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.


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