Monday, March 13, 2006

Sermon: "What Would John Flaherty Do?" (Delivered 3-12-2006)

As a Baseball fan, every March my daydreaming wanders to Florida and Arizona – Spring Training – where ballplayers are preparing for the season. For most major league players, there is a going-through-the-motions element, but on the fringes there are also a few teenaged players trying to get over on the superstars and prove they deserve to make it to the Big Leagues. On the flip-side, there is always a cadre of seasoned veterans trying to prove that they still have what it takes to stick, despite the challenge of up-and-comers half their age. These experienced players are trying to stay on for one more season, and every March dozens of them elect to retire rather than accept release or demotion to the stuffy buses and bad buffets of minor-league barnstorming.

One such player to retire recently was John Flaherty, a back-up catcher for five teams over fourteen seasons. I remember when he was a youngster, challenging nearly-washed up veteran catchers for a roster spot with the Red Sox in Spring Training fifteen seasons ago. Flaherty’s retirement, having accumulated in fourteen years, the statistics a star player will reach in two or three, caused me to pause for a poignant and reflective moment. However, on the Red Sox fan message board, his retirement caused a different reaction, not a tear but a jeer: “Good riddance, ya bum. What have you have done for me lately?”

“What have you done for me lately?” My colleague, Rev. Jim Eller began a recent sermon by asking that question, and reflecting (paraphrase) that this is the archetypal question of a “consumer era that promises instant gratification, cheap grace, and urges us to always be shopping around for a better deal.” This question is one thing when assembling a baseball roster. Truthfully, what sports fan among us has not muttered in desperation, “What have you done for me lately?” It is a thought Royals and Chiefs fans frequently utter. However, Eller suggests, “It is something else when we ask that same fickle question of a spouse, or a friendship, or a religious faith.”

In Evangelical Christianity about a decade ago there was something called the WWJD movement. “What would Jesus do?” It was kind of an interesting campaign, the slogan appearing on bracelets and T-shirts. On one level, it is a question of ethical discernment. I remember commenting at the time that if you actually read the gospels you find an answer. Jesus would have visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry, healed the sick, given away all he possessed, and challenged the status quo. At the time, an enterprising Unitarian Universalist decided to make up WWUUD (“What would a UU do?”) bracelets, of which there were considerably fewer.

But, most interestingly, and bear with me here, within one corner of the evangelical community came a criticism of WWJD The critic envisioned the disciples sitting around and asking what would Jesus do, but subtly shifting the question to, “What should Jesus do?” and then to, “What should Jesus do for me?” and then to, “What has Jesus done for me lately?” The move from ethical discernment to detached criticism is gradual. The evangelical critic suggested the formulation WIJD (“What is Jesus doing?”) as an ideal substitute.

So, I wonder, by way of analogy: does the question “What would Unitarian Universalists do?” risk becoming “What should UUs do?” risk becoming, “What have UUs done for me lately?”

In this sermon, I am going to ask, “What Are Unitarian Universalists doing?” And I’m going to begin with this church, with us, because one of the myths that I want to explode, it being a false and injurious myth, is that our congregation isn’t very involved in the community. Consider the following:

+ In the past nine months we have held two collections for the food pantry at the heart of America Indian center, collecting an estimated $1,500 worth of food items.

+ Our collection of supplies for a school in Afghanistan netted so many donations that it cost $400 in postage to send the supplies.

+ Our quilting group, which sews quilts for the Rose Brooks Center, an organization that works with battered women and children in our community, reports that this year they created and donated ten beautiful, hand-made quilts.

+ Through our work as a support congregation with the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, we have trained nine members to work with homeless families. We’ve also taken up a collection for a garage sale to benefit them, and taken up a collection for the family center JCIHN operates – they reported being overwhelmed by our donations.

+ Last month, a new member led our congregation in collecting to support the Center of Hope in KCK, which works with homeless families. They also reported being overwhelmed by our creation of thirty care bags for the program they operate.

+ Last September we collected over $3,600 for the UUA Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. A special collection taken on Christmas Eve sent nearly $1,500 to the local non-profit organization El Centro, plus the same amount for a fund here which helps members of our congregation in financial need.

+ In Religious Education, our “Service is Our Prayer” program made sack lunches for Crosslines, care bags for the TLC shelter and foster care program in Olathe, and went Christmas caroling at the Overland Park Manor.

+ Currently, a member is organizing a SMUUCh group to work with Habitat for Humanity. Another member is organizing a post-card writing campaign so our congregation can be a part of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, and in April the Quarterlife Quorum, our group for folks in their twenties, will do a social justice project.

What I just mentioned are only the ways that our congregation works together to impact and assist the community. The list of organizations that our members volunteer for, lead, and contribute to as individuals would be tremendously long.

While I cannot mention what we do as individuals, I do want to mention a few of the things that I am involved with in the community. I don’t often publicize my involvement in these organizations, but I think a sermon that asks the question, “What are Unitarian Universalists doing?” would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about a few of the things I am involved with. This year I became a Board Member of the local organization the MAINstream Coalition that operates as a non-partisan educational non-profit and as a PAC and advocates for funding for public education and for the separation of church and state. I am also a part of the steering committee of the MAINstream Voices of Faith, the clergy wing of that organization that does public theology and public witness. This past week I spoke at our first press conference, condemning the current resolution being considered by the Missouri House that would essentially name Christianity as the official religion of the State of Missouri. Apparently, I even got my face on Fox 4 news on Wednesday night. I’ve posted a copy of what I said on my blog if you’re interested in reading what I said.

The other organization I work with is the Planned Parenthood Action Network. Since last Summer I’ve been a part of their advocacy efforts for better sex education standards in Kansas. The advocacy efforts I’m involved with deal with the issue of whether people, especially young people, have access to medically-accurate, age-appropriate information and education that has been scientifically shown to save lives and decrease unwanted pregnancies. For me, being involved in this is a no-brainer. The thing that originally got me passionate about this issue was learning about the curricula that are used by schools across our country, including schools in the Shawnee Mission school district. Some of these “abstinence-only” curricula contain factual misinformation, errors, and outright lies. They also include not-so-subtle moralizing and fear-mongering. Some of the curricula are produced by fronts for religious right organizations. One popular curriculum, entitled Choosing the Best, offers in its section about relationship advice that girls could keep their relationships strong by, quote, “not acting too smart.”

So, I ask you, since it is the time when we do our annual stewardship drive, how many of you are going to make a pledge to Focus on the Family this year? Well, your tax dollars are being used to fund “abstinence-only” sex education curriculum produced by the religious right.

Like I said, this was obvious for me. So, last September I went to Topeka to speak before the school board on this issue. We succeeded in getting a dead-lock vote, not easy to do if we remember the outcome of the Evolution / Intelligent Design vote. I was quoted in the local papers and got on Steve Kraske’s radio program. Then, in January, I was called upon to help introduce a piece of legislation that would mandate schools using credible health curriculum, rather than thinly-veiled, fear-rather-than-facts, Religious-Right health curricula. We got the Kansas Senate to pass it, and now we are lining it up to go forward to the House.

An organizer I work with has told me that, “We know we can count on [you] to speak eloquently and passionately in the public arena on behalf of reproductive justice.” I don’t doubt the organizer says this to every minister. But I do want share with you an invitation I received recently. I get quite a few invitations, more than I can possibly accept, but this one I got was definitely the coolest – not the most prestigious or highest profile – but the coolest. A group at KU is hosting the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute at the end of this month and I’ve been invited as a special speaker. The invitation affirmed this role I’ve taken working for these values.

I want to say something else about showing up. When I show up to speak for values and principles that I consider to be at the core of our faith, a lot of times not many of my colleagues join me. In fact, it is often only the retired Methodist and retired Presbyterian minister that are there alongside me. And they say to me, we never could have shown up publicly when we were actually serving a church. Many of my mainline minister friends who are serving churches are afraid to take a stand on ethical issues. They’ve told me they’re scared of alienating the rich guy in their congregation who makes the big contribution. I tell them, “Sounds like hush money to me.” I tell them, “That’s the great thing about being a Unitarian Universalist. My parishioners expect me to act according to my conscience.”

And then I tell them this: There are for me certain things that, if I didn’t do them, I might as well just pack my bags and go home. I might as well not even bother to come to work. For me, being an active minister in the community – an advocate for our values – a voice for the principles we hold – is one of those things. If I wasn’t doing this, I couldn’t look you in the eye and preach from my convictions. It’d be inauthentic. I’d be inauthentic. If I wasn’t doing this, I might as well go home and call the whole thing off. The privilege is the price.

What are Unitarian Universalists doing? What have they been doing, lately?

Around the country, Unitarian Universalists are organizing around Freedom to Marry. Recent victories in Washington State, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut can be owed to UUs in those states who have been at the front and center of that work, just as earlier victories in Massachusetts and Vermont can be owed, in part, to the tireless and courageous efforts of Unitarian Universalists. In Des Moines, the UU church has been at the center of Faith Based Community Organizing that is working to force health care providers to institute progressive billing, unlike the current regressive billing system where doctors and hospitals charge higher rates to people without health care than they do for those with health care.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Unitarian Universalists have been at the center of organizing a program called Taking Back Sunday, which would seek to end youth sports on Sundays. The group argues that over-scheduling is harmful for children and families and that Sunday sport scheduling is harmful to family life and to family’s faith life.

That’s just a small slice of what Unitarian Universalists, here in this congregation and across the country, have been doing lately.

When he spoke at my ordination, John Buehrens said that Unitarian Universalists shouldn’t replicate those old theological ideas that they reject, like vicarious atonement, the expectation that it is somebody else’s job to take care of the work of salvation for you.

Another theological idea that Unitarian Universalists have rightfully rejected, and shouldn’t attempt to resurrect is original sin, the idea that we are born bad and broken, hopeless. What I’m saying is that shame is not a very good motivator. It really isn’t. I don’t have any hard scientific, psychological evidence of this fact. Spiritually, I just suppose that this is true, that emphasizing the positive, focusing on it, bringing it out into the light, will in turn breed more positive than shaming ever could. That’s what I’ve tried to do here this morning, exploding a myth or two along the way. I haven’t emphasized the positive so that we may rest on our laurels and devolve into a festival of back-patting and egotistic pride. In fact, my theology doesn’t say that will happen when we consider what we are doing well. Pointing out the positive leads to more positive. Shaming stifles and stultifies and discourages. I’d rather encourage. I’d rather give courage, so that we when we are asked, we will all be able to answer that question, “What have you been up to, lately?”