Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gossip Column: Rev. Thom's Endorsement

In my column in the March DrumBeat newsletter I wrote very briefly about my own thoughts on “Politics in Church.” In that column I had to keep my remarks to a single page, but I promised I would expand and clarify my ideas in greater detail in an essay on this blog.

By the way, like my sermon on 2/17, the title of this blog entry is an empty teaser. You are not going to find any endorsement here, not even subtly.

Defining Politics
I always think it is important when discussing politics to give something of an introduction to the word itself. The word “politics” derives from the Greek word “polis” meaning “city.” Ancient Greece was a consortium of city-states. Cities (not nations or empires) were the most highly organized groupings of people. Politics, then, are matters that concern the city (or state or nation.) A politician is one who governs the city. To be political is to be involved in the affairs of the city (county, state, nation, etc.)

First Point: On Monday 2/25 I reported for jury duty in Independence, Missouri. The judge who addressed the prospective juror pool spoke to us about a number of things, including the fact that Missouri is second only to Mississippi as the worst state in the nation at compensating jurors ($6/day and $0.07/mile.) He also spoke about how judges were selected in Missouri. He spoke about how Missouri reformed the process after the big political machines of St. Louis and Kansas City had stacked the bench for years. But he also said that it is impossible to completely remove politics from the system. He said that all groups have politics: families, churches, schools, etc.

Second Point: During orientation at Harvard Divinity School one of our speakers was a local minister in Boston who served an African-American church in a tough part of the city. He described the changing point in his ministry. His church had been very insular until one evening it hosted a social dance for youth in the community. A youth gang-member shot another youth at the church dance. The minister took this lesson away: “If the church didn’t take itself to the city, the city would take itself to the church.” The church got political, in this wider sense of the term that I just defined. The church worked with the mayor’s office and the chief of police to form a task force on youth violence. Together they developed a program that involved community outreach, intervention, relationship building, and meaningful activities for youth including summer programs and internships. They managed to reduce the rate of youth violence to an astronomically low level. This all was very political in the literal sense of the word.

Political Involvement: The IRS Rules
So, clearly, a church can be extremely political. There are however, certain restrictions on certain kinds of political activities within a church. Under IRS guidelines, our church is a 501(c)3 non-profit religious organization. IRS regulations place certain restrictions on us. You can read the rules that apply to churches, but the basics of the regulations are as follows:

First, churches are strictly prohibited from candidate endorsement. No church leader may endorse any candidate for office at any church function or in any church publication or communication. Churches are also barred from supporting any candidate monetarily (no campaign donations) or materially (donating office space to a candidate, for example.)

Second, there are restrictions on how much time and money a church can devote to issue advocacy. The IRS does not explicitly set a limit, but it is generally accepted that a church can spend no more than 5% of its operating budget on issue advocacy. SMUUCh has an annual budget of $400,000. If we wanted to, we could spend up to $20,000 lobbying on a political issue. Suppose we cared deeply about keeping laws limiting stem cell research from being passed in Kansas. We could hire a part-time lobbyist or donate a considerable sum to a group working on this issue. This is all purely hypothetical. We have absolutely no plans to hire a lobbyist. But we would be allowed to do so. In fact, a consortium of UU churches in California has founded a Legislative Ministry and fund a full-time lobbyist.

It is drastically important to follow these rules. The result of our church losing its tax-exempt status would be devastating. I estimate the cost to the church would be approximately one half-million dollars if we lost our tax exempt status.

To stay in the good graces of the IRS, there are some very simple things we don’t do. I don’t tell you who to vote for on Sunday morning. I don’t endorse candidates in the all-church email or in the newsletter. I don’t even put political stickers on my car – my car is seen as the minister’s car. (My car is the one that sorely needs to get washed.) I don’t endorse on my blog, because I blog as Rev. Thom and for the Shawnee Mission UU Church. If I had a blog that was completely personal, I suppose I could endorse a candidate.

Beyond me, there is the necessity that every church leader while acting in a leadership role (teaching an RE course, speaking at the Speaker’s Corner, presiding over a church event) similarly refrain from candidate endorsement.

Political Involvement: What is Allowed?
Basically, everything (with the exception of candidate endorsement and spending large sums of money on issue advocacy) is allowed. The words, actions, and non-actions of politicians are open for either condemnation or commendation, as long as that politician is not actively campaigning during an election cycle.

Similarly, I am allowed to speak on Sunday morning or in any public forum on any issue: evolution, stem cell research, war, poverty, health care, civil rights, etc. However, I cannot tell you to vote for politicians who support these positions.

Tell Us How You Really Feel
I suppose I should tell you what I think of these IRS regulations. First, I am willing to bet that many churches in our community trespass against these regulations, if not overtly break them. They host a favored candidate at a church event. They produce slimy, biased voter-guides. They use church resources to assist a campaign. A minister out-and-out tells the parishioners for whom to vote. Two wrongs do not make a right. Because they do does not mean that we should too.

But should we be allowed to? Ah, that it is a different question. Frankly, I wish the IRS would get rid of their rules. I am generally opposed to an agency of the government keeping track of what is said from the pulpit. I am also concerned about fairness in regulation. When liberals are in office are conservative churches monitored more closely? When conservatives are in office are liberal churches more closely watched?

That said, would I endorse candidates if I could? I could think of circumstances when I would. One need only think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Dissenting Church movement in Nazi Germany to find an example of political speech that deserved to be spoken. However, I am also wary. In my opinion, the relationship between the Republican Party and the conservative Evangelical churches has been a relationship of exploitation. Those churches are getting used. Forrest Church said that when religion decides to get into bed with electoral politics, it is always religion that asks, “Will you respect me in the morning?” And the answer is always, “No.”

Beyond the Rules
This discourse on the rules has been only an introduction to what I really want to talk about. The rules and regulations are important, but most of what I want to say is not about legalisms. I want to talk about the type of community I want us to be during an election cycle.

During the 2004 election cycle, I wrote a newsletter column the September before the election that November. Even though it is not yet March, I feel like I could have written this essay several months ago. Just as states have moved their primart and caucus dates earlier and earlier and just as politicians fund-raise full-time, it seems this message deserves to be given earlier and earlier each year.

Looking across the religious landscape of our country, we see churches torn by internal political divisions. Debates around gay marriage and ordination, along with the spiritual leadership of women has wreaked havoc on the Mainline denominations in the United States. Unitarian Universalist churches have been remarkable for our capacity to embrace equal marriage and other issues without leaving a trail of carnage and brokenness as a result. I do not know of a single UU church that has imploded over the issue, whereas hundreds have in the other denominations. This is nothing new. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement caused problems in many churches in many denominations. Or go back to the civil war. That’s the reason we have American Baptists and Southern Baptists.

My aspiration for our church community at SMUUCh is that we are an inclusive place for people with different political views. This does not mean avoiding issues in our discussions with one another. Remember the words from the prog rock band Rush, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” This does not mean that you are discouraged from wearing political buttons on your clothing or putting bumper stickers on your car. It does mean remembering that we come to church to be a community, not a rag-tag militia of supporters for a particular candidate or another. There is greater political diversity at SMUUCh than is readily evident and that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In an ideal world, we would all come to church focused on those things that are a part of our church’s mission. I ask you to imagine a widget-dealer who comes to church with the idea of getting other people interested in the purchase of widgets. That person would be using the church for their own ends rather than arriving mindful of what they might bring to our community and what the purposes of our church are.

In UU community and theology there is a constant tension between what we might call “independence” and what we might call “taking principled stands.” We are at once a community of free-thinking souls and a part of a religious movement that has always taken stands on issues that are relevant to the principles we advocate. There will always be this tension. But, I do think it important for every member of our church to understand the positions our Association has taken on important issues of the day and that Unitarian Universalists have a long, long history of taking strong stands.

I would conclude this essay exactly how I concluded my newsletter column in September 2004:
“It is not in keeping with who we are as a church to engage in behaviors that are exclusive and make anyone feel unwelcome because of their political affiliation. As a covenanted community, we strive to treat everyone with respect. Nobody has the right to make anyone else feel attacked or unwelcome. But, our church is a place where you do not check who you are at the door. It is not a place where differences are feared, but a place of meaningful dialogue and searching that deepens us along our spiritual search. It is a place where dialogue happens and real dialogue requires both respectful speaking and respectful listening.”
So may it be!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sermon: "McRomBama HuckaLinton 4 President!" (Delivered 2-17-08)

The reading this morning comes from the book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell.
“On a Sunday in November, I walked up to the New York Public Library to see the Emancipation Proclamation. On loan from the National Archives, the document was in town for three days. They put it in a glass case in a small, dark room. Being alone with old pieces of paper and one guard in an alcove at the library was nice and quiet. I stared at Lincoln’s signature for a long time. I stood there thinking what one is supposed to think: This is the paper he held in his hands and there is the ink that came from his pen, and when the ink dried the slaves were freed. Except look at the date, January 1, 1863. The words wouldn’t come true for a couple of years, which, I’m guessing, is a long time when a person owns your body. I love how Lincoln dated the document, noting that it was signed ‘in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh’….

“The Emancipation Proclamation is a perfect American artifact to me – a good deed that made a lot of other Americans mad enough to kill. I think that’s why the Civil War is my favorite American metaphor. I’m so much more comfortable when we’re bickering with each other than when we have to link arms… [like right after September 11th when] Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York, kissed his former opponent Senator Hillary Clinton on the cheek as the New York congressional delegation toured the World Trade Center disaster area…

“My ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along. I [suppose I] got it from my parents, [who] disagree with me about almost everything. I do not share their religion or their political affiliation. I get on their nerves sometimes. But, and this is the most important thing they taught me, so what?”
I’d like to begin this sermon with a disclaimer. Just so you all know – and so the Internal Revenue Service knows, because I know the IRS is listening – I’m not going to endorse any candidate for President this morning. The title is just a teaser.

I do enjoy politics though and I could easily go on for far longer than my allotted time making all kinds of political observations, like this one: I recently found myself thinking that it is somewhat peculiar that at a time when “change” is the biggest campaign buzzword that the next President of the United States will almost certainly come from the ranks of the Senate. (We can safely assume that Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will not receive his miracle.) This leaves three Senators –Clinton, McCain, and Obama – to vie for the Presidency. It odd that a race where "change" is the biggest buzzword has come down to three senators because the Senate is the legislative body least synonymous with change. The word “Senator” in Latin derives from a word meaning “old man.” Further, the Senate is the legislative body that is supposed to be the least responsive to the swings ands sways of public opinion. The Senate is not a populist body. Wyoming has the same number of Senators as California. The six-year term of a Senator is supposed to insulate them from popularity, permitting them to use wisdom even when that wisdom isn’t popular.

Not to mention, running for President as a Senator has been the kiss of death in recent years. Going back through recent history we see this: Governor George W. Bush defeated Senator Kerry four years after he defeated Senator Gore (well, sort of). Four years earlier, Governor Clinton defeated Senator Dole in ‘96. George H. W. Bush, a non-Senator, defeated Governor Dukakis in ’88. Perhaps Bush avoided the Senator curse when he lost his Texas Senatorial bid in 1970 to none other than Lloyd Bentsen, Dukakis’ running-mate. Going back further, we find that Governor Reagan defeated Senator Mondale convincingly in 1984.

That makes Richard Nixon the last Senator to be elected President of the United States, 36 years ago. However, it is worth noting that both Nixon’s Presidential victories came against other Senators: Hubert Humphrey in ’68 and George McGovern in ‘72. Likewise, Senator Lyndon Johnson defeated Senator Barry Goldwater in ‘64 just as Senator Kennedy defeated Senator Nixon in ’60. To find the last Senator to defeat a non-Senator, we need to go back to Truman’s defeat of Governor Dewey in 1948, 60 years ago!

That digression aside, the seeds to this sermon originated in an awareness of my own reaction to events half-way around the world two months ago. When Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and leading opposition candidate, was assassinated weeks before the general election in that country, I caught myself thinking, “What a joke of a democracy they have in Pakistan!” And then I remembered our nation’s history. We have had four Presidents assassinated: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. That’s about one out of ten. In addition, assassins have attempted to kill eleven other Presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and, most recently, George W. Bush. The Bush assassination attempt came when a would-be assassin lobbed a grenade in his direction as he spoke in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the Peach State.) In addition, attempts were made to kill Jimmy Carter, the first President Bush, as well as Clinton (twice) but all those attempts were so bumbling as not to pose a legitimate threat to the lives of those Presidents.

Of all these assassination attempts, Teddy Roosevelt’s takes the cake. As he was preparing to give a speech Roosevelt was shot in the chest. His speech, folded inside his breast pocket, slowed the bullet. After being shot, Roosevelt calmed the crowd by announcing, “Quiet, I’ve been shot.” He then ordered the would-be assassin taken into custody, then proceeded to deliver his entire speech with the bullet lodged inside his chest before he sought medical attention.

So, now that I have the attention of the Internal Revenue Service and the Secret Service… and hopefully your attention as well, I want to offer these reflections.

Winston Churchill once quipped that, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other kinds of government that have been attempted.” Democracy essentially means rule by the people. And Democracies resist all manner of tyrannies: A monarchy is a genetic tyranny. An oligarchy is a tyranny of the elite. A theocracy equates to religious tyranny.

Democracies, however, are always in danger of acting out the same kind of tyrannies they are established to prevent. In a democracy it is more often the majority that takes on the role of the tyrant. We belong to a liberal constitutional democracy that is conceived to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. In our liberal constitutional democracy we’ve created all sorts of checks to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. If, in our country, the majority decided that communism was evil, the majority could not ban the selling of Mao’s Little Red book. That’s why we have the first amendment. Similarly, if the majority decided that Ann Coulter was evil, they could not ban her books. If a majority was opposed to Unitarian Universalism, they could not outlaw us. This is all first amendment stuff. It is what makes us a liberal constitutional democracy… and it should be noted that not all democracies function this way. In other democratic governments, a majority can mandate a state religion or a religious test for office. Other democratic governments do enforce blacklists of banned movies, books, and other media. Some ban religions or political ideologies. In these countries, the will of the people can have its way, but the majority is a tyrant to minority positions.

A democracy is also a fragile thing. As all the talk of assassinations earlier pointed out, the tyranny of a super-minority of one person can thwart the will of a majority of millions. It only takes one person to undermine a democracy.

So, when will the civics lesson end and the sermon begin? According to our Unitarian Universalist fifth principle, we are supposed to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.”

What I would like to do in my time that I have remaining is to offer you a kind of meditation on our UU fifth principle. At first glance the fifth principle seems unremarkable. We support the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large. Who could possibly be opposed to that? Yawn.

It should be noted that this belief in democracy goes way back in our tradition and that the ideal of political democracy and the idea religious democracy were once linked in our history. The political desire of the founding fathers for self-government was one and the same with our religious ancestors’ longing for religious liberty. Recall: the British King was sovereign politically and religiously, the head of the State and the head of the Church of England. In declaring independence, we achieved political and religious freedom simultaneously. Two birds with one stone. Furthermore, the author of the Declaration of Independence was theologically a Unitarian and its others signers included Unitarians and Universalists.

Today, at the same time that we strive vigilantly to protect the democratic process in our society, Unitarian Universalists hold up the rights of conscience of those in our congregation. We say that you are not required to subscribe to a creed or a specific understanding of God or an understanding of God at all. But we also affirm the rights of conscience in other matters. You need not support one candidate for office. Remember this. And, on the societal level, just as we would believe in a vision of religious pluralism for our nation – Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew – we would also hold out a vision of political pluralism as a good thing for our nation.

But, let us remember Sarah Vowell’s words. “This freedom is a good thing that makes a lot of people mad enough to kill. My ideal society will be an argument, not a sing-along.” Where freedom does not exist, dissent is often the first thing that is abolished. Without freedom, there can’t be bickering. Discussing and even arguing theology and politics is a consequence of freedom.

Even though political freedom and religious freedom used to be intimately yoked, we tend to think about them differently nowadays. The reason we think about them differently is because our religious affiliation and our national affiliation represent two different kinds of associations.

To borrow language from the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, churches are voluntary associations. Our affiliation with them is voluntary. There are all sorts of voluntary associations to which we might belong: churches, the boy scouts or girl scouts, the ACLU or the NRA, the chess club, the community theater, the Republican, Democratic, Green, or Libertarian Party. These are all voluntary associations. We join them with our free consent. And free consent is the only thing binding us to them.

Nations are not voluntary associations. You can go down to the county election office and change your political party. It only takes a minute or two. Try showing up and saying, “I’d like to change my citizenship from US citizen to a citizen of Zimbabwe.” Our nationality, for all practical intents and purposes, is an involuntary association, much like the families to which we belong.

Sometimes liberals like to push the boundaries of voluntary and involuntary associations. Here is an example. At dinner parties that liberals attend, you can frequently hear a sentence uttered that goes, “If Sam Brownback (or insert your conservative politician du jour) were to become President, I would move to Canada.” I often wonder if conservatives do the same thing when they gather at dinner parties? Do conservatives sit around and say, “If Ted Kennedy became President, I’d move to…”? Where exactly would they move? Certainly not Zimbabwe. I’m leading us off topic here. But I do want to make the simple observation that while we remain quite good at using the democratic process in the involuntary associations to which we belong, we have become less adept at exercising the democratic process in voluntary associations. We tend to leave rather than vote, rather than argue.

The fifth principle of our faith calls upon us to use the democratic process in our congregations. I want us to take this principle seriously, not just pay it lip service. Right now the nominating committee is hard at work readying their nominations for next year’s Board of Trustees. How many of us have spoken with a member of the nominating committee about the leadership you would like to see on next year’s Board? Tomorrow night, the Board will look at the first draft of next year’s proposed budget. How many of us will talk with our leaders on the board and finance committee about our hopes for such a budget? Is that phrase, “the use of the democratic process in our congregations” an empty sentence?

Sticking with the democratic process in an involuntary association is one thing. What other choice do we have? But to stick with the democratic process in a voluntary association is much, much more difficult. It is hard to stick with an organization that you are free to leave at any time when you are not getting your way. That is the challenge of our 5th Principle.

Tomorrow is President’s Day. All this month we have been observing a month of gratitude at this church. Today’s and tomorrow’s gratitude exercises are related. Today’s is to thank a volunteer leader in the congregation. Exercise your democratic muscle by actually having a conversation with an elected church leader about an issue you care deeply about. Tomorrow is President’s Day. My challenge for you tomorrow is to send a letter or an email to a politician who you admire thanking them for their competence, their courage, or their sticking up for values that you hold dear.

I began this morning’s sermon by reading some words by NPR commentator Sarah Vowell. I want to close with a few more words by her. Earlier she wrote about how democracy is most real to her when it is an argument rather than a sing-along. In the same chapter where I found that quote, I found the following description of her image of democracy in reality. Vowell writes,

“The other day, in the [New York] subway at 5:30, I was crammed into my sweaty, crabby fellow citizens, and I kept whispering under my breath ‘we the people, we the people’ over and over again, reminding myself we’re all in this together and they had as much right – exactly as much right – as I to be in the muggy underground on their way to wherever they were on their way to.”

On the subway, Vowell notices the instructions on what to do if someone on the train experiences a medical emergency. The instructions tell fellow travelers not to pull the emergency brake as that will only delay help from reaching the person experiencing a medical emergency. The instructions say to wait until the train reaches its next stop at which point you are to get the attention of the train conductor and the station attendants. The instructions declare, quote, “You will not be left alone.”

“You will not be left alone.” In a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people… in a religion of the people, by the people, and for the people… perhaps this phrase represents the greatest ambition of a democracy: that when rule is by the demos, by the many, no one should be left alone.

Democracies, whether they are present in voluntary groups or in great nations, do not occur because of ideas and dreams. They happen because of participation, vigilance, and constant service. May our democratic church, our democratic county, our democratic state, and our democratic republic be so ennobled by your vigilant care, earnest participation, and heartfelt service. God bless. Goddess bless. Blessed be.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon: "African Contributions to American Religion" (Delivered 2-3-08)

The reading this morning comes from a book entitled Black Preaching by Henry Mitchell. In the Black church tradition to have never heard of Henry Mitchell is like being a Catholic who has never heard about the Pope or being a Protestant who has never heard of Billy Graham.

In Divinity School I took a class under the same title: Black Preaching. I was one of two white students in the class. It was fascinating. One day, Dr. Mitchell just sort of showed up in the class. Our professor, Bishop Bobby Franklin, stepped aside cordially and Dr. Mitchell presided for hours. We all sat in rapt attention and remained long after the class was supposed to end. Besides being one of the finest preachers in the world, Dr. Mitchell is also a distinguished academic.

The reading comes from the first chapter of his book on Black Preaching:
“Culture is the accumulation over time of all the wisdom and methods of a given cultural group… Each group has a menu of acceptable foods, a collection of proper hairstyles and attire, a way to greet people, ways to sing music and tell stories, and ways to build homes and rear children. In addition to language, and included in the language, is a way to view the world – a belief system….

“There have been widespread rumors that African Americans were fully stripped of their culture by the middle passage and the breaking-in process to which slaves were subjected, but this belief is rightfully dying out. Too much evidence affirming the contrary is visible to the eye of the American Black who goes to West Africa… If American Blacks sound remarkably like some traditional Africans in worship, it is only natural. Slave bosses could change the length of the hoes and the manner of cultivating crops, but they could not change how the slaves believed. Nor how they prayed and sang at night in their cabins, or in unlawful gatherings in brush arbors and the like.

“The great strength of Black Christianity today, therefore, is not due to any great missionary activity, but to independent, clandestine meetings which adopted their African Traditional Religion into a profoundly creative and authentically Christian faith. [It] has the tremendous momentum of a faith deeply embedded in the culture.”

[Since I preached this sermon, on Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t help but begin with a digression…]

I don’t have many bad habits, but one of them is that I am a frequent listener to Sports Talk Radio. I am especially partial to the programs with the most screaming and shouting and ranting. The king of this format is a guy named Jim Rome. He is actually far more interesting for his cadence, tonality, and speech patterns than for the content of his thought.

So, this past week I was listening to Jim Rome interview a football player named Chad Johnson who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals and is one of sports’ most outlandish personalities. Johnson’s new nickname is “Ocho Cinco,” a linguistically incorrect reference to his jersey number 85. The interview begins and Chad Johnson starts speaking Spanish. Jim Rome answers in Spanish and they spend the first minute or two of the interview conversing with each other in Spanish, albeit poorly. Later, I reflected on how odd this was. An African-American football player and a white radio host carrying on a conversation in Spanish.

Our Super Bowl experience is instructive about some of the points I want to make about culture this morning. If you eat popular game-watching foods, you will be participating in cultural mixing. Pizza, I would argue, is neither authentically Italian nor authentically American. It is a result of the meeting of traditions. Nachos are neither authentically Mexican nor authentically American. They are “Tex-Mex” – they occur at the intersection of cultures. So, unless you are like my white friend who always eats a Vietnamese noodle-dish called “Pho” while she watches the Super Bowl, you are likely to eat a dish that is Mexican-Texan, Italian-American, or some poor American knock-off on two things Germans do better: pretzels and beer.

February is African-American history month and I decided in honor of this fact that I would devote a sermon to speaking on how African religious traditions have impacted the religious landscape in the United States. A huge subject to explore in twenty odd minutes, especially when I waste the first few minutes blabbering about the Super Bowl.

Saying “African Religion” is a bit like saying “American Music.” John Philip Sousa is American music, but so is Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, and Philip Glass. African religion includes ancient forms of Christianity developed in Egypt and Ethiopia. Athanasius, the most instrumental of the early church fathers in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, was born in Alexandria. Saint Augustine was born in Africa.

Africa was also a cradle for the development of Islam. Seven hundred years before Harvard was founded and two hundred years before Oxford, the Islamic University in Timbuktu in modern-day Mali was perhaps the world’s greatest intellectual center. And then there is the enormous variety of native religious traditions including ancestor worship, animism, cattle worship, shamanism, and similar practices of the widest variety imaginable.

When European slave ships brought West African slaves to the Caribbean and the American South, they brought Christians, Muslims, and practitioners of African tribal religions. Sometimes, these tribal religions blended with Catholicism to create fascinating hybrid practices like Santeria and Voodoo. Other times, a particular aspect of African tribal theology enhanced religion in the Americas.

Let me give a couple of examples: Some religious traditions from West Africa have a concept called Nommo. Nommo means word or name, but it also has to do with the power of naming and the power of the spoken word. Nommo is the concept that helps to explain the power and style of traditional black preaching and oratory, including tonality, also known as “whooping.”

(In my experience taking that course on Black Preaching I must say the whooping was sort of the Holy Grail, the style and talent that every member of the class aspired to. Whooping held a magical aura and appeal. Whooping refers to that moment in black preaching when one ceases to speak and instead tones the words. [Click here for an example.] Whooping fascinated everyone. Someone would mention a preacher and someone would say, “Well, does she whoop?” I was once asked, “Thom, do Unitarians whoop?” I replied, “Man, I don’t even know what that is.”

Nommo is the theological basis for styles of African American oratory and preaching, but how does it play out in the world? One way is in the emphasis on names and naming. In slavery, slaves were forced to abandon even their own names and adopt the names of the masters. Malcolm X took the last name “X” to signify his African name which had been stolen from him. When African Americans began to covert to Islam, naming had just as much power. Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor became Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respectively. It may be a little bit abstract to think about this theology of naming, so let me share a bit about another African theological concept.

This next one is a bit timely, because Obama’s first name is a variation on the word. The word is Barakah. The word Barakah originated as an Islamic term but was then translated into Swahili. It is also similar to the Hebrew word Baruch, meaning "blessing." Loosely, the term means “wisdom,” but means something different than how we would use the term. (I learned about this from my colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs, who I paraphrase in the rest of this paragraph.) Barakah can refer both to people as well as to inanimate objects. For example, a wooden spoon that has been passed down through the generations of a family acquires Barakah. A musical instrument, expertly played, acquires Barakah. The term has to do with a quality of holiness and power that can dwell within the material world. What in your life has Barakah? How does this term make you rethink the value of the things in your life?

Finally, I might say just a few words about how African American biblical interpretation has shaped American religion. Probably the most powerful way has been in how we interpret the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. How we understand that story is severely influenced by the experience of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa. How we understand Exodus and other passages in the Bible that have to do with freedom are deeply shaped by our Nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. We read the Bible in terms of our Nation’s deeply-mixed history of freedom and bondage.

Let’s review just a little bit here: As part of African American History Month, we’ve taken just the shortest of glimpses at the tremendously diversity of African religious expression – Christian, Islamic, and tribal – and also come to understand that theological aspects of these traditions survived the middle passage and the efforts by slave masters to stamp out those traditions. We’ve focused on two concepts from African theology: Nommo, or the power associated with the spoken and names, and Barakah, or the wisdom that can take root in animate and inanimate objects within the material world. We have also given just a brief example of how African American history has the power to shape how the Bible is read and understood. Over-arching all the things we have learned this morning has been this idea that cultures are not so much fixed as in flux, not so much bounded but dynamic, drawing in elements and ideas from wherever they might come. Just ask “Ocho Cinco” or take a look at what you are eating during the Super Bowl.

Well, I hope I have given you plenty of mental stimulation this morning. I hope you learned something and can take away with you more understanding and more knowledge than you came with. I hope that I’ve been a bit thought-provoking. I leave you with these words of imagination:

Imagine standing on the coast, standing there right next to the water, and gazing West across the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, I said West across the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe you are standing in Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone. The sun rises behind you shooting its rays towards the West, lighting the way to what was once called the new world. A great nation of incredible power sits on the other side of the great ocean.

Generations ago, your ancestors were held captive, shackled on this beach, awaiting the slave ships that would bring them to the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean and the cotton farms of the deep South.

You stand there now holding sorrow and reverence for these ancestors who would be made to face death and disease, dehumanization, rape, whippings and lynchings, economic exploitation, cultural exploitation, despair, and all of the sleights and humiliations of institutional racism. You stand there and you observe the variety of strategies your ancestors and their descendents created in order to maintain their humanity and dignity. You remember worship in the brush arbors, songs in the fields, and fomented insurrection. You remember political movements: the movement to re-colonize Africa and the founding of Liberia, the talented tenth of DuBois, Black separatist movements, the creation of new linguistic forms – jive and ebonics.

To mind also comes those moments that are not steeped in sadness and bitterness. Jesse Owens single-handedly proving the notion of racial superiority absurd; the creativity of the Harlem Renaissance; the tenacity of the boxer Jack Johnson; the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall; King, X, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. Plus, all of those names only known in the oral histories of communities, churches, families. In addition, those millions of lives not remembered, names erased by history. So many X’s. This is Nommo by the way, the power of the spoken word and the spoken name. And, just as a wooden spoon passed down from grandmother to granddaughter acquires Baraka, just as a blues guitar has Baraka, so too do we acquire Baraka in our expanding wisdom and our expanding understanding of the history on this side of the Atlantic. In doing our moral duty to learn the history of our nation, our city, our community.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon: "Dear SMUUCh: A Love Letter" (Delivered 2-10-2008)

I need to begin this sermon with a confession. For a period of several months over this past Spring, Summer, and Fall I seriously considered ending my ministry here at SMUUCh. (Hey, I never said I was good at this whole love-letter writing business.)

I also need to tell you that if I had decided to leave, the decision would have had very little to do with you. A very large church in our movement was in search for a senior pastor and several of my most esteemed and respected colleagues serving large churches in our movement urged me to apply. They encouraged me to throw my hat in the ring. Frankly, I felt my chances were quite good.

To be honest, I was tempted. This congregation is a leading one in Unitarian Universalism. That they were offering a six-figure salary didn’t hurt either.

To be faced with this opportunity – and this temptation – led me to contemplate the role that fantasy plays in our lives. In and of themselves, fantasies are always a reality of our existence. We tend to keep our fantasies private; they’re rarely voiced in public and it is even rarer to hear them voiced from the pulpit. We all, I would guess, fantasize about jobs and careers, wealth, what kind of house we could live in or what kind of car we could drive. And, of course we also fantasize about love, relationships, and sex (or so I’ve heard.) Fantasies are a fact of life; we all have fantasies.

The question then becomes one of discernment. Is this or that fantasy a healthy fantasy to pursue or is it a destructive one to pursue? Is it worth the cost of going after it? Am I exploring this fantasy from a healthy place or from an impulsive or compulsive place? Will acting on a fantasy enhance my life and the lives around me, or will it hurt me or other people?

And then there is the truth that all fantasies are abstractions. Platonic ideals don’t really exist. There are no perfect jobs, no perfect lives, and no perfect partners. Even so, there are fantasies and dreams that are worth pursuing and ones that best remain un-acted upon. The latter are the ones that are not supposed to venture outside of our imaginations where they can be safely indulged.

In the case of this very sexy and very attractive church which I was being pressured to go after and stood a great chance to get, I want to tell you why I elected not to go after it. This morning I want to tell you why I decided to stay here at SMUUCh.

A few of the reasons have absolutely nothing to do with you. Despite the obvious temptations, that fantasy church is actually not perfect. (Fantasies do not correspond to realities.) I asked myself, “Do I really want to go back to square one, to re-live the first year or two of ministry with a brand new community or do I want to experience what the sixth, seventh, tenth and possibly greater years of ministry bring?” Also, I figure I have 35 to 40 years of ministry ahead of me. What’s the big rush?

But, more than any of those reasons, I decided not to pursue that other church because I really, truly like my ministry here. In fact, I love serving this church. I, who am often painfully slow to love, sometimes fail to express this. However, I can point to the moment where I knew for sure that I loved my ministry here. It was last Summer, in late July, on a Sunday that I was supposed to be on vacation and out of the pulpit. For most of July, the members of the Preaching Practicum class led worship. On this particular Sunday, C. was delivering the sermon. Of all the people who have done the Preaching Practicum class, I don’t think I had ever pushed anybody as hard as I had pushed C. I think that by the time C. was ready to get up in the pulpit I had read about seven drafts of his sermon and he had re-written every word at least three times. C. is tremendously bright, extremely thoughtful, and he’s got some natural preaching chops. Because of his talent, I was especially tough on him. Our working together on his sermon was intense and each draft became clearer and deeper than the one that preceded it.

So, even though I had read his sermon seven times and could mouth parts of it word for word as well as tell you how each section appeared in earlier drafts, I couldn’t stand not to be there when C. delivered his sermon. I couldn’t stand not to be there. To see the fruition of all his efforts. To applaud and celebrate the fruition of all his hard work.

That July morning, I arrived for the second service – it is always good to boost the attendance for the second service – and as I walked into church, out walked some of the folks who had lingered after the first service. As they walked out into that glorious day chatting about the service, something swelled up in my heart. I spontaneously greeted them. “So glad you are here. I love seeing you here.” At that moment something changed within me.

I want to talk about our immediate future. Six months from now we will welcome an Intern Minister to the staff at SMUUCh – the first intern we have had in 25 years. This will mark a change in my ministry; I will be actively mentoring a minister-to-be who represents part of the future of our movement. This will also mark a change in our congregational life. We will be more than a church. We will be a teaching church. Our intern will be spending a year with us learning the ways of a great church. It will also be an experiment for all of us in what it feels like to have more than one minister on staff. This is in anticipation of the day that is due to come sometime soon when we will have more than one permanent minister on staff here.

But I want to bring us back to the present day because I want to say a few words about the state of our church right now and the challenges we will face over the next few months.

One challenge has to do with our service times. Out of necessity, we have been at two services for four years. For that entire time, we have struggled with a lack of any semblance of equilibrium between the services. One service often feels crowded and the other feels empty. For us to continue to grow, we will need to create equilibrium. Beginning in June, the plan is to hold worship at two attractive times: 9:30 and 11:00. But we will also need to offer a more equal range of religious education opportunities at both services to even them out. Our leaders in religious education are rightly concerned about whether they will find enough volunteer teachers to make this expanded program work. We will need an additional 25 to 30 teachers and I have no doubt that we will find them.

The second challenge we have before us is to have an excellent stewardship drive this Spring. This year, the Stewardship Drive (Canvass) will be done in a way that is somewhat different than how we have done it in recent years. Next weekend and the following week we will be holding training sessions for over 35 members of our church who have volunteered to be visiting stewards. These visiting stewards will have face-to-face visits with most members of the church. And these conversations won’t just be about money. They will be about making connections, about talking about what has meaning and worth in our lives. A successful and robust stewardship campaign will also signify our readiness to embark on a Capital Campaign to acquire facilities that will truly allow us to be a church as great as you deserve. The opposite, a disappointing Canvass, will be a sign that we may not be ready to move forward with a Capital Campaign. [I shared my own commitment to give at this point, but prefer not to make my pledge part of the public domain.]

Like I said, I’m not that good at writing love letters. But, let me say this: I love this church passionately, intensely, and totally. I love the honor of being your minister. I love the church you are and I love what you and we can become.

This love I have for you is neither sentimental nor sugary; it is a love with nutritional value instead of empty calories. At times this love is fierce and aggressive. Like a mother grizzly bear, I am times fiercely vigilant of anything that threatens our health and vitality. I love this church too much to allow harm to come to it, so sometimes my role is to be a fierce shepherd. Sometimes this love can be demanding; it can be restless, ambitiously pushing for consistent excellence in all facets of church life. At times I probably seem petulant and irritated. It is a love that is not satisfied with less than the best in myself and can be similarly demanding of others.

But, my love is also grateful. Day in and day out I am amazed, awed by the members of this church: Your stories. Your lives. Your passion for justice. Your intellect and your wisdom. Your struggles. Your recoveries. Your courage. Your generosity. Your quirks. Your humanity.

Last November I attended a summit on growth in Louisville, Kentucky along with eleven other ministers of fast growing churches. During one of the sessions we were supposed to talk about the “nuts and bolts” of growth, what tools we had used to help achieve growth. To a person, the participants balked. What came instead was a discussion about love. We wanted to emphasize love as primary. Nuts and bolts were secondary. One minister shared about entering a congregation that had a recent history of conflict. Ashamed, they tried to hide it from her. When it was brought to light, the minister told them, “I love you anyways.” Another minister in the group told about how his heart swells with love every time he sees a multi-racial group of children playing together, or two adults, separated by four decades sitting on a bench and talking. A third talked about how it was a context of love that allowed him to grow as a minister. It is like the line from the movie As Good as it Gets starring Jack Nicholson, “You make me want to be a better person.” For him it was, “You make me want to be a better minister.” A fourth shared about loving their congregation for the congregation they could become. A fifth shared that her congregation lived with the fear that they were unlovable. When they changed that perception, life re-entered the community.

You are a congregation that is immensely lovable. Love isn’t a perfect dive but it is a fantastic leap. A leap of faith; sometimes a graceful leap. I love taking this leap Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out. I love the privilege of being your minister.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Day 29: 29 Days of Gratitude

Congratulations! You have made it to the final day of February and the conclusion of our month of gratitude. There is one final practice that remains:

Take a few minutes to think back on this past month. What day was most meaningful to you? What did you learn? What challenged you the most? Do you feel any different than when the month began?

The final practice is to take some time and reflect on this whole series of practices related to gratitude. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Now, even though the month has ended, these practices will still be there for you to try out if you wish. Or you can invent your own.

I thank each of every one of you who attempted to practice gratitude this month, even if it was only for a couple of these days.

Thank You!

Day 28: 29 Days of Gratitude

You are almost there! On this penultimate day of practicing gratitude, I want to challenge you to stretch your imagination and experience a sense of awe. I call today's practice of gratitude "Cosmic Gratitude."

When we are confronted with images of galaxies, celestial bodies, and other "space stuff" our reaction can be one of contemplating our own insignficance... or it can be one of utter awe and of feeling grateful for being a part of a universe more vast and mysterious than we can imagine.

When Rev. Ken Patton was minister of the Charles Street Meeting House, he had a mural of the Milky Way Galaxy painted on the wall behind the pulpit. This was a symbol of awe and reverence. Today, I invite you to browse images from the Hubble Space telescope and experience a similar feeling of cosmic gratitude. Even if you take only ten minutes to browse these images and the descriptions of them, you will be amazed!

Day 27: 29 Days of Gratitude

What are your favorite hobbies and skills? Sewing or knitting? Reading? Artwork or Handicrafts? A sport you enjoy? Writing? Juggling flaming torches while standing on an orange walking globe? Playing a musical instrument? A game at which you excel? Bird-watching? Wood-working? Scrapbooking?

Whatever your skill or hobby, today make the time to enjoy it for a while. Be thankful for this hobby or interest of yours.

As for me, you might find me doing this:

What will you do today?

Day 26: 29 Days of Gratitude

In this final week of practicing gratitude, we return one final time to gratitude for our religious community. The practice for Tuesday, February 26 is quite simple. Think of the other members of our church. Today, make a call to someone you particularly admire and tell them that. Simple, right?

Day 25: 29 Days of Gratitude

As we come closer to the end of the month of gratitude practices, we reach what may be the hardest exercise of the entire month. The theme for Monday, February 25th is "Gratitude in Grief." At first, this may seem like an oxymoron, like the two are mutually exclusive.

Those who have deepened in their capacity for gratitude are able to cultivate thankfulness even in the midst of grieving. This is never easy. One common reading at Unitarian Universalist memorial services states that "joy and woe are woven fine." This truth recognizes that our sorrow is often proportional to the depth of happiness that is now missing.

The challenging practice for today is to think of someone who you miss, you mourn, or you grieve for. Next, tell a story about that person, perhaps the story of a fond and joyful time. Are you capable of feeling gratitude even when that gratitude is encompassed by grief?

Again, this is not easy. How was this for you?

Day 24: 29 Days of Gratitude

This Sunday (February 24th) is one of our monthly "Donate-the-Plate" Sundays. One Sunday per month we dedicate the offering to a worthy cause. This month our collection will go to The Healthy Living Project. Healthy Living is an organization that does HIV testing, prevention, and education work with gay men. It also provides other services.

Our congregation has a long history with Healthy Living. Currently, several members of our church are on its board and one of our members is its Executive Director.

On this day we express gratitude to all those who work in the realms of community outreach and social justice.

In addition to coming to church and putting something in the offering basket, you may wish to also find a way to express gratitude for those who dedicate so much energy to helping our world become more peaceful, fair, free, equitable, and compassionate.

Day 23: 29 Days of Gratitude

I recently engaged in a debate with a member of my congregation who works in the business sector and used to work for a very large corporation. We were discussing what moral responsibility companies have to the communities in which they are situated. I argued that businesses should be heavily involved in community development work. He argued that businesses should focus on what they do: business.

To see his side of the argument, I will concede that businesses do a lot by their very being. They provide jobs. The generate tax revenue. And, in the case of locally owned businesses, there is a greater chance that profits will be reinvested in the local economy. However, he did also mention that his company held "volunteer days" where employees could be paid for a day of work spent volunteering in the community.

This debate aside, I want to lift up those businesses in our community that take more than a passive role in giving back to the community.

My favorite coffee shop, Muddy's, is located just steps from the UMKC campus in Kansas City. A significant percentage of Muddy's income comes from UMKC students who study there or who grab a cup of coffee on their way to class. Muddy's recently endowed a scholarship at UMKC. They dedicate a percentage of their earnings on sales of some items to increase the endowment for this scholarship.

Another example of a business that gives back is the Whole Foods store located at 91st and Metcalf. Like our monthly Donate-the-Plate Sundays (see tomorrow), they give a percentage of their earnings from one day a month to a local charity. The cynic in me wishes they would disclose what percentage of their monthly profits they give to charity. On the other hand, contributing around $200,000 to local charities over the years that they have been doing this is a lot better than contributing nothing.

Practice: Do business at a store that gives back to the community as a gesture of gratitude for their commitment to the community that supports them.

I'm sure there are many more stores I could name. If you have suggestions, leave them in the comment section below.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Day 22: 29 Days of Gratitude

Like three days ago, the gratitude practice for Friday, February 22nd is also taken from the book "How to Want What You Have." (I preached on this book a few years ago.)

In one of the most memorable passages from that book the author, Timothy Miller, is discussing gratitude. He says that if you try to think of something to be grateful for and draw a complete blank you could always imagine the earthworms that live underground and that pass through the soil making it better for plants and flowers. If you can't be thankful for anything, be thankful for worms!

Of all the passages in the book, this one stands out most clearly years later.

Practice: As you go through your day, make note of the "worms" all around you, things happening that you could be grateful for if you took the time to notice.

What are some of them?

Day 21: 29 Days of Gratitude

Today is "Choose your own Gratitude Day."

When coming up with the activities and practices for the month of gratitude, I stumbled upon this silly and fun web-site. This site lists all of the things that it is possible to honor and celebrate during the month of February.

Practice: Read the list and choose a day that speaks to you. Then invent your own way to be grateful for what that day is celebrating or recognizing.

I am really curious about what you will choose. I hope you will leave a comment below.

Day 20: 29 Days of Gratitude

We all have heroes in our life. They can be our parents, grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. They can be our teachers, mentors, or coaches. They can be community leaders or people who inspire us.

The practice for Wednesday, February 20th is to write a list of three to five people who have been heroes in your life. You may wish to go all the way back to childhood and think of a teacher. Let you memories wander where they will. Your list may also include someone contemporary.

You have your choice of practices:

+ You can make a list of personal heroes and write a little bit about them.

+ You can make a list of heroes and talk about your list with another person. Tell your stories and listen to theirs.

+ If one of your heroes is contemporary you may wish to visit, call or write them and let them know how grateful you are.

Day 19: 29 Days of Gratitude

The Gratitude exercises for both Tuesday and Friday of this week are taken from a book called "How to Want What You Have" by Timothy Miller. (I preached on this book a couple of years ago.)

In HTWWYH, Miller talks about three disciplines: the discipline of gratitude, the discipline of paying attention, and the discipline of compassion. All three disciplines are somewhat inter-related.

The practice for Tuesday, 2/19 might be the most challenging of any of the gratitude practices presented thus far. It is a practice of feeling compassion for those who especially annoy or aggravate us. Practice: Today, notice whenever you see something that annoys or aggravates you. Practice thinking understanding and compassionate thoughts about the people whose behavior is annoying.

For example, if you are in line at the grocery store and someone with twenty items is trying to sneak through the twelve items or fewer line, maybe think to yourself, "Poor guy! His life is so hurried and frantic that he feels rushed wherever he goes."

How does this relate to gratitude? I have found that when we constantly pay attention to the things that annoy and irritate us we lose the ability to see things for which we are grateful. Compassion and understanding can make gratitude more available to us.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Day 18: 29 Days of Gratitude

Oh, how we do love to complain about politicians! Many of us spend far more time criticizing the ones that drive us nuts than we do supporting the ones we feel stand up for our values and serve the people wisely and courageously.

Monday, February 18th is Presidents Day. Today's practice in gratitude is to write a letter to a politician you admire, expressing gratitude for their stand on issues you care about and for their service.

You can choose a local politician who serves competently and tirelessly. You can select a state-level or national-level politician who you feel does great things for our state or our country.

(I've decided to close the comment section for this day. As a web-site aimed especially at the members of SMUUCh, I don't want for the comment section to become a forum for debating the merits and demerits of different politicians. That will only distract us from the practice of gratitude, which is the point of this whole exercise. There are all sorts of other forums for criticizing politicians.)

Practice: Write a letter or send an email to a politician that says something nice.

Day 17: 29 Days of Gratitude

On the third Sunday in February we continue the trend of speaking words of gratitude to others in our religious community. Today we turn our gratitude to the dozens and dozens of volunteer leaders that make our church thrive and shine.

Practice: Speak words of thanks to one of your fellow members who has taken on a position of leadership at SMUUCh.

Take the time today to thank a member of the board, the chair or the member of a committee, someone who volunteers teaching or takes responsibility for a group or activity. For all of our leaders and volunteers we are truly grateful!

Day 16: 29 Days of Gratitude

I don't mean to presuppose some kind of dualism between spirit and matter, body and spirit, mind and body. But it seems we have been spending a lot of time focusing on thoughts and feelings. On Saturday, February 16th let's change the focus by expressing gratitude for our bodies.

Practice: Do something kind to your body today.

There are many ways to do this. Here are a few suggestions: take a long walk, make time to go the gym or workout, take a hot bath, receive a massage, eat a really healthy meal... or come up with your own.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Day 15: 29 Days of Gratitude

I bet you didn't know that Friday, February 15th is "Susan B. Anthony Day." When I found this out I couldn't help but dedicate a day of gratitude to one of our most famous and most heralded Unitarians.

You can read more about her life at this web-site.

I also paid a visit to the children's section at the Johnson County library. There I found three books for children about the life of Susan B. Anthony. They are:

Learning about Fairness from the Life of Susan B. Anthony by Kiki Mosher
The Susan B. Anthony You Never Knew by James Lincoln Collier
and Susan B. Anthony by Lucile Davis

Practice: As a way of being grateful for the life of Susan B. Anthony, express your gratitude to a heroic and courageous woman that you know. You may wish to write a letter to a woman who is a positive role model or you may wish to thank someone you know personally who touches the lives of the women around her.

Day 14: 29 Days of Gratitude

Thursday, February 14th is Valentine's Day. (You might express your gratitude to someone you love by sharing what you baked yesterday with them.) But seriously, the feeling of loving and being loved is perhaps the most important feeling we experience as human beings. Whether your love is romantic, platonic, or familial, demonstrate your gratitude to someone you love today.

Practice: Be grateful for the love you receive and the love you give.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Day 13: 29 Days of Gratitude

While I was coming up with practices of gratitude to recommend for the month of February, my mind immediately turned to the Holy Days and Holidays that are observed this month: Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, Valentine's Day and President's Day. (Unfortunately, the Jewish celebration of Purim does not occur in the month of February this year. The Pagan holy day of Imbolc does occur in February but I over-looked it.)

However, in my searching I did find a fascinating web-site that lists every possible celebration you can imagine. According to this site, February is both "Bake for Family Fun Month" and "National Cherry Pie Month." (It also happens to be, among many others, "National Bird Feeding Month", "National Weddings Month"(?), "Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month", and "Spunky Old Broads Month.")

In my sermon on January 27th, I cut this section on baking because I was short on time. I would have said,
What does baking have to do with gratitude? On the surface, nothing. But go deeper. If you bake with somebody, can you be thankful for time spent in another’s company? If you bake for somebody, can the act of baking be an act of love and an expression of gratitude? Or, ask the Ancient Hebrews. In the Jewish tradition, they commemorate Passover with the eating of unleavened bread, Matzoh. The ancient story tells of the Hebrews needing to flee so suddenly from Egypt that the bread had no chance to rise. For the rest of the year eating risen bread calls to mind freedom and having a settled home. And then, there is the miracle of nature, the magical alchemy of yeast that makes the bread rise.
Practice: I invite you to bake something on Wednesday, February 13th and to use the paragraph above to make your baking an act of gratitude.

Plus, what you bake today may come in handy tomorrow...