Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Truth Will Set You Free - Sermon

The Truth Will Set You Free
         The truth will set you free. At least that’s what we have been told many, many times. I selected this title because we are focusing on truth this month. And honestly, I needed a title and a topic for a sermon a little over a month ago. So I embarked on writing about honesty. If we could just be honest with the world about who we are, then we would be freer to live our lives with dignity and pride.
         Simple, and clean isn’t it. Tell the truth and you will be free. Well it’s not quite so simple. As I began writing and thinking, it became very clear that the much more challenging piece of this rule is finding the truth in the first place. Even about ourselves.

         June is just around the corner and it is gay pride season again. Last weekend in Long Beach and this weekend in West Hollywood, actually at this moment, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are gathering in celebration of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They are putting their truth out their, and reveling in the freedom that comes with being out. Every year in the month of June gay pride is celebrated. Just as the name suggests, it is about being out and being proud of who each person is.
         But there’s more to coming out than simply being honest. To come out, you have to know that being out is an option. To come out you have to face the incredibly daunting reality that perhaps you are not what everyone else had assumed and told you that you are. You see, coming out as gay, isn’t just about one day deciding to fess up to the truth. For most people it’s a much more complicated internal struggle of first coming out to one’s self.
         Although this reality is changing, until relatively recently most GLBT people didn’t understand that there were other people like them in the world. They didn’t know that there were amazing supportive loving and healthy communities that they could be a part of. They didn’t know that having a loving relationship and living an open, honest life with a partner of the same sex was an option. For many of us, the concept just simply wasn’t a part of our known universe.
         It’s amazing how difficult it is to know something, if the option doesn’t exist within your realm of possibilities. I remember the first time I said the words, “I’m gay,” out loud. I was in middle school. I had watched the HBO movie called “And The Band Played On.” It was a documentary about he AIDS crisis and it was the only meaningful depiction that I had ever seen of gay people. That evening when I had the house to myself, in the midst of watching that movie I locked myself in the bathroom and said the words out loud for the first time. “I’m Gay.”
         Until I saw that film, which is horribly sad by the way, being gay was just not something that existed in the realm of possibilities. It didn’t exist as a possible truth, until one night, thanks to HBO, it did. Like I said, that experience is changing rapidly as depictions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are more and more common. But for my generation and the folks that came before me, finding the truth was just as difficult as telling other people about it.

         I often use quick phrases for titles of sermons, and I don’t always know where they come from. That’s part of the fun in my work-week, finding where these commonly used phrases come from. That has been especially true this week. I know you have heard this many times, especially associated with justice movements. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” I knew it came from the Bible, but I didn’t know the context at all.
         It comes from the Gospel of John. It is part of a very long dialog between Jesus and a group of Jews. The whole long conversation is Jesus explaining to this crowd of people that he was the true teacher and that they should all be following him. Of course they were observant Jews and explained that they were children of Abraham, and because of that, they believed in the one true God. Jesus then clarifies to them the he actually is closer to that same one true God than even Abraham, and they should follow him, because he is the truth.
         The crowd gets more and more angry and the story ends with them attempting to stone Jesus. But he escapes. As many times as I have heard these words, “The truth shall set you free,” I had no idea that this was the context of the story. The story is about the total rejection of the messenger. That’s a pretty important piece of the statement.
         I should give a quick political disclaimer here. The Gospel of John is a notoriously anti-Semitic book of the Bible. And this passage in particular paints the Jews in a bad light. That is one very obvious understanding of the story. But the other important understanding of the story is the way a crowd responds to a new message. They argue, and eventually persecute the messenger.
         In the very next passage in John, Jesus performs a miracle of healing and individual blind man. We UU’s aren’t very fond of miracle stories, but healing the blind seems to be a pretty clear metaphor for opening someone’s eyes to see the truth. What we see in these stories together is important There is one of a crowd defending itself in group-think and persecuting the messenger. And in the second story we hear about an opportunity for an individual to find wholeness and healing from the same messenger.
         Often our inability to see, hear, understand, or accept the truth is simply the fruit of being part of a group. It is very hard to see something that your peers reject; it is incredibly difficult to hear a truth that your culture ignores.

         Whether it is about which teachers to listen to, who we should love, how much money we should have or what the color of our skin means, the communities that surround us deeply influence our access to truth. There is a particularly powerful exploration of this in a book called “Learning to be White.”
         This is a book by the UU a theologian named Thandeka. It came out back in 2000 and created quite a stir.  In the book she explores the process by which human beings with lighter skin are inculturated to be “white.” As the title suggests, we do in fact learn to act within the norms of our culture. Just like within any culture, white people are shaped to behave in particular ways based on the color of their skin.
         To get at that process of how we learn appropriate behavior, Thandeka asks participants some of the ways they first learned what was expected of them to maintain and participate in white culture. Not always but usually those lessons came through shaming and painful experiences. The stories are about children being told explicitly or implicitly who was safe and who were appropriate friends. And later youth were instructed by their white peers what areas of town were safe, how to dress, dance, and eat.
         The really shocking thing about these stories, when they are told in detail, is that we realize the each time, these stories of teaching whiteness do a great deal to limit the learners natural curiosities and inclinations. From the time we are born we are instructed through implicit messages about how we are supposed to behave. And that behavior, that culture is based on the color of our skin. Most importantly, those lessons, those hard lessons that limit our full humanity come from within our own community. It happens for white people, and Black people, and all sorts of people.
         And as we learn how to behave, power structures within our society are reinforced. From the day we are born we are instructed on playing a role in the wider society. We are instructed based on the color of our skin to be of a dominant culture or an oppressed culture. And seeing any truth outside of those structures is an incredibly hard journey.
         But this is exactly what her goal is. Thandeka believes, and I think it’s true, that one very important step to enter into meaningful cross-cultural dialog, is to understand how each and every one of us, including white people, have been molded into our cultures. When we know that, we begin to see a deeper truth of how each of our cultures, including our own, can limit, or enhance our fully capacity as human beings.   
         She came up with a brilliant way to help people see the truth of their environment. It reminds me of another famous community organizer who has created a model to empower oppressed communities around the world.
         Hopefully it’s pretty clear by now that it can be incredibly difficult to see the truth that is around you every day. It’s much like the old adage, sometimes showing people the reality of their lives is like explaining to a fish what water is. We take for granted what we have always known. It can limit the possibilities for our individual lives, and it can limit the potential for marginalized communities to create change.
         There’s a particular model of community organizing that has always fascinated me. It’s the idea spread by the social change guru, Paulo Friere. One of his key missions was creating methods for oppressed communities to better understand their situation and the possibilities for change. And he did this in an amazingly simple and creative way.
         Rather than swooping into a village and telling them that they had problems that should be changed, Friere did long exercises with whole communities, in which they would sit together and draw the village. They would draw every day scenes of work life and home life. What their housing looked like, how they used transportation, the experiences of children and elders. They worked together to create a picture of the village life. And then, when it had all been drawn in black and white, he invited them to talk about things that they might want to change about the picture.
         And at that point, when people are able to take just one step back from their daily lives, they are able to see the problems they faced and the resources they had. It’s like taking the fish out of its bowl to see the water it swims in. It doesn’t take much, just an opportunity to take one step back.
         And then, when a community has identified what it wants to change, Friere helps them along that path, one small challenge at a time. But the first step is the critical one. Taking the step back to see the truth is what enables a community to identify the changes it wants to make, and to seek out a better way.

         I have a hunch, that if we take the time to do something similar on an individual level, we too can see opportunities to make our lives better. At the end of the day, I deeply believe that the saying is right, and the title of my sermon is dead on. The truth will set you free. But I learned a lesson from that passage in John. I’m not fond of public stoning. And even if I were, I don’t think this kind of truth is something that we can be told.
         My mission today is not to deliver to you a truth that will set you free. What I want to offer instead is an invitation to take some time, take a step back and look at your every day life. If you are inclined maybe you want to draw it, or write it down in words, but really think about the day to day. What could be better, not miraculously perfect better? What about your life could realistically be changed?
         It’s kind of a scary question because taking it seriously means making changes. It’s not easy, but when and if you are ready, take a step back and take a look at your life with an eye toward possibility, an openness to ways of being that you had never imagined before. And the truth might just set you free.


Monday, May 6, 2013

"Seeking the Truth in Love" - Sermon

“Seeking the Truth in Love”
         If you hadn’t noticed, I pulled today’s sermon title from the unison affirmation that we say each Sunday morning. Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Our worship theme for the month of May is truth. It seemed appropriate to use something that we say every week, as a way to start exploring this topic.
         When you get beyond the age of about 12, the word truth comes with some serious baggage, especially when you are talking about truth in a religious community. Unitarian Universalists in particular tend to buck at the word. That isn’t because we are difficult people. It’s because truth has a complicated place in our faith tradition.
         For some of us, the word “truth” invokes an appreciation for science and reason. As Unitarian Universalists, we have embraced science and reason throughout the history of our faith. That is what makes us a liberal religious tradition. You may have heard me use that phrase. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious tradition. We are not liberal in the political sense, but liberal in the philosophical sense, Liberal in the sense of believing that we have the right and responsibility to use all the information available.  Through science, history and philosophy, we are called to do our best to understand the world around us. We UUs believe that humans are thoughtful beings, blessed with the gift o intellect. We can and should use all the tools we have to discern what is right and true. So we integrate scientific understanding within our religious faith. In that way, we are a liberal religious tradition.
         Science does an amazing job of describing our physical world in detail. But it sometimes lacks the ability to describe our emotional life or spiritual experiences. And this is where the rub is; this is where the picture gets tricky. For some people a scientific understanding of the world is adequate, but for many of us it just doesn’t have the capacity to answer the deeper questions of our heart, questions about meaning, connection, life and death. And we turn to our faith for a different way of digging into the truth.
         But that religious truth is varied, because it illuminates each of our hearts in a slightly different hue. And we embrace that brilliant rainbow and the light of life that shines through each person. Unitarian Universalism does have some core theological beliefs. I spent last summer exploring them in great detail. There is a general trajectory of our theological history and the ideas shared among us today. But the bedrock of our faith is an openness for each person, a responsibility for each person, to explore and decide the truth for him or herself.
         That is because the first source of truth that we embrace isn’t a book, or the authority of an individual person or tradition. The first source that informs Unitarian Universalism is, and this is a direct quote, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” That comes from the document that binds our congregations together in wider faith traditions. Along with the Seven Principles, we name six sources of our faith. But this one rests at the top of that list. “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
         So, if we are capable and invited to experience the transcending mystery and wonder for ourselves, if we each have a glimpse into religious truth, then we can only assume that our opinions are going to be varied.
         Which makes our mission as a church a little odd. We don’t produce converts to a single truth. What we produce is a community. We create a community where people support one another in our journey, even when the paths lead in different directions. Rather than having a creed, we have a covenant. Our theology as religious liberals, as embracers of the direct experience of wonder, as a diversity of seekers leads us to a covenantal community.

         This little commitment that we make every Sunday speaks so clearly to the mission of our faith, seeking the truth in love. But love is a squishy word, and we use it a lot. Whenever we invoke love as a foundation of our faith, it’s not a sugary hallmark sentiment. It’s not just being nice to one another. Of course that’s a good place to start, but love is more complicated than that, especially in a community where we find a variety of truths.
         Love doesn’t mean putting someone else’s opinions or needs above our own. Nor does it mean insisting that we know better. Love is a steadfast stance of mutuality. Rev. Tom Owen-Towle writes, “Love is facing another human being rather than fighting or fleeing, even when it is difficult and painful. It is diving into the depths when we would prefer to wade in the shallows.”
         This is a wonderful description of the challenge of love. Sometimes love is easy, but sometimes it require us to overcome our most powerful instincts. It requires that we sit face to face in the presence of discomfort, and share ourselves. Love asks not that we silence ourselves, but that we share deeply of ourselves.
         I find myself unpacking this word love, over and over again because it gets quickly misunderstood in so many of our churches. Love is not a dance that avoids offending other people. It is not covering our own light or silencing our own truth, because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
         As Unitarian Universalists, too often our embrace of spiritual diversity becomes a misguided settling for the lowest common denominator. That’s right, in many UU churches, and in this one on occasion, we so fear offending one another with our understanding of the holy, that we keep it hidden and silent. Because we know it won’t sound like what the person sitting three rows ahead of us has thought and felt. So we don’t speak our spiritual truth, we hold it in, and we settle only for those very few things that we can all agree upon.
         This tiptoeing dance is not seeking the truth in love. It is in fact quite the opposite. It is being afraid of one another and in that fear, settling for the lowest common denominator.
         Respecting the journey of others does not mean silencing our own. It means understanding that we each have a slightly different song resonating in our heart. The song that another hears may not make sense to us. It may even irritate us a bit. But in this loving community, we celebrate with one another the music that sings in each heart. That is seeking the truth in love.
         I’m belaboring this definition of “love” here because the loving part is just as important as the truth that we seek. The process is as important as the product. One of the best teachers of this was Mahatma Gandhi. He knew that not only was the outcome important, but the way in which we achieve the outcome is equally important. I came across a couple of stories about him that tell how he lived this out. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of these stories. But they certainly jive with everything I’ve ever heard or read about Gandhi.

         Gandhi’s legal and activism career began in South Africa. There he set up an ashram, a Hindu religious community, where he started a school for children. But Gandhi had his own ideas about how children should be taught. He disliked the strict examination system that was used in the wake of European colonialism. In Gandhi’s school he wanted to teach the boys true knowledge—knowledge that would improve both their minds and their hearts.
         He had his own way of judging students. All the students in the class were asked the same question. But often Gandhi praised the boy with low grades and scolded the one who had high grades.
         Not surprisingly, this puzzled the children. When questioned on this unusual practice, Gandhi explained, "I am not trying just to teach the facts. So I don't give marks on that basis. I want to see how far each student has progressed, how much he is pushing himself. If an especially smart student competes with one who takes longer to learn, he is likely to grow dull. Sure of his own cleverness, he'll stop working. I’m focused on the student who does his best and works hard. He will always do well and so that is the one I praise."

         Another story tells about the tough love that he showed for his own son. We often think of him as a gentle grandfatherly figure, but he was actually a very, very tough teacher and head of his household.
         This story came about when Gandhi was practicing law in Johannesburg. His office was three miles from his house. One day a colleague of his, Mr. Polak, asked Gandhi's thirteen-year old son, Manilal to fetch a book from the office. But, as children sometimes do, Manilal completely forgot about it until much later in the evening.
         Gandhiji heard about it and sent for his son. He said, "Son, I know the night is dark and the way is long and lonely. But you will have to walk the six miles. You gave your word to Mr. Polak. You promised to fetch his book. Go and fetch it now."
         The whole family got upset when they heard of Gandhi's decision. The punishment seemed far too severe. Manilal was only thirteen, the night was dark and the way lonely. He had only forgotten a book after all. It could be brought the next day.
         Eventually another boy, and older brother plucked up some courage. "I'll fetch the book," he offered. Gandhi was gentle but firm, "But the promise was made by Manilal."
         "Very well, Manilal will go but let me go with him," the older brother pleaded.        Gandhiji agreed to this and the two brothers set of into the night to fetch the book.

         In Gandhi’s world, the point of school isn’t to memorize facts. A good teacher knows that. And making a commitment to do something isn’t just about the end result. It is about living up to our word. It’s not the book that was important, but maintaining one’s character and commitment.  For Gandhi, the process was always just as important as the product that it created.
         Whether it was teaching children to read and write or teaching the world to lay down its guns, Gandhi knew that the method must reflect the goal. It is far from pragmatic or efficient, but it is a way of embodying the truth. Along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a handful of other radicals, he taught us the way we get to our goal is as important as the goal itself. Peace is not only our goal, it is the only effective means by which that goal can be achieved.
         Gandhi’s methods of non-violence are a bit of a departure from our weekly unison affirmation to seek the truth in love. But I wanted to bring them up for a reason. Seeking the truth in love, is much more expansive than a few words that we say to one another here on Sundays. Yes I do sincerely hope that we can use that as a guiding principle of the way we build our community together here.
         But church is about more than what occurs between these walls. Church is really mostly about how we are compelled to live our lives when we leave this place. I think this is what Glenn Pascall spoke to so well last week, in his journey to seek the truth in love. He has been a committed environmentalist for years, particularly opposing nuclear energy. But he still takes the time to fairly consider the arguments of all sides. And perhaps more importantly, he refuses to dismiss his adversaries. He respects that just like himself, they are offering what they understand to be the truth, even when it is different.
         Seeking the truth in love means that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the product. That comes to light perhaps best, in the challenge of parenting. The process is the product. We teach them with our method of parenting just as much as we pour information into their heads. Robert Fulghum, a retired minister writes “Don’t worry that your children haven’t heard what you have told them. Worry that they have seen how you live you life.”
         The methods that we embrace are just as powerful as the product that we achieve. Whether it is in this community, in our home, or in the wider world, let us continue to aim for that high goal of seeking the truth in love.
         In a moment we will sing our closing hymn “As Tranquil Streams.” It’s a beautiful hymn but many people don’t know its origin. This song was commissioned to celebrate the merger of the Unitarians with the Universalists back in 1961. As we sing this song, I hope you will remember with me the story of the merger that I shared with our children earlier. And remember that the faith tradition that we inherit is the fruit of centuries careful work to seek the truth in love, and build this covenanted community.