Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sermon: "Memorial Day 2007" (Delivered 5-27-07)

From War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Christopher Hedges:
“War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“But war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice. We urge young men [and women] to war, making the slaughter they are asked to carry out a rite of passage. And this rite has changed little over the centuries, centuries in which there has almost continuously been a war raging somewhere on the planet. The historian Will Durant calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. We call on the warrior to exemplify the qualities necessary to prosecute war – courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. The soldier, neglected and even shunned during peacetime, is suddenly held up as the exemplar of our highest ideals, the savior of the state. The soldier is often whom we want to become, although secretly many of us, including most soldiers, know that we can never match the ideal held out before us. And we all become like Nestor in The Iliad, reciting the litany of fallen heroes that went before to spur on a new generation. That the myths are lies, that those who went before us were no more able to match the ideal than we are, is carefully hidden from public view. The tension between those who know combat, and thus know the public lie, and those who propagate the myth, usually ends with the mythmakers working to silence the witnesses of war.”

Each January I do a service that is called “Question and Answer Sunday.” It consists of giving off-the-cuff answers to questions submitted on index cards. This past January I did manage to avoid an entire category of questions – questions about war and peace. I told myself that I avoided them because they were big serious questions and I worried they would overwhelm and make insignificant all the other good questions that were asked that morning. This was a rationalization. I avoided them because they were hard questions.

To give you just a sampling: one person asked whether Unitarian Universalists should support strict pacifism. Another asked, accusingly, how any religion or faith can possibly endorse any kind of armed conflict. And still another person pondered how it is can be that the majority of wars have religious underpinnings at the same time when all religions claim to stand for peace. I figured that Memorial Day would be an appropriate time to explore these questions and many more having to do with issues of war and faith.

Any attempt to speak about war in such broad sweeping terms is made problematic by how to balance the immediate with the universal. Memorial Day memorializes our country’s wars – Civil and Revolutionary, two World Wars, and wars from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. But, it is impossible to avoid that we are currently engaged in a war that, while fought bravely and honorably by thousands of servicemen and women, is also a war that many tend to equate with scandals having to do with yellow cake uranium and weapons of mass destruction, with Abu Ghraib and Walter Reed, with Halliburton and Bechtel and Blackwater, and with political battles over funding and exit strategies.

I simply cannot endeavor to speak about war and not, in the immediate context, name my sadness:

+ For the three-thousand, four hundred and fifty two US servicemen and –women who have died in Iraq in the past four years and two months (as of 5/27/07)…
+ For the three hundred and sixty eight who have died in Afghanistan
+ For their families, their mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters.
+ For all the injured, wounded, the physically and psychologically damaged and all the hardships this will cause for their lives, their families and their communities for years and years to come.
+ For the devastation experienced by the long-suffering peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. All warfare, especially modern warfare, exacts a civilian toll significantly larger than the toll on enlisted persons. Our losses are small by comparison.

I also cannot fail to express my concern for what might be the most under-reported part of the Iraq War – that only roughly half of the US citizens currently in Iraq are members of the US military. The other half consists of contractors, including large battalions of private security forces. We cannot know for sure how many of them have perished; estimates say one-thousand or more. The presence of these large numbers of private contractors raises immense ethical questions. What oversight are they given and to whom do they answer? What happens when they return to the United States?

This morning I want to begin locally and then enlarge our scope in thinking about War’s meaning:

This past Thursday we hosted two high school students from Lawrence who presented their documentary film on military recruitment on high school campuses. Their film documented the sometimes aggressive recruitment tactics used in high schools as well as provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act that compromise student privacy. Their investigative film raised provocative questions, not the least of which is the practical feasibility and the ethics of maintaining an all-volunteer military. The fact that recruiters are more present on one campus in Lawrence than they are at another, or presumably that they are more active on campuses in the less affluent KCK school districts than in the more affluent Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts belies the obvious fact that class and race privilege is alive and well in America.

Just as many of today’s politicians who embrace war were the ones who relied on their daddy’s money and influence to receive draft deferments so too do privileged youth today have a breadth of choices that does not compel military service. To be fair, it is a harmful stereotype that young people join the military because they do not have other options, but a study of military enlistment shows the one-third sign up to receive money for education, one-third for job training, and one-third for other reasons. [What Every Person Should Know About War, Chapter 1]

Even at the same time as I have written letters of support for conscientious-objector status for several young men in our church, part of me says that if we went back to days of the draft – and actually made it so you could not buy your way out of it or network your way out of it or Prince Harry your way out of it – then as a society we would be far less militant. Politicians might think twice before sending their children (or their lobbyist’s children) off to war.

In our wider denomination, Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Reverend Bill Sinkford, has been outspoken against the war even as his son serves in the military. And, in some local churches there have been various forms of participation in the peace movement just as there has been certain tension between those who oppose the war and those who believe that continued US military action in Iraq is warranted. Or rather, the tension is between those who desire that the church speak out loudly against the war, and those who don’t want anybody to feel unwelcomed. This tension is often perceived negatively – conflict avoidance is a normal quality in human beings after all – but we need not see it this way. Just as, at the end of day, a congregation ought to prefer a minister who speaks their mind over one willing to suppress their thoughts and be inauthentic in order to keep people happy, so to is a congregation where open dialogue exists preferable to one where people conceal themselves in order to make nobody the slightest bit uncomfortable. To put it simply, religion’s not supposed to make us comfortable all the time. Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword.

To give you just a bit of perspective, Unitarian Universalism has had an interesting history in terms of its engagement with war. In the late eighteenth century, just as Unitarians were emerging from the liberal strain within Puritanism and articulating ideas about individual liberty, our country was beginning to fight for independence from the British. It was the Grandfather of the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who captained the militia of minutemen who fired the shot heard round the world at Lexington.

By the middle of the nineteenth century many Unitarians had protested against the war with Mexico, which they considered a war of imperialism and a war, they worried, would expand slavery, which many Unitarians opposed. Transcendentalist Adin Ballou published his call for “Christian Non-resistance.” And Henry David Thoreau not only went to the woods to live deliberately; he also went to jail for not paying his taxes as a protest against his government’s militarism.

In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, the pacifist John Haynes Holmes entered into a heated debate with William Howard Taft, then moderator of the American Unitarian Association, on the floor of its general meeting. Their debate was over US involvement in World War I. Later, the editor of the magazine of the American Unitarian Association (then called the Christian Register and now called the UU World) opined that to oppose the War was treason. The President of the American Unitarian Association, Samuel Atkins Eliot called on disloyal ministers to be dismissed, writing that “ministers addicted to pacifist principles cannot be permitted to plead a noble tradition of freedom of speech to justify or to mask sedition.” The board of the American Unitarian Association ruled in 1918 to deny financial aid to any church whose minister, “is not a willing, earnest, and outspoken supporter of the United States in a vigorous and resolute prosecution of the war.” My have times changed! [Source: this article.]

If I have my denominational history straight, it is correct to say that Unitarians and Universalists were supportive of World War II. They were encouraged, in no small part, by Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams who had traveled to Germany in the 1930’s to meet Paul Tillich and had seen first-hand the dangers of the rising tide of fascism and racist nationalism.

My colleague in Washington D.C., Rob Hardies writes that the “Unitarian tradition is not a pacifist tradition… [it has always] been squarely in what is called the ‘just war’ tradition – a tradition that recognizes that war is evil, but that sometimes history requires war if the reason be just and the choice for war be a last resort.” [as quoted in The Quest, the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.] I would differ with him on this characterization. It is probably more accurate to say that we are a tradition that has encompassed a variety of different perspectives on war, a variety inclusive of strong pacifists, just war theorists, and perhaps a few who would see just war theory as too restrictive. It is probably more accurate to say that we are a tradition that, at its best, has not required all of us to think the same in order to be together. And, it is accurate to say that we are a tradition that does not stay silent about our beliefs, that has been willing to voice them, even when it strains the bonds of community. And hooray for that.

If we are going to state our opinions and voice our feelings, then let us engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Which leads me to two books I commend to you on the subject of war. They are both by Christopher Hedges, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard and worked as a war correspondent for many years. In his work, Hedges has “survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in the Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. Hedges saw children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans.” His books include, What Every Person Should Know About War, a short, unadorned 120 book that examines various aspects of military life in a simple, direct question-and-answer format. If you know a person in their teens or early twenties, give them a copy of this book.

The other book by Hedges carries the interesting title, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. It is more philosophical and more startling, combining Hedges’ firsthand experience in warfare with insights from literature.

The book tries to make sense of the paradox that while war is a horrible thing, the world has managed to exist in a virtually non-stop state of war for virtually the entirety of history. Hedges’ thesis is that war is a powerful force, a force that perpetuates itself through the creating of myths, the development of nationalism, the destruction of culture, the hijacking of memory, and the confusion of love and death. Chaucer once said, “There is many a man that crieth ‘war! war!’ who knoweth full little what war amounteth.” To explain it a little less complicatedly, the reality of war is silenced by the myth of war. We would not tolerate the reality of war if only we knew it; but we are often moved to passionately celebrate the myth of war.

As Archibald MacLeish writes, “The Young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them? They say: our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them. They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”

War is not the only force that gives us meaning. So are we called to make meaning out of life, and live bravely just as Unitarian Universalists have made meaning of war down through the ages. Just as Lawrence High School students work to make meaning of the world they live in. We too remember. We too create meaning.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sermon: "Forty & Forward" (Delivered 5-20-2007)

[I delivered these remarks on the service celebrating the church's 40th Anniversary.]

Having heard B.N. reflect on our first forty years and B.H. call the roll of our founding members, I want to take the opportunity to lift up our most recent history and speak about this past year. I offer a snapshot of our church on its 40th birthday.

Celebrating our Fortieth Anniversary has been a theme throughout this church year, culminating in our celebration today which was organized by V.T. and L.G. Events throughout the year included a 40th Anniversary themed auction and special bookmarks created by our book group. In March we hosted a dinner for all of the past-presidents of this congregation and many traveled from out of town to be with us. That weekend we dedicated a plaque in their honor, which you can see proudly displayed in the newly redecorated foyer, a project led by J.S. J.G. and B.H. authored monthly articles about SMUUCh’s history which ran in our DrumBeat newsletter. Our 40th Anniversary committee led B&S.H. have helped us celebrate this milestone throughout the year.

Additionally, much unheralded has been S.H.’s heroic effort to tame and organize our church archives and you can see some pictures from our history on the bulletin board in the foyer.

This year is marked not only by looking at our past but by newness as well. Seventy-one new adult members signed our membership book this year. They are joined by eleven members of the Coming of Age class who joined as youth members after a year long program of service and faith development. Our current membership now stands at a touch over 300 members. Next November I will participate with eleven other Unitarian Universalist ministers in a summit on growth. We were selected on account of serving some of the fastest growing churches in the movement and the twelve of us will be brought together to share best practices for growing churches.

There were other forms of newness in abundance as well. We had a baby boom, and even though we finished well short of our goal of forty new babies, we did celebrate a dozen births! At the other end of life’s spectrum, this year we marked the death of Marian Davis. Many of you were there for her memorial service in October. We also lost Delta Gier, husband of Audre Gier.

In this past year we grew not only numerically, but in programming. Dave debuted the one-hour choir and we formed a new brass quintet, a math & science group, a new book club, and a parent’s group, just to name just a few.

And we have also grown in our willingness to be bold and clear and visible about our values. In October we voted overwhelmingly to be recognized as a Welcoming Congregation, declaring our commitment to welcome Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender persons to full participation in all aspects of the life of this faith community. I could not be more proud. In April, we hosted a Stem Cell Forum for the community. This Thursday, we will host a documentary film on the No Child Left Behind act made by high school students. Increasingly, we are becoming what John Buehrens calls “a religious center with a civic circumference” – a place identified for its engagement with key issues of the day.

This past year we continued to make progress towards the fulfillment of our facilities vision. In January, the Facilities Task Force presented its recommendations in a series of small and large group meetings. The Task Force continues their efforts to identify a facility that supports our vision. I understand that this process may be happening both more slowly and more quietly than some of you wish. I really encourage you to be in dialogue with your board of trustees and the task force about your interest in these matters. Or better yet, step forward to serve!

This past year at SMUUCh we did enjoy financial health. Our audit demonstrated fiscal integrity which is more than can be said for one church of note in our city. Additionally, a campaign by our Endowment to celebrate our Fortieth Anniversary raised eighty thousand dollars from twenty four donors. Our Annual Canvass, while it did fall short of the aggressive goal we set, did set a new record. So, even though there are budget items we were not successful in funding, we can celebrate that all of our program staff will be paid at the fair and just compensation levels set by the UUA. This is a justice issue and we can finally be proud to achieve justice for all our program staff.

It wasn’t always an easy year to be honest. For one thing, our two-service schedule is less than optimal and there seems to be no schedule that will fit the programming everybody wants into the times that people want. I admit to being befuddled here. But musicians need a space to warm up. Children need classes. There needs to be enough seats for all who attend. There needs to be a time for fellowship and coffee. We find that adult RE is best attended on Sunday morning and that this tends to be one of the ways that newer people make connections. We’ll have to do the best we can and realize that not everybody will like it.

Another stress is that we would like to see greater levels of participation, commitment, and volunteerism from more of our members. Our new President Jim Crist has identified this as one the priorities of his presidency. I am fond of saying that you don’t have to be already perfect to join a church. Church is a place where imperfect people come to make themselves and each other and the world a little better. Church is the home of the human, and we can expect that humanity will abound, for better and for worse. So, rather than expect perfection, we can work to do a little better each day.

The other thing I can say about SMUUCh in 2007 is this, and it is the truth: I’m proud of what we are increasingly doing in the community. Our coming of age youth each logged at least 24 hours of community service. Our children had three Service is Our Prayer Sundays taking on social action projects. This morning they are doing their fourth, making snack-packs for homeless families served by the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network. This is an organization that helps homeless families in our community with a variety of services. When we help host, we commit to sending teams to two to stay overnight at the churches where the guest stay. The pair does a split shift with each person sleeping half the night. I hope you will join in this outreach. [We donated the plate on this Sunday to JCIHN.]

In recent all-church emails I asked the entire congregation to share their hopes for SMUUCh’s next forty years. I was impressed, touched, and bemused by the different responses I received. Here are just a few:

Of all the responses I received, a few themes seemed to crop up again and again. One of these themes was community. P.G. wrote that her hope for SMUUCh was that we “maintain our sense of community.” M.R. wrote of her hope that the caring concern for one other continues and thrives over the next forty years. B.G. wrote of remaining “a caring welcoming community where people searching for truth can gather and share their search and sense of spirituality.”

Besides community, another common theme was being a lot more visible in the community. D.T. spoke of us acting as a beacon of reason and compassion that reaches the larger part of the Kansas City area population. (I might add that when we did our advertising campaign in 2003, something like one-half of one percent of people in Kansas City had heard of Unitarian Universalism. So, to realize this hope, we would have to do something so bold that over fifty percent of the population knows what Unitarian Universalism is.) B.P. wrote that he hoped we would become “the largest, loudest, and most dynamic liberal voice for religious and social values in the Midwest.” J.C. wrote that he hoped Bill Moyers would be do a documentary about “The Kansas Church that changed the world.” The word beacon was mentioned at least a dozen times.

Two themes were “community” and “beacon.” Social Action was a third theme. B. D. wrote that he hoped social justice would become our mission. M.J. wrote of us becoming a beacon (there is that word again) for liberal religion and social justice. While most people expressed this hope in general terms, one person said that we should hire a social justice and community organizer. This staff person would coordinate our congregation’s social justice ministries, lobby in Topeka for UU values and spur us to live out our values.

We did receive some very specific hopes. G.K. wants us to start a mother’s day out program and offer RE classes at both services. (And, she wants this not for her own children. Her own children are now to old for such a program.) P.L., to name just one or two of her suggestions, says that her hopes start now and they begin with us turning off the TV and the computer and showing up for programming on Saturdays and weeknights, not just Sunday mornings.

P.P/ offered the most creative idea. She dreamed of a new, large church building that resembles the Sydney Opera House. She also says that we will move from our current land, but convert our current property into a pioneer dairy-farm themed Bed & Breakfast and restaurant. And, since our parking area to the West of Saeger House is still zoned as farm-land, we could have actual cows!

However, P., your email was NOT the one that made me exclaim “Wow!” the loudest. That would go to one of our high school students, M.H., who emailed me the lyrics to a country song by Tim McGraw called, “My next thirty years.” “I think I’ll take a moment to celebrate my age / the ending of an era and the turning of a page / Now is the time to focus on where I go from here / Lord have mercy on my next thirty years. / My next thirty years I’m going to have some fun / even as I try to forget the crazy things I’ve done / Now that I’ve conquered all my youthful fears / I’ll do it even better in my next thirty years.”

I have to say, there were several of you, more than just a handful of you in fact, who wrote that you hoped that forty years from now SMUUCh will be having a retirement party for me. I’m not sure how to respond to that. I did think about it and can tell you that that would be 1,500 sermons from now; 2,700 committee-meetings from now; hundreds and hundreds of weddings, memorial services, and child dedications from now; and about a half-million emails from now.

L.C., always the bold visionary wrote her vision as a meditation on our affirmation that love is the doctrine of this church, the search for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. About the latter part she wrote, quote, “Starting now, in forty years I hope that each and every SMUUCHer has internalized this as a personal goal: To know the joy, even the ecstasy, of service. Service each to another, Service to our neighbors, Service to our local community, our nation and our world. Service to our denomination…. Understanding that we are ‘all in this together,’ we cannot help others without helping ourselves.”

Similarly, V.T. wrote, in part, “I hope that our members and friends will become more involved in the life of the church, not only attending Sunday services but involved in the social activities, the social action activities, the day to day work and financial support of the church, because I believe that through this level of involvement we make deeper connections to each other.”

Finally, I wanted to quote from one of our newer members, C.C. who was one of the 71 adults who joined the church in the past year. She writes, “My hope for SMUUCh for the next forty years is that it continues to touch lives as it has mine. To make people feel they have a religious home.”

For so long as there are the religiously homeless, for so long as there are lives to touch, for so long as there are those who are dissatisfied with religious orthodoxy, dissatisfied with a lack of respect for diversity, dissatisfied with the choices our culture and our politics and our thought offer, we will have not only a reason to exist, but we will have a big job to do, a calling, a challenge. We are called to face this challenge and live this calling starting now and for forty years forward and forty more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Breakfast with Jerry Falwell

As one committed to diversity, equality, pluralism, religious freedom, secular democracy and a whole host of related values, I abhorred Jerry Falwell’s politics and his demonization of gays and lesbians, non-Christians and the non-religious, feminists, and liberals. (I think it is expected of us as religious people that we respond to news of the demise of those whom we oppose in a manner that is dignified rather than boorish. This can be a challenge. But, I have a hard time imagining Jesus pumping his fist and high-fiving his disciples if Pontius Pilate had died. Similarly, Gandhi would not have done a victory dance or cracked tasteless jokes if the Prime Minister of Great Britain had died.)

When I learned today of the death of Jerry Falwell, my reaction was particular rather than general. In one of the oddest moments in my young ministry, I had breakfast with Jerry Falwell. Actually, it is probably more truthful to say that I had breakfast in the same room as Jerry Falwell.

A few weeks before the 2004 election, I was contacted by a reporter with Air America radio. He was coming to Kansas City from New York to do a story on conservative Christians engaged in politics. Jerry Falwell was going to be in town to hold a Pastor’s Breakfast and the reporter (no doubt feeling a bit intimidated) wanted a friendly person who could help him blend in.

The morning of the breakfast I put on my navy blue suit and red tie (got to look the part) and set off to meet up with the reporter in the lobby of the large mega-church on Antioch overlooking I-35. Pulling into the parking lot I had my first double-take. The Fred Phelps clan was there protesting Jerry Falwell! (Seriously, who knew that Falwell was an agent of the homosexual agenda?)

The Air America reporter stuck out like a sore-thumb. He was wearing wing-tip shoes, a trim black pin-stripe suit, a lime-green buttoned shirt with a flared collar, and horn-rimmed hipster glasses. I approached him and whispered that I was his ally. I felt a bit like the Rev. James Bond.

There was a plentiful breakfast buffet set up in the cavernous, sterile foyer. There was even a champagne fountain (which trickled orange juice, not champagne.)

The program began with an introduction by Jerry Johnston. Falwell followed with his speech. The program was designed to embolden the hundreds of conservative Christian pastors in attendance to lead their congregations in greater participation in political issues. Falwell told the story of his conversion to political Christianity and traced his rise to power and influence. The messaging was very aggressive and militaristic. They had a power that could vanquish anyone who stands in their way. The program ended with Kris Kobach (who was contesting Dennis Moore for his US House of Representatives seat) giving an inarticulate and confusing speech on the legal case against gay marriage.

The whole event was telling for what it did not include. I have no memory of the Bible being quoted. Jesus’ name was hardly spoken. It was an exercise in Christian tribalism.

On the way out, the Air America reporter tried to bait several of the guests into arguments. He gravitated towards a Messianic Jew wearing a yarmulke and asked him pointed questions. The conversation became heated and I almost had to separate the two.

Following this odd morning as a secret agent, I sent the reporter an email that read in part, “What struck me most about this pastor’s breakfast was that not one thought was given to the needs and concerns of the tens of thousands of people who belong to congregations pastored by those ministers. As we listened to Falwell go on and on about abortion, same-sex marriage, and violent fantasies of blasting terrorists, I wondered about the actual needs of the people in these congregations that are not being spoken to. We didn't hear one word about poverty and employment, one word about care for the elderly or health care, one word about education or the environment. We only heard about how they could be mobilized to further a political agenda.”