Monday, January 10, 2011

Sermon - "Blessed are the Meek"

Blessed are the Meek

I learned something in college. Like many of the important lessons of college this happened outside of the classroom and outside of books. This was a sort of personal adventure.

In college I was just coming out, and just coming to understand what it meant for me to be gay. It was a big time for growth that way. So my freshman year I decided I would check out the GLBT student organization. The first time I went I was so frustrated that I didn’t return the rest of that year. They had a guest speaker. He was a local activist and small business owner. He told the group something I found disturbing. He said that he experienced everything in his life as a gay man. From going to the grocery store to driving down the street. As a business person he understood his business to be gay and every thing that he did or was was a part of being gay.

Well I thought this was absurd, and on the verge of offensive. After all, I was just the same as everyone else in the world. I just happened to be attracted to other men. That was it. That was the extent to the meaning of this small detail of my life. How strange for him to think that EVERYTHING he did or was was somehow gay.

But that first year of college something changed. As I become more comfortable being myself, I came to understand what this guest speaker had meant. It wasn’t that everything I said or did was a direct reflection of my sexuality. It’s more nuanced than that. He meant that everything that I experienced and learned, came through my experience of being in the world in a certain way. He, and I experienced our world as gay men.

The best way I can describe it is sort of like a mask. A couple of weeks ago, in our Weaving the Fabric of Diversity workshop, we made masks of our personal identity. We wrote and drew symbols of all of the pieces of ourselves. I wrote that I was a gay white man, a minister, an able-bodied 32yo, and several other details. And everyone wrote about their own identity on their own mask. Now obviously, some of those things are the things that we see on the surface of other people. It is the mask that we wear when we interact with the world. Some of those things are hidden and some are seen, but the pieces of our identity shape how people see us.

But there’s more to the mask than that. These masks were a really helpful metaphor because not only do outsiders see a mask on our faces. The mask that we wear shapes the way that we see our world. We look through all of those details of identity and experience like a telescope with multiple lenses. And those lenses shape the way that we understand the world.

Incidentally, that speaker that I found so strange my freshman year became someone I deeply respected by the time I finished college. And that organization that I wouldn’t attend for an entire year, well eventually I came to lead it. It just took a while to get comfortable enough in my own skin to understand that I interpret the world in a particular way based on my particular experience.

This different perspective is something that people have been talking about for a long time, especially the perspective of those who are outside of the mainstream or those whose voices have been ignored or oppressed. There are several ways in which the oppressed have a different understanding of the world around them. Marxists, feminists, liberation theologians, a whole range of people talk about the phenomenon. But before we dive into that heavier material. I want to talk about an example of this that some of you may have seen before.

I have an unfortunate affinity for reality TV these days. One of the shows I have seen a couple of times is called “Undercover Boss.” You may have heard of it. The premise of the show is that in every episode the CEO or owner of a large company dresses up as a new employee. The camera crew then follows this undercover CEO as he or she tries to work in different entry-level positions in the company. Without fail, the boss has a life changing experience. Some affirmations are gathered, but also some very hard lessons are learned about the way people are treated in the company. I have only seen the show a few times, but from what I have seen, there are always tears shed, as the boss, the person in power comes to realize what life is really like in the world that he or she controls.
What’s more, that boss takes the information from employees and the new perspective to IMPROVE the company. You see the people on the ground are the one’s with the important information. The people doing the hard work, the work that is usually overlooked, they are the ones with the insight about how the company might be better.

Well, just like undercover boss, some of the most influential people in history have tried to explaining the exact same phenomenon, the fact that the people on the ground, the people doing the work have a different, and often better insight about the way things should be. It is the core argument within Marxism. Karl Marx said that the working class has a particular experience and understanding of the world. And eventually the working class will advocate for and achieve a society in which material resources are distributed in an equitable way.

And other groups have focused on the power of perspective. It’s a core belief for most feminists. They argue, and who would disagree, that not only are women intellectually equal to men. But also, because of their experience as women, they bring unique insights to the table. Their voices that are often ignored should especially be lifted up and recognized as a new, life-affirming alternatives to the male dominated discussion.

And similar arguments are made about the perspectives of people of color and people with disabilities. The bottom line is, our unique experiences in the world shape our understanding. And often, those voices that are most shut out of the conversation, are precisely the voices that hold the clearest perspective and offer the best solutions.

This idea of the masks that we see through, and the insights of marginalized people is where my mind goes when I hear the Beatitudes. We read them earlier together. “Blessed are the poor, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are those who hunger. Blessed are the peacemakers.” These words are likely familiar to us all, if not from religious life, then from popular culture and films.

The Beatitudes are a set of eight blessings. The language is a little bizarre, but they come at a very important point in the Bible. They are actually the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, which is understood as the most authoritative summation of Jesus’ moral teachings. These eight rather strange blessings are set at the pinnacle of Biblical authority. It’s like the Preamble of the constitution. It’s the piece of writing that we are familiar with even if we don’t know much else.

Because of their prominent place in the Bible, and also probably because they come across as so jarring, the Beatitudes have been interpreted, criticized, and reinterpreted by an endless number of Christian theologians. Many people rail against this passage claiming that is reinforces slavery mentality. While other social justice leaders point to the Beatitudes as a message about supporting those most in need.

And like everything else, it has been spun to mean a huge variety of things. I was a little shocked to hear that the “Blessed are the peacemakers,” line was actually used to Augustine in his “just war” theory, the idea that some wars could be morally justified. Apparently because the passage speaks of “peacemakers” rather than pacifists Jesus would agree with some wars. I’d certainly call that a stretch.

But like I said, I interpret this well-known passage through the ideas that I spoke of earlier. The idea that our particular identity and life experience opens each of us to particular insights. Perhaps the poor, the oppressed, the meek have a unique perspective to offer the rest of us. Perhaps we are called not to just to feed or fix them, but to listen to them.

This idea of unique insights coming from a place of meekness is not drawn out of the blue, and it’s not unique to this passage, or to Jesus, or to Christianity for that matter. Remember Moses, the archetypal prophet of the Hebrew Bible. When did he find his spirituality and redefine his role in the world? His life changed only after he left the palace of the Pharaoh and returned to a simpler life in the desert. Only from that perspective of living with the enslaved Israelites could he learn what he needed to learn to lead God’s chosen people.

But like I said this idea isn’t unique to Christianity or Judaism. The Buddha had a strikingly similar experience to Moses in this sense. If we know anything about the life of the Buddha, it is that he was born and raised in a palace. His father surrounded him with a perfect world, totally absent of pain and suffering. Until one day the Buddha journeyed outside the walls of the palace to the real world. There he began to see the challenges of the real world. And only after he left the palace, after he left behind all the power and opulence that is father’s wealth had to offer, only then could he face the challenges of life and become enlightened.

Each person, whether a great religious leader or the person on the street corner, each person has their own perspective of the world. It is shaped by identity and experience. And often those people we ignore most in the world, the people whose voices have been the quietest, the oppressed are the people that we need to listen most closely to.

This is why I am a fan of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. There are countless relief organizations out there. I believe that most of them do good work and intend well. But UUSC is particularly notable because it makes a practice of listening deeply to the communities it helps. Rather than dictating an answer to the problems that people face, UUSC supports the projects that people choose for themselves. Whether it is improved agriculture or women’s business development, each project is chosen and led by the people affected.

Today I decided to draw on a piece of Christian scripture, but the concept is far from unique to that tradition. As I said just about every justice struggle I know of has dealt with this concept. The marginalized have a particular experience and voice, and it’s one with tremendous insight. It’s a lesson that we as Unitarian Universalists could stand to take to heart.

If you have been around UU churches for long, you probably know that first of our seven Principles. WE believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. A simple read of that principle is very affirming. I have worth and dignity. It’s something that we sometimes forget. It’s very affirming. But the principle is a little bit broader than a message of self worth. Today, as we talk about the meek, the oppressed the marginalized, I want to remind us about the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person. More than a self-affirmation, we can take our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person as a challenge, a big challenge. For the inherent worth and dignity of every person to become manifest in the world, some people who have had their voices heard, some of us, well we need to shut up and listen to a different perspective for a while.

We need to listen to the voices of those most affected by our decisions. What do women have to say about family reproductive choices? What do parents in inner cities have to say about failing education systems? What do the homeless have to say about their own needs and the efforts to provide shelter and food for everyone? What do same sex couples have to say about love and commitment? What do immigrants have to say about our broken system of laws and regulations?

As we go about the business of making our world a better place, let us pause to listen before offering our answer.


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