Monday, July 9, 2012

Sermon - "Salvation is in This Life"

         Since we are talking about salvation today, I thought I would start off with a confession and a testimony. I want to confess to something that may be deeply familiar to you, or it maybe not. Maybe you confront other demons in your own life. 
         But for me, the past couple of weeks have been a sincere and eye-opening journey of how addicted I am to anger. Yes, I am a fairly mild mannered person, but something about me, somewhere deep inside, really gets motivated by anger. It’s exciting, and empowering as an emotion. Whether it’s in my car when I’m late, dealing perhaps with Laguna Beach tourist drivers, I know you know what I mean. I cuss like a sailor when I’m alone in my car. It’s not pretty. Or if it’s dealing with someone who challenges me, rather than questioning my own beliefs or simply disagreeing, it’s much easier, much more exciting to feel angry. Or sometimes for no apparent reason at all with the people in my life I know and love I drift toward anger rather more complicated or nuanced negative feelings.
         Part of me finds that anger is easier and more exciting than other responses to the small challenges of life. Part of me is addicted to it, and wants to hang on to it. But holding onto anger, I’ve been told, is like holding a hot coal to burn someone else. Part of my journey is learning to let it go. Part of my journey to salvation in this life is to let go of that energizing self-righteous feeling and move beyond it. Maybe you have your own burning coal of anger to let go of, or maybe there is something that you are called to pick on your path to salvation.
         That is my confession. I am seduced by the feeling of anger. But I also want to testify to you this morning. For those of you who are new here, I should tell you that confession and testimonial are rare in this congregation. But since we are talking about what salvation means to us, I thought I’d dig right in. I want to testify about salvation. Not my own, but the salvation I have seen in other people. Probably the singular thing that I am most grateful for in ministry is the opportunities to see real salvation happen in this life. I have seen what it looks like in members of this congregation. I still remember how humbling and inspiring it was to sit with a group of elders at a class on death and dying. I had prepared a whole 30 minute introductory session to ease us into what I thought would be a difficult topic. But before I knew it, they were talking frankly about how many more years, or in one cases, how many more months they each expected to live. They spoke with grace and with incredible peace about their mortality. They had lived lives that were worth living, with only a few loose ends to tie up. And even those weren’t all that necessary. It may be because I am young and that sort of acceptance of mortality comes with age. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that the people around that table had made a certain peace with their lives, a peace that acknowledged all the hardship and held on to the faith that life is good.
         I have seen salvation in our fellowship, and it is amazing. I have seen salvation in people who face tremendous hardships, abuse, addiction, mental illness, financial upheaval, adultery, and an array of other challenges that seminary could never have prepared me for. I have seen people come through these challenges and still have the courage to face life with grace and courage. In the midst of all the muck of life, in the midst of all that heartache and evil, these courageous women and men affirm their faith that life is good and beautiful. I have seen salvation in this Fellowship. It’s hard to describe but I promise you I have seen it.
         And this wouldn’t be a full testimony without talking about the salvation I have seen offered for my Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters. Just last week at General Assembly I was hanging out with another young gay minister. We reminisced about what it meant for us to have the support of our religious community as teens when we were just coming to understand ourselves as gay. For him, and for several other LGBT Unitarian Universalists I have spoken with, our message that every soul is sacred and worthy literally gives them a reason for living. It’s no secret that gay teens are significantly more susceptible to suicide than their heterosexual peers. I know, I can testify that this faith has literally saved the lives of many of those teens. For us as Unitarian Universalists salvation is in this life, and it is available to all of us.

         Salvation isn’t something we talk about much. In fact I know that it makes many of you cringe. But not talking about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. This sermon topic, that I love by the way, is actually a part of the Summer series that we are doing. We are covering a list of core Unitarian Universalist beliefs including:

Every soul is sacred and worthy.
There is a unity which makes us one.
Salvation is in this life.
Courageous love will transform the world.
Truth continues to be revealed.

         When the conversation of salvation comes up, the fist question is what exactly are we being saved from. I think this is why the idea of salvation is so strange to many of us. Let me assure you, the salvation we are concerned about is not salvation from an angry God who would otherwise dole out eternal punishment for our mistakes. We are not talking about getting a cosmic lifeline to escape some fiery underworld called Hell. Our tradition has long since given up on that sort of otherworldly punishment. And it’s only fair to say that the vast majority of mainline Christian theology has followed us in that shift.
         Salvation as we talk about it isn’t about what happens as reward or punishment after you die; Salvation is in this life. So if we are not being saved from the fiery depths, what then are we being saved from? Well there is still plenty in this life for us to be saved from. Plenty of both sin and evil pervade our individual lives and our shared human community. We don’t like to admit it, in fact this probably ruffles some feathers, but we do need salvation. We need a salve for the deep injuries that hurt us and the people we love.
         Whether you want to call it evil or something else, life is hard, often without reason. And, people are cruel to one another, usually without reason. The earth itself is in desperate need of salvation from the relentless punishment we have inflicted upon it. And the evil that is most pervasive, the evil that most fuels oppression and exploitation isn’t a maniacal greed; it isn’t blatant and cunning. The evil that stains the fabric of human community is the evil of indifference.
         We need salvation in this life for the evils that pervade this life, the evils that we afflict upon one another and upon ourselves. It is important to explain though, that focusing on salvation in this life doesn’t preclude other concepts of salvation that might play out after death. I know that a sense of peaceful continued existence or a second, third or ninety eighth chance at getting life right can be profoundly helpful to people. Perhaps there is something beyond this life. I don’t know about what comes next. But I do know about this life. We know that this life offers us plenty of material to work with, an overwhelming supply really. There is more than enough here and now to deal with. There is enough pain to need healing. There are enough lessons and teachers to help us find a way to deal with the pain and still affirm life. When we say that salvation is in this life, it is not meant to negate the possibility of other senses of salvation. It is meant to affirm the very real possibility to develop the capacity to recognize the goodness and beauty of life, even in the midst of all its challenges.

         Now comes the challenging part of the sermon. I’ve told you what we are being saved from, and why we need it. The big looming question is how. How does this salvation happen?  That’s not such and easy question to answer. But our reading from earlier today points us in the right direction. We heard the reading from W.E.B. DuBois, “The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.”
         I often hear Unitarian Universalists deride more traditional Christian formulas of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. They are concerned that confession and profession of faith are inadequate compensation for a full lifetime of moral choices. I hear Unitarian Universalists tell me that kind of salvation is too easy.
         The flip side of that concern is that as we understand salvation, as Unitarian Universalists, there is not a single thing to be believed or single action to be taken to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois said, it takes deed upon deed and thought upon thought to build a life that is worth living. What’s more, salvation isn’t a one-time thing. It’s not a gold medal that gets hung on your neck that you then have forever and ever. Salvation, as far as I can tell, is something that we build over time with the help of those around us. Honestly, I can’t tell you exactly how that building process takes place, but I can tell you a little bit about what I think salvation looks like, as I have seen it.         
         First and foremost, salvation manifests in an affirmation of life’s goodness. I’m not talking about enjoying the good life. I’m talking about a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to live and to love. Life is full of small pleasures, small signs of the goodness of creation. They are present day in and day out if we open ourselves to appreciate them. From enjoying a good meal, a warm bath, a flower in bloom or a good friend. Affirming the goodness of life begins with pausing to affirm the goodness of the little pieces of every day.
         And it is precisely this groundedness in the goodness of life that empowers us to perform the deed upon deed and thought upon thought that builds a life worth living. Because when we appreciate life, we know that it is worth our energy to preserve it, to cherish it, and defend it for others. As the theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, “Apprehension of life’s profound goodness provides emotional aliveness and moral clarity. It is this apprehension of goodness that motivates a life toward life affirming ways.”
         When we open ourselves to the goodness of life and the beauty that surrounds us, we begin to settle into the profound sense of “enough.” We come to realize there are in fact enough resources for all of humanity to thrive. There are enough opportunities to building loving relationship. And we ourselves are enough, not perfect, but enough.
         Lest it sounds easy, salvation is not sugar and spice and all things nice. Actually it is just the opposite. Salvation is a capacity to recognize the goodness of life even in the midst of tragedy. The blessings of salvation are evident in those people who hold tragedy and beauty together, integrating life’s complex and difficult counterpoints. It’s not an easy puppy love for this world that we are called to. But a courageous love, a love that knows that in the midst of all the brokenness, there is also a wholeness. Holding out this kind of affirmation of the goodness of life takes tremendous courage.
         So let us be thankful that this journey is not ours to make alone.  Though I have been talking about it on the individual level, salvation is not an individual thing. The wisdom and courage that I describe here are NOT personal accomplishment. They are the fruit of living in human community. Through our relationship we see the goodness and beauty of life affirmed in those that we love. Through our relationships we are encouraged through our own struggle and reminded that life continues on.
         This journey is not ours to make alone. It is the fruit of our relationship with others, and it rests solidly on the shoulders of countless women and men who have gone before. Some have shown us personal models of deep fulfillment, and some we merely read and hear about. Regardless of how we learn of their lives, our own salvation is interwoven with theirs. We are saved by every person who stood for the true in spite of threat: Socrates, Jesus, and many, many others. We are saved by a communion of saints vaster than we even know.
         Though we do not talk about it often, salvation is real, it is needed, and it is available to anyone willing to make the journey. Let us then be grateful for this life and the opportunities it provides. Let us be grateful for the community of travelers that accompanies us on the journey. Let us be grateful for this invitation to peace.



Monday, July 2, 2012

Sermon - "The State of Unitarian Universalism"

“The State of Unitarian Universalism”
         I have heard several people mention their excitement about today’s worship service. That’s always a very encouraging thing. This week some people were excited to hear a sermon about immigration. Some were excited to hear a sermon about the direction of Unitarian Universalism, and others were excited to hear about my experience last week in Arizona at General Assembly. These are three different and full sermon topics. Fortunately these thing things, immigration, the events of General Assembly 2012, and the future of our faith tradition, interweave into what for me, is a pretty clear picture.
         So let me start by explaining how we ended up holding General Assembly in Phoenix Arizona in 2012. General Assembly is the annual national meeting for the Unitarian Universalist Association and a significant conference. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people come to these gatherings to worship together, and learn, and make decisions about our Association. Organizing such an event is no small undertaking. Usually the destination is decided on four or five years in advance in order to get prepared.
         The decision to hold this year’s GA in Phoenix was probably made around 2007. At that time contracts were signed with the convention center and hosting hotels. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were committed to the endeavor. That was back in 2007.
         Fast forward with me to April 23, 2010. That is the day that the Arizona state government passed the broadest and most punitive law against undocumented immigrants in recent U.S. history. The Arizona law makes it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents; it requires that state law enforcement officers determine an individual's immigration status during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest", or during any "lawful contact" when there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant. The law also criminalizes any effort to provide shelter, transportation or other assistance to undocumented immigrants.
         Without going into great depth, the first and most obvious problem with the law is that it essentially sanctions, and some might say requires racial profiling by law enforcement. What’s more, it makes it a crime to help those in need, which should be abhorrent to people of any faith. But the worst part of this law, the part that is least obvious in it’s language, is that it ensnares more people than ever before in the terribly inhumane process of detention and deportation. By detention I mean either being put in jail with convicted criminals, or being held for undetermined lengths of time in unregulated, often privately run detention centers where human beings languish without access to necessary medication, adequate food, or shelter from the elements.
         I know this is hard for us to truly absorb, but our government, acting in our name is detaining people in condition that are in many ways worse that the local animal shelter. Last week at GA we heard from several people who have been a part of this system. One woman told us of living being detained while she was pregnant. Allowed only the same two meals per day as the other inmates, as her pregnancy progressed from three to six months this slim mother to be gained only three pounds.
         As many of your know our experience in Phoenix culminated in a massive vigil outside of the county’s detention center known as tent city. It is a detention center where tens of thousands of men and women are housed in tents without air conditioning or heat… in Phoenix Arizona. As part of the vigil they read the names of the men and women who had died in these detention centers across the U.S. in the past month. I don’t remember how many there were, but it was shockingly long. To give you some perspective on the size of this project, in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security held 363,000 immigrants in detention in over 250 facilities across the country.  
         But I digress. I was trying to explain how we came to hold a Generally Assembly in Phoenix in 2012. We had already made a commitment to the convention center and hotels, and just months before our 2010 General Assembly, Arizona passes an inhumane and deadly law. What’s more, the Latino community of Arizona asked for the entire country to show support by boycotting the state.
         So at General Assembly 2010 we had a very hard decision to make, either boycott Arizona and move our annual gathering, or do something completely different. Hold a General Assembly that was not a business meeting, but a call to action, a Justice GA. After much debate, and most importantly, and invitation from the Arizona Latino community to come to Arizona and stand with them to fight for justice, we decided to hold a Justice GA.  That’s a very long back-story, but it’s important to understand what lead up to this unique moment in our history as we gathered in Arizona last week.
         So coming back to 2012, just last week in fact, I attended Ministry Days. The few days prior to GA are reserved every year for the UU Minister’s Association to gather to have their national meeting and continuing education. As a part of the meeting, the Berry Street Lecture is given by a clergy of lay-person who has a significant perspective to share about Unitarian Universalism. This year, the speaker unpacked something I have been hearing colleagues discuss for a couple of years.
         It is a little dose of reality that we need to confront here in our congregation as well. The speaker urged us to come to real grips with our numeric reality. Currently Unitarian Universalists are only 0.3% of the U.S. population. We are a tiny, tiny religious tradition. More importantly, the number of members in our churches has remained the same over the past decade while the U.S. population has increased 10% in that same time. This is not the picture of a vibrant or growing tradition. Quite the contrary, the numbers reflect a serious problem.
         As a point of reference we explored this history of the British Unitarian church. Our theological comrades across the pond have a history that is remarkably similar to our own. They were a highly educated small religious tradition with well-funded institutions and an aging membership. The only difference is that British Unitarianism as an institution for any real purposes, dead. We were asked as ministers, as colleagues, if this smaller group that looks, acts, and sounds so much like American Unitarian Universalism was the canary in the coalmine. It’s a very sobering question.          The title of today’s sermon is “The State of Unitarian Universalism.” And while I believe we do have the potential for an amazing future, which I will talk about in a minute, the current state of Unitarian Universalism is not good. We have stagnated, and without a significant shift in our religious life together this faith tradition is likely to wither, and possibly die. I’m not offering that to sensationalize the sermon or be dramatic. Believe me. As a minister in the beginning of my career I literally cringe when my senior colleagues talk of the future of Unitarian Universalism. It brings me no pleasure to tell you that we are hurting. But it’s also doesn’t do us any good to ignore that reality.
         So the Barry Street lecture was meant to make us face the reality of our current state and to be a call to action. To summarize a 45 minute lecture, in a couple of sentences, that call to action identified two things that we must do if we are to survive as a religious tradition. We must move beyond our nearly pathological dedication to individualism, and we must deepen our commitment to spirituality. Obviously these two endeavors are profoundly linked in the life of religious community.
         I was dubious about the suggested quick fix that had been called for us. It was hard to see that a fourty-five minute exploration of Emerson’s theological balance between the individual and the communal would be the salvation of our faith community. I didn’t see a future for us in the lecture.
         Where I did see a future for us, where I did see that our faith might be sustained, might even flourish into it’s full potential was in the wider experience of General Assembly. Gathered there we began to transcend our beloved individualism and invest deeply together in the spiritual work of preparing ourselves to stand in solidarity with the local immigrant community. It was a lot of worship, and a lot of work, but something changed in the hearts of those present, or at least in my own heart.
         In all of the workshops that I attended and the big group meetings, the one piece of discussion that occurred over and over was talk about power. What does power look like, who has it, and how can we harness it to create a world that we want to live in. In one of those sessions a beautiful image was offered to help describe the necessity of community organizing.
         In working for social justice or environmental sustainability, achieving success as an individual can feel like a sisyphean task. In the face of corporately-funded church-sponsored bigotry and exploitation, doing justice work feels like attempting to role a giant boulder up a hill. It is hard, nearly impossible work, and if you pause breath it will undoubtedly roll back down the hill and smash you in the process.
         But this General Assembly demonstrated a different option, and a different kind of power. It was the option of collective power. What if rather than trying to role the giant boulder up the hill all by ourselves, what if we have a party and invite everyone we know, and everyone they know. And rather than lamenting the state of the world and the enormous size of the challenge what if we come together to dance on that boulder. And we dance and we dance, so long and so hard that that boulder begins to crumble into a thousand pieces. What if, in our gathering, we break that boulder into pieces that a small enough for each one of us to pick up, and walk up that hill to build a new future.
         I think this is the image that stuck with me so strongly because this is the type of power that Unitarian Universalism has the potential to be a part of. Ironically it’s the power that we think we have been a part of. But the reality is, we have a long, long way to go before we truly understand ourselves to be a part of such a collective movement.
         You see, the most striking thing about this year’s general assembly was our willingness as a group to NOT be leaders. Instead of standing boldly on our own, we asked the community there in Arizona how we might best be of help. And I’ll be blunt with you here, as a highly educated predominantly white religious community, this is not something that we do easily. It’s not something we tell ourselves we should do. And it’s not what we tell our children that they should do either.
         But we were asked to come and support, just support the immigrant community in Arizona so there was some mental preparation to be done.
We were being prepared to literally stand for hours in the Arizona heat at a rally. It was a rally where counter protesters would be present, and we knew that those counter protesters would be armed. It’s legal to carry concealed weapons in Arizona and the particular group who was coming to protest always makes it clear that they exercise that right as a political matter.
         At General Assembly we asked thousands of Unitarian Universalists to enter the struggle for justice in a physically and emotionally demanding way. But the biggest challenge raised, was for us as UUs to be there in Arizona doing what our allies asked us to do. Not questioning, not taking the lead, but being there as one body, doing what we were asked to do.
         I know we all like the story from earlier, about Swimmy the fish. It’s one of the first stories that I told for an intergenerational moment as a minister. It’s just the kind of story that we tell our children because it’s the kind of story that we believe in. WE believe that we can learn from our experience of being different and leverage that experience to create change.
         Sometimes our role is to be a leader like Swimmy and organize the fish. But other times, really most of the time, if we truly want a community that moves and works and lives together, if we want a community that is able to survive, we are called to let go of some of that individualism, some of the power that we feel entitled to, some of the “leadership” that we tell each and every child they should strive to embody.  If we want to survive in the ocean, or as a religious community we have to get beyond thinking ourselves so special and unique. We have to jump in line and swim together, because in the end we are just like everyone else.
         We each have our hopes and dreams, we have fears and worries. We care for our families and friends. Words and stories inspire us and sometimes we are lonely.  We are just like everyone else, we want a place where we can bring our whole selves to be together and know that it will be all right and we are not alone.
         Unitarians have historically stood up for justice. Adding our voice to the struggle for justice for immigrants is nothing new. It’s just a logical next step in an inspiring history of justice work. What is new, and what could be the window to our future as a tradition is what we learned at General Assembly this year. We have always wielded power in the world as individuals. But this year we learned to join in a different kind of power. And began the work of reimagining who “we” includes.
         If we as a denomination and if we as a congregation going to thrive, we have to continue that work of reimagining who we are. In some ways we are an uncommon denomination. In some ways we are different. But in most ways, in the ways that really matter, we are just like everyone we pass on the street every day of our lives.
         We each have our hopes and dreams, we have fears and worries. We care for our families and friends. Words and stories inspire us and sometimes we are lonely.  We are just like everyone else, we want a place where we can bring our whole selves to be together and know that it will be all right and we are not alone.
         Let us build that place here, together. So we can swim together in this great big ocean of life.