships and strengthen community.
First and foremost, games are fun. Most of them, at least the ones we play at family fun night are just silly. They make you giggle, and who couldn’t use that now and again. But they are also fun for the challenge. Whether its Candy Land or Chess each game and each time you play is like a little adventure that you take with your fellow travelers. You never know what obstacles or opportunities are around the corner. Without paying a dime you can journey into another world.
There is also something to be said for friendly competition. I imagine some readers disagree with this point, and want everyone to be a winner. Of course, no one is better than another person because of her or his ability to play a game. But the simple reality is that some people are more talented at some skills. (We have a Boggle player in our midst that you would not believe.) Playing friendly competitive games gives us the opportunity to gracefully win and lose, acknowledging that every player is a valued person. What great practice that is for the real world, where we can sometimes forget that everyone who plays the game is of equal worth.
Games also point to a key of real friendship; friends help each other to be better people. Obviously some of the games are games of luck. There is not getting better at Candy Land. But some games develop as a hard earned skill. They develop slowly and they develop in concert with your opponent. By playing games together, we practice helping each other learn and grow. We practice being in supportive relationships.
I never thought I could get so serious about board games. I guess that makes my point even stronger though. Family Fun Night is loads of fun. We share a meal and laugh and the kids run a muck. But having fun together is serious business. It’s part of what we do as a church, its building relationships and learning and growing. So weather it is to do all that serious stuff, or just to giggle, stop by Family Fun Night sometime. The next one is scheduled for February 13th 6:00-9:00 pm


Thursday, January 14, 2010