Monday, April 9, 2012

Sermon - "A Global Faith"

A Global Faith
Most of you know that I spent a couple of weeks last month in India. I was traveling with a group of eight other Unitarians on a trip with the UU Partner Church Council. We spent the first week visiting some major tourist sites around Delhi. We saw the Taj Majal, and Jaipur, and Agra. Some of you saw some of the pictures I posted on Facebook. The second week of our trip we trekked to the far Northeastern corner of the country. We went to the Khasi Hills to visit our Unitarian comrades there. That’s right, there are Unitarians in India, about 10,000 of them, and they have been there since the late 1800s. But I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.
It is difficult to return home from this sort of trip. Not because of culture shock, or because of guilt. It’s difficult because all kinds of people want to have very quick conversations about the travel experience. As my father put it, “what was the biggest highlight of the trip.”
I know people would like to hear about how India changed my life, or all the amazing things that I did and saw. I understand, we want to hear from our friends about their adventures, particularly when they go somewhere we haven’t been able to go.
We saw a lot of things in India, amazing art and architecture. We ate wonderful food and met even more wonderful people. But what I saw mostly in India was a lot of poverty. This wasn’t a shock; it wasn’t eye-opening. I have spent plenty of time in the developing world. When people ask me what I saw, this is what I want to tell them. I saw people working very hard for very little in return. I saw a country that has fundamentally failed to provide access to education. I learned about a country where more people have access to cellular phones have than they do to operational toilets. I learned about a culture so invested in social hierarchy (ie. caste system) that real financial mobility is unimaginable. And finally I saw in action, a government so riddled with corruption that it’s people had given up hope in getting the services they deserved.
This is what I saw in India 99% of my waking hours there: poverty, environmental degradation, and oppressive social hierarchy. That’s the foundation of the story. Still in that churning heap of difficulty, a few remarkable pieces of hope appeared.

Probably the most wonderful thing that we saw was that orphanage that is run by the Unitarian churches there. With the financial backing of American donors, they have a safe clean building with an administrator and two house moms that take care of twenty young children. Each child’s mother had died and there was no real support structure to care for them. Without the orphanage they would have ended up either on the streets or working in manual labor for relatives on a farm. But here they are nurtured in a healthy home-like environment, and they are given the opportunity to attend school. It was amazing to meet a play with these kids, even for the very short time that we had there.
The other major source of hope and inspiration came from the commitment of our Unitarian sisters and brothers. They were intensely proud of their churches, in much the way we are. But in India, Unitarianism is something that is passed down in the family; when one person in the family converts, the whole family becomes Unitarian. So we saw there the sense of extended family, uncles and aunts, grandparents and grandchildren all coming to the same congregation and worshipping together. And we got to meet the ministers of the area, all eight of them. That’s right, eight ministers almost completely lacking in formal ministerial training served around 30 churches on a volunteer basis. In their day jobs they were teachers and journalists and university professors. The commitment of the Unitarian church of North East India was truly an inspiration. Not just because they lived out their faith, but because they did so in the midst of tremendous challenge and difficulty.

That is after all the Easter story, the resurrection of an assassinated holy man, the renewal of hope after the winter, the promise of life beyond death. Easter doesn’t happen without a challenge, resurrection doesn’t happen without death. This is a reality that our Unitarian brothers and sisters around the world know well. This ability to choose hope in the face of tremendous hardship is what we can learn most from them, and what we can celebrate with them this Easter morning.
We American Unitarian Universalists have this somewhat peculiar habit of bringing Christian holiday’s into our worship life. It’s a wonderful way of celebrating our Christian heritage, and it draws upon some of the truly timeless teachings that resonate across traditions. The danger, however, comes when we take these holidays out of context. I live not far from St. Mary’s Episcopal church and I couldn’t help notice their sign out front with all the worship activities of holy week. Let me tell you, they have been busy, telling and retelling they story of Jesus, the life the trial, the crucifixion and death, all in preparation for today, for Easter Sunday.
That is how resurrection comes, not just in the Easter story, but in our lives. Resurrection comes after death, the renewal of hope comes when we have faced fear and hardship. And it happens time and again, as we choose to hope rather than despair. The resurrection of hope is a battle that happens on a daily basis in our heart and throughout human history. Hope is a choice that we make every day of our lives and it is one of the most important choices we can make.

I told you I would get back to talking about how there came to be so many Unitarians in India. It all started with a man named Hajom Kissor Singh.
He was born in the Khasi Hills in 1865 and lived in that area for his entire life. With no knowledge of Unitarianism existing in other areas, he became a Unitarian through his own studies. Singh watched that the Welsh missionaries had done. They taught converted the locals to Christianity to escape the fear of demons from their indigenous religious beliefs. And Singh quickly realized that the fear of demons was only replaced by the new fear of Hell. He also witnessed the hostility toward Catholic missionaries wishing to settle in the Khasi Hills, as well as their unfriendliness to his own questioning. Eventually through his own study, he decided that he would have to leave their church to seek what he called, "the true religion of Jesus, the love of God."
Young Singh had reached classic Unitarian beliefs and began sharing his ideas with others, without knowing that anyone else in the world thought as he did. When he was 25, he learned of Charles Henry Appleton Dall, an American Unitarian minister in Calcutta.There soon ensued an excited exchange of letters between the two men. Dall sent a volume of the writings of William Ellery Channing. Singh suddenly understood that many others, called Unitarians, shared his faith. Thereafter he called his faith "Ka Niam Untarian" (The Unitarian Religion.)

On September 18, 1887, Singh led the first real church service in his home in Jowai. One woman and two men joined him as the first members of a new church. By the end of 1899 Khasi Unitarians under Singh's leadership numbered 214. Singh led a growing Unitarian movement in his state where there are now more than 30 churches having some 10,000 members.
What is remarkable about Hajom Kissor Singh and about the other Unitarians I want to tell you about is how they chose hope. I’m Singh he was a smart guy. I’m sure he worked very hard. But more important than any of that I want you to hear that he chose not to accept a message of despair he had been given. Even when he thought me might be the only person in the world with this peculiar belief in a loving God, Singh chose to believe in a message of hope. Fortunately he found that that same message was shared with others around the world.

More recently in other parts of the world other remarkable Unitarians have chosen hope over fear. I’m thinking in particular of the Rev. Mark Kiyimba and the Unitarians in Uganda. New Life Kampala is a Unitarian community of 110 members that meet every Sunday.
Like in India, the Unitarians of Uganda also run an orphanage, but for a very different reason. Uganda has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. New Life Children's Home has been set up to provide a place for children who have lost parents to AIDS or who who are themselves HIV positive.
But most impressively, the UU Church of Kampala is one of the only organizations in Uganda that is vocally supportive of the BGLT community. This is what makes the choice of hope so remarkable, especially for their leader.
Rev. Mark Kiyimba has been a vocal opponent of Uganda’s anti-gay laws and culture. In 2012 he fled Uganda in fear for his life. For several months he addressed groups across the U.S. about a bill in the Ugandan Parliament that proposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” That provision was dropped last May, but the bill would impose life imprisonment for homosexual acts and jail terms of seven years for anyone counseling or abetting people in such acts.
Today Rev. Mark Kiyimba still lives in Uganda, leading the Unitarian church there. He continues to advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trandsgender people publicly, knowing that his political voice may one day cost him his freedom, or his life. But day after day, week after week, and now year after year he has made the choice to hope in the face of darkness.

That choice is what Easter is about. It is what the flower communion that we celebrate is about. The Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion originated in 1923 with Dr. Norbert Capek, the founder of the modern Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia. He sought a ritual that would provide a sense of unity to his diverse religious community, a ritual that all could partake in. The traditional Christian elements of bread and wine no-longer held meaning for his formerly Catholic parishioners, so Capek turned to the natural surroundings of spring, he turned to flowers. For many years all the children and adults participated in this colorful ritual, which gives expression to the life-affirming principles of our liberal faith.
In 1940, Nazi forces took control of Prague. They found Dr. Capek's gospel of the inherent worth and beauty of every person to be --as Nazi court records show-- "...too dangerous to the Reich [for him] to be allowed to live." Dr. Capek was sent to Dachau, where he was killed the next year. This gentle man suffered a cruel death, but his message of human hope and decency lives on through his Flower Communion, that we celebrate today.

Even in his final writings from Dachau, Capek CHOSE to speak of hope. Hope doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Hope is a choice that is made in the midst of challenge.
Just before he was put to death in Dachau, Dr. Capek wrote this prayer:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.
Oh blow ye evil winds into my body's fire; my soul you'll never unravel.
Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight and everything would
worthless seem, I have lived amidst eternity.
Be grateful, my soul, my life was worth living. He who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes. He who overcame the fetters, giving wing to the mind is entering into the golden age of the victorious.

Norbet Chapek, Hajom Kissor Singh, Rev. Mark Kiyimba, I wanted to tell you their stories today because each one of them made the very hard, but crucial choice of hope over despair. In the darkest of times, even in the face of death they chose to believe and to preach a message of love. May we go forth and do likewise.
As we celebrate on the story of Easter and resurrection, may we remember that hope springs eternal, it’s there for the choosing, every day of our lives. The resurrection of hope isn’t something that happened once two thousand years ago, but something that happens around the world, in the hearts of women and men when they make a simple choice to hope for something more.


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