Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sermon: "Ivan's Story" (Delivered 11-23-08)

Opening Words
On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we combine several themes in this morning’s worship. In keeping with this late November holiday we call upon the spirit of gratitude, even when we face anxiety. We call forth attitudes of abundance, even as we worry about scarcity.

In this way we resemble, in some small way, the characters of that archetypal American story, the story of those Pilgrims and Puritans who offered thanks to their creator for the fruits of the harvest, even as they knew they would face hard winters, who gave thanks even when gratitude was hard to find.

Another part of this archetypal American story helps us to frame our story this morning. Those Pilgrims and Puritans were among the first immigrants to this country. They came by choice and with the hopes of more freely practicing their own faith. They came rejecting a corrupt and deterministic economic system, in search of rewards for their hard work.

This morning we acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants, all of whom have come to these shores seeking a better life. The lives they have built here and the society that they have created have been grounded in the ideals of fairness, freedom, and opportunity no matter how imperfectly or hypocritically those ideals have been lived out. But, still we hold on to those ideals. Come, let us worship this morning.


Sermon
It is easy for me to remember Ivan and Sarah’s anniversary. They were married on August 2nd, 2003, the second day of my ministry with you. The Reverend Paige Getty, who had spent the previous year here serving as your interim minister, performed the ceremony. It was her last act of ministry with this congregation. Paige and I had spoken by phone and decided that it would be easier for her to do the ceremony as she already had a relationship with the couple and it would make more sense for the wedding to be planned face-to-face rather than over the phone.

Sarah married Ivan right out of high school and the couple moved north to Saint Paul, Minnesota where Sarah spent her next four years earning her Bachelor’s Degree at Hamline College. Following her graduation, they returned to the Kansas City area and have attended this church practically every single Sunday for the last year and a half. Ivan and Sarah are practically fixtures in the back row of Fellowship Hall, where they sit in the fragrance free section with Sarah’s parents, brother, and sister, at least when she is home on break from college. They are a family of this church. I should say that Sarah and Ivan are fixtures back there when they are not volunteering downstairs with our religious education program. Ivan has a background in clowning, which in Mexico is a liturgical art and is featured on feast and festival days of the Catholic Church. Last year he wowed the children of this church as our Easter Bunny. Last spring, Ivan and I developed a friendship meeting every other week over coffee and he helped me to improve my skills in conversational Spanish.

It is awkward to stand up here and tell you part of the life story of a member of our community, especially while he is sitting over there. I offer to Ivan my deepest gratitude for the privilege of being trusted with his story and I thank him doubly for his giving me the permission to share it with you.

Ivan was born in Vera Cruz, Mexico and was oldest of three children. He grew up in poverty. His home had a metal roof, dirt floors and lacked indoor plumbing. Ivan graduated from high school and, with the money he had saved from working, was able to afford a semester of college. By that point, his money had run out. He looked around at his environment, considered his options, and decided this was not what he wanted for his life. He hoped for things that were not possible for him in Vera Cruz.

A neighbor of his was planning to immigrate to the United States, and to meet up with people he knew who had gone ahead of him and were living in Overland Park. The neighbor offered to front the money for Ivan to go along with him. They traveled north, two days by bus, to a town along the Arizona border and paid for passage into the United States. The economy of immigrants passing into the United States is fascinating. It is a “package deal” with each person who plays a role in bringing immigrants across getting a part of the fee. First, there is the person who organizes border crossing groups. After spending two days in a hotel near the border, the group was ready to go. Ivan travelled with a group of about fifteen and they walked out into the desert led by a “coyote,” essentially a trail guide familiar with the treacherous terrain. At one point their group saw dancing lights in front of them. It was border patrol agents chasing down another group attempting to cross the border. The “coyote” leading Ivan’s group readjusted their route steering wide from the border patrol agents. It was as if an enormous and potentially lethal game of cat and mouse was being played out there in the desert. By midnight they reached the border. There they waited. Fortunately, someone had taken blankets from the hotel. They sat in small circles, spreading the blanket over and huddling together for warmth. This crossing was accomplished in early March, the best time of the year because the nights do not grow life-threateningly cold and the oppressive heat of the day comes on a bit more slowly in the morning.

The group waited at the border for the 5 AM changing of the guards which provided them with a fifteen minute window. Now inside the United States they crossed a major highway by foot, followed a seemingly abandoned dirt road, until they came to their rendezvous point, which Ivan described as a backpack graveyard. The spot was littered with abandoned backpacks; possessions couldn’t be carried on the next stage of the trip.

A minivan arrived, and all fifteen people who had been in the crossing party piled in. They drove non-stop for five hours until they arrived at their destination. The destination was a house with a single bathroom and the fifteen passengers in the minivan joined another 45 immigrants already waiting inside. The house had windows that locked from the outside and the immigrants waited until their accounts were settled. Finally, transportation to Kansas City was arranged and, in March of the year 2000, Ivan was dropped off at the corner of 435 and Metcalf. There, he reconnected with his neighbor and moved into a three bedroom apartment that a dozen people shared.

Shortly thereafter, Ivan went to work as a dishwasher at a restaurant along Metcalf. Then he added a second job. His work day consisted of working from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon at one restaurant, and then from 4:00 in the afternoon until 11:00 at night at another restaurant. In the hour he had between shifts, Ivan would often lock himself in a bathroom stall at one of the restaurants, set his watch, and catch twenty minutes of sleep. By working this excruciating work schedule, Ivan was able to not only repay his neighbor who had fronted the money for him to come to the United States, but he also managed to send money to his family back in Mexico.

You may have noticed that one phrase I have not used in this sermon is the phrase “illegal immigrant.” And there is a reason for this. It is because this term is problematic and, I would argue, un-American. A lawyer who is a former member of our church used an analogy to make this point. The analogy is probably best offered in the form of direct questioning:

I want to ask everyone here: How many of you have broken a traffic law in the past week? Please raise your hand. You should raise your hand if you've exceeded the speed limit by even 1 mile per hour. You should raise your hand if you’ve rolled through a stop sign or have not used your blinker. So, you are all illegal drivers, right? In fact, we should brand you with that term. But actually, under our legal system, it doesn’t work this way. Suppose you leave here today and you exceed the speed limit and you get pulled over and you are given a speeding ticket. You have the right to go to court and contest the ticket and only when the violation for which you are cited is upheld under the due process of the law do you become a so-called “illegal driver.” The same standard holds for immigrants. Under our rule of law, under American legal standards that are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, you are entitled to your day in court and you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Part of Ivan’s experience included not only working hours that most of us would find hard to imagine, but doing so under some crummy employment conditions. Working for nationally recognized chain restaurants, Ivan was routinely passed over for pay increases even as he was given greater responsibilities. He walked away from one such job when he was offered the position of store manager at the pay rate of a dishwasher.

An additional risk that Ivan faced was being an easy target for theft and violence. An immigrant who has his wallet stolen or even is assaulted finds it difficult to go the police. In fact, immigrants are actually easy targets for criminals because they are afraid of reporting crimes.

But as much as any external condition that Ivan faced due to his immigration status, there was also an internal toll that it took. Ivan told about avoiding eye-contact, being unable to look people in the eye, conducting himself with extreme deference. He developed an internalized feeling of being different or less than.

Ivan lived in the United States for eight and a half years before making the difficult decision to attempt to alter his immigration status. With the help of an immigration lawyer, Ivan prepared to apply for residency. I want to tell you a little bit about this process. First, Ivan had to prepare extensive paperwork, detailing his entire history in this country, from addresses, to his financial history, and more. Next, Ivan had to build a case for why he should be granted residency. His residency case hinged on proving that his absence would create hardship for his wife. Almost perversely, residency cases for those in Ivan’s situation depend on proving that it would be harmful to a United States citizen for him not to remain in the country. The personal well-being of the non-citizen is not considered. In addition, to prepare for his residency hearing, Ivan needed to present a dozen letters of reference. He collected seventeen including one that I wrote and one by a member of the United States Congress. Finally, since passing a physical is part of application, Ivan committed to a plan of physical fitness and lost forty pounds.

In August of 2008, Ivan boarded a bus for El Paso, Texas and crossed into Mexico. This was probably the most dangerous part of the trip. For his case to be considered, Ivan needed to leave the country under his own power. If he had been apprehended trying to return to Mexico, everything would have been different. Crossing back into Mexico, Ivan felt like a man without a country, not quite American and no longer Mexican either. In Mexico, Ivan went to US immigration officials to make his case. Because he had entered the country without the required documentation in the first place, his case was automatically denied. A hearing to appeal this decision was scheduled for six weeks later.

During these six weeks, Ivan returned to Vera Cruz where he saw his mother, his brother, and his sister for the first time in over eight years. The house he grew up in was now completely different. With the money he had sent home his mother put a real roof on the house, replaced dirt floors with tile floors, and installed indoor plumbing. When Ivan left Mexico his brother was a teenager. When Ivan returned, he was a college graduate and an engineer, his education paid for with the money Ivan sent home. His sister, a pre-teen when Ivan left for the United States, was in college. Her tuition is also paid for with the money Ivan sent home.

Six weeks later, Ivan returned for his appeal hearing. His chances of winning were about fifty-fifty. If he won, he would be granted a permission to re-enter the United States for two years. If he lost he would be banned from entering the United States for ten years. Fortunately, Ivan won his appeal.

Upon re-entering the country, Ivan presented his papers and his passport to the customs agent. He was asked where he was headed and Ivan answered, “Home.” The customs agent asked Ivan how he could be heading home if his papers said he had never entered the United States previously. Ivan explained that this was his first time entering the country with papers. And he crossed the border with his head up, smiling.

Inside of me, something angry and fierce welled up during that time of deepest uncertainty when Ivan was back in Mexico awaiting a decision on whether he would be allowed to come home. From my own pastoral work with the family, I saw first hand how agonizing this was for Sarah. For me, my own sense of rage went beyond pastoral empathy. Ivan was my friend and my Spanish conversation buddy. For me, it also touched something personal. I grew up in a multi-racial household with an adopted sister from Ecuador. I’ve always known that family is something that goes beyond the borders of nations. I’ve always had a sense that where we are born is something completely arbitrary.

While Ivan was in Mexico, I got turned on to an organization here in Kansas City called IJAM, the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement, an interfaith organization working to advocate for immigrants and immigration reform. I found myself wanting to be a part of what this organization is doing. This organization is working on four major projects. The first project involves working with the Kansas City, Kansas police department to improve their relationship with the Latino community and to end police harassment of Latinos. The second project involves advocating for immigrants with ICE. ICE stands for “Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” IJAM is negotiating to allow pastors to visit those who are being held at ICE detention facilities. When ICE arrests someone and wants to question their immigration status, they may be held at any of seven detention centers, most of which are several hours outside of the Kansas City area. These detentions rip a hole in the fabric of families and communities. By establishing visiting rights for pastors at these detention centers, IJAM helps to keep the fabric of families strong.

Third, IJAM sponsors a sanctuary family who they are working to support as they go through the hoops of the immigration system. Finally, IJAM is working with other organizations to develop a team of rapid responders in the case of an immigration raid. If you want to learn about immigration raids, consider the small town of Postville, Iowa where immigration officials swooped in and arrested hundreds of workers at a meat-packing plant. The community of this small town was destroyed. Some children in homes waited for parents who never returned. Family members of those arrested experienced psychological trauma; many feared leaving their homes. The town’s economy was in shambles. The kosher meat-packing plant, which had employed almost 1,000 people, filed for bankruptcy and closed. What do you think happens to the economy of a town with a population of 2,300 when 1,000 lose their jobs?

As a minister, my role is to ask questions of our society and our country: Is this moral? Is this humane? Is this compassionate? Is this holy? I get to ask questions about human dignity. I get to be in touch with my own feelings of moral outrage and what Dr. King called “divine discontent.”

It is absolutely clear to me that our immigration policies and enforcement in the United States are profoundly broken. They are destructive to communities, offensive to human dignity, and entirely lacking of a moral compass. Our immigration system hurts families, hurts the lives and livelihoods of immigrants and US citizens alike, and does not reflect the best of what our nation aspires to be.

Ivan had a flip of the coin chance of being allowed to rejoin his wife here in Johnson County. He won his case but it could have been otherwise with the result of him being barred from entering the country for ten years, separated from rejoining his wife and their child on the way. If Ivan had been Filipino rather than Mexican, he would have had a 5% chance instead of a 50% chance. It is a deep joy to have Ivan back here, with us. Our church is better for it. I am better for it. Their entire family is much, much, much better for it.

And yet I cannot shake the thought of how it might have been otherwise. If the coin flip had gone the other way, Sarah would have been forced to make a painful decision: to lose her husband for the next ten years and deprive their child of the presence of a father, or to leave her career, her home, and her extended family in order to try to build a life for the next ten years in Mexico. All around our country, there are hundreds, even thousands, of people like Sarah forced to make that horrible and unthinkable choice.

Ivan’s story isn’t unique. His story happens all around us. It is a story of courage and determination, hope in something better than the hand that life has dealt to him. It is a story that is amazing and, at the same time, common. Far too common. Let us rejoice that this story, while it is still being written, appears headed for many good chapters ahead. Let us also be humbled and chastened by the knowledge that it could have otherwise, that it is so often, too often, otherwise. And, may we be grateful for Ivan’s presence in our church community.

Week 26: "Written in Red" by National Fire Theory

Bright lights. Black Skies.

During my first year living in Kansas City I would occasionally take a short siesta in the afternoon and head over to a used CD store a few blocks away from the church. One day, the guy working the register was playing The Old 97’s on the store’s sound system. I commented that I loved this band. He recommended that I check out the new CD by the band Lucero, which I bought and immediately loved. A friendship was struck.

One day Tim invited me to come hear his band play at a local rock club. I went and had one of the most amazing rock and roll experiences ever. Over the next couple of years I would go to listen to Tim’s band, National Fire Theory, no fewer than 31 times. National Fire Theory is one of the loudest bands I’ve ever heard. While borrowing from the genres of emo, punk, and metal, they play rock the way rock was meant to be played.

With this 26th song of the week, we are now half-way through the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks project. The final song I will write about will be another one by National Fire Theory. Both songs are off their 2003 EP Ending With White Lights. The name of this record conjures images of a life lived too fast. The white lights in the title are obviously the ones found in a hospital emergency room. The title of the record thus indicates a life that comes to an end too soon, by car crash, overdose, or some other tragedy.

“Written in Red” begins with an assault of speedy metal guitar and aggressive drumming. The lyrics soon follow with a short verse describing… well, disembowelment. A melodic chorus then follows. The song quickly rips through two quick verses and two quick choruses before coming to an early bridge. All instrumentation falls away and the lead singer speaks the words, “Bright lights. Black skies.” In between, you hear the lead guitarist drag his pick across the top string of his guitar. As the rock music comes back with a force, the song continues on a different trajectory. “It’s home… when home in nowhere.”

The lyrics to this song are quite opaque and it is difficult to tell what this song is really about. However, I want to venture the interpretation that the song is about feeling at home inside yourself and finding home within. In this way, the angst of NFT’s music (and there is plenty of it) is redirected. After an initial gut-check, “Written in Red” seems to dwell upon the impermanence of outward things, focusing instead on the idea of discovering your own home within.

While I don’t have any youtube videos to share, I will refer you to this website where you can listen to 15 National Fire Theory songs, including “Written in Red.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Homily: "Is God Transgender?" (Delivered 11-16-08)

The worship service on 11/16/08 was one of the most enjoyable services I have ever led. After singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” our Intern Minister, Anne Griffiths, delivered opening words of radical welcome.

For the “Time for All Ages” I asked children to close their eyes and imagine what God looked like. Then I shared a slide show of different ways that God has been imagined. I began by showing a slide of the Venus of Willendorf which may be 25,000 years old. Next I showed a famous image of God from the Sistine Chapel. Three images of Jesus followed: Stephen Sawyer’s painting “Undefeated,” Kazuya Akimoto’s painting of a very feminine Jesus, and an image of Jesus with dark skin. From there I showed images of both female and male representations of Kwan Yin, male and female representations of the Buddha, depictions of Shiva and Kali from Hinduism, and an image depicting God as mystery.

As we were observing the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, Anne delivered a poignant prayer and a roll call of the names of Transgender individuals who had been murdered in the previous year.

We were joined in worship by a board member and a staff member of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, an organization that works to combat domestic violence among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender persons. A KCAVP board member delivered a powerful testimonial about the violence faced by Transgender individuals.

Then, I delivered the following homily:


Homily
I guess I can say that Fred Phelps must not read our web-site, because with a title like the one that I’ve chosen for my homily this morning, I was half expecting him to be outside protesting. In which case, I would certainly invite him in so that he might learn something about theology. You might be surprised to find that I want to open my remarks by introducing you to two terms from academic theology: kataphatic theology and apophatic theology.

Kataphatic theology has to do with terms used to describe the divine that ascribe to God certain qualities. Kataphatic expressions include pronouncements such as, “God is great,” “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is merciful,” and, “God is three distinct and infinite minds made out of one substance.” [In Greek, by the way, the word for the same substance is homoousia, as opposed to the heresy of heteroousia, which claims that the three members of the Trinity are made out of different substances. Taking a heteroousian position would have got you kicked out of orthodox Christianity for the last 17 centuries. This is to say that religious conflicts about hetero- and homo- are very old.]

As opposed to kataphatic theology, apophatic theology (and yes, all this will have a point) refers to theological statements about our inability to know, understand, or describe God. “God is beyond our knowing.” “God is indescribable.” “God is unnamable.” “God works in mysterious ways.”

Of course, there are all kinds of dualistic ways of describing God. Kataphatically or apophatically. As male or female, masculine or feminine. As both genders (intersexual) or as genderless (androgynous.) God can be described as close, intensely personal, like in the old evangelical hymn where it is sung that “He walks with me and He talks with me.” Or God can be described as distant and removed: the deistic watchmaker God who sets the universe in motion and then steps back, absent from the natural world.

How human beings describe God may say a lot more about human beings than it says about God. Thinking back to the slideshow from earlier, thinking back to the tense and intense debates within orthodox Christianity about the nature of the Godhead, thinking of some forms of Christianity that have tried to balance a male Logos with a female Sophia, a Jesus with a Mary, thinking of the Buddhist deities who have had their gender reassigned over and over again for 2500 years, what is obvious becomes clear: we have no consensus about God.

What I am saying here (and follow me here, this is going to come around) is that we human beings have tried to squeeze God into a particular body shape, but God is not comfortable. We human beings have tried to give God skin color like ours, complexion, cheekbones, shaped eyes, facial hair or no facial hair, but God has not been comfortable. We have tried to dress God and we have even tried to dress God in flowing, loose fitting robes that surely will cover whatever physical shape God takes, but God always seems to bust out of the garments with which God is clothed. Maybe our human attempts to play dress-up with God are foolish.

Maybe God is just not comfortable in God’s own skin. And God certainly isn’t comfortable in the boxes we’ve tried to force God into. Can you see where I am going? Because, if I can think of anyone who fits this description, this description of discomfort in the body they were born into, discomfort in the boxes and categories that our culture tries to force people into, it would certainly be a transgender person.

It occurs to me that few of us really feel completely at home in our own skin. And, if we do, this comfort is temporary. We probably didn’t feel at home in our own skin in junior high. We may not feel at home in our own skin because of racial prejudice. We may not feel at home in our own skin because our body type is different from some airbrushed and photo-shopped ideal of beauty invented by Madison Avenue. We may face an illness where our own bodies betray us. We may feel at war with our physical selves. One of our hymns declares that “a fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.”

Our theology matches our commitment to social justice. In this Unitarian Universalist church we do not tell you that you need to believe in one image of the divine. You can choose any one of the slides I showed to you, or you can choose from an infinite variety of images of the divine. Here in this church we have atheists, theists, deists, pantheists, and polytheists. We have Jews and Christians. We have Buddhists and Goddess worshippers. We have those who understand God in very abstract terms, those who understand God in very personal terms, and those who don’t understand God at all.

In 2006 we voted, overwhelmingly, to become a Welcoming Congregation, declaring openly our intention to fully welcome Gay and straight, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals into full participation in this congregation. The same aspiration is manifest when we open our hearts and minds to those of different theologies and when we open our community to those of varied gender identities and affectional orientations. Our souls grow and our faith matures when we are able to honor the theological diversity in our community. Our souls grow and our faith matures when we extend to all a spirit of radical welcome.

I want to leave you with just one more artistic image. This piece of art is not found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It cannot be seen at the Nelson-Atkins museum of art. The piece of art was a pencil sketch on a piece of 8.5x11 paper that hung in one of the dark corners of the Reed College student union when I was an undergraduate. The pencil sketch was of the face of Jesus with flowing locks and a scruffy beard. (This hirsute Jesus bore an uncanny resemblance to many of Reed’s students.) Underneath the drawing of Jesus’ face, the following words were typed, “You guys can wear your hair however you want. Just tell them I said so.”

Jesus’ ideal of radical inclusion found within the Gospels is an ideal of inclusion that we strive for here in this church. May we always be a place of radical welcome. Just tell them I said so.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

SEX! SEX! SEX!

(I figure with that kind of headline, I might get more hits on this blog…)

So, here is the story. Ed Young, pastor of FellowshipChurch.com, is instructing married couples in his church to have sex every day this week. FellowshipChurch.com is a non-denominational/Baptist church located in suburban Dallas. It has over 20,000 members and is one of the ten largest congregations in the United States. If you read all the way to the end of this piece, I will tell you about visiting his church in May of 2002.

[By the way, I do recognize that this story appeals to the worst of sensationalism in the media and that ignoring it is probably the best thing I could do. But it is such a wacky story that I felt I would share my thoughts.]

In a crazy and creepy video, you can watch Ed Young get interviewed about his “Seven Days of Sex” initiative by a reporter from CNN. This video has so much going on that I barely know where to start. So, let’s start at the beginning. At the beginning, Ed Young explains, “I’m suggesting that the married couples… in my church… have sex for seven straight days.” But listen to it carefully. Even though we only see Pastor Ed from the shoulders up, listen and you can hear him pound his fist into his palm to accentuate the words “sex”, “seven,” “straight,” and “days.” The guy is really excited. Not only is he smacking his hand but he delivers the whole interview with a weird smirking grin. He then adds, “My wife and I are really looking forward to it.” Too much information.

From here, the video only gets more and more bizarre. Clips of Ed Young preaching the previous Sunday show him walking around on the great big stage at his church with a toilet as a prop in the center of the stage. He also adds that he is asking his parishioners to email the church and tell the church about their “seven days of sex.” That is creepy!

But that is not all. What makes this video even weirder is the way the CNN reporter goes after him. She begins by warning him that he may be inviting men in his congregation to rape their wives. Then she asks him if he has even gone to seminary. Finally, towards the end of the clip, she lectures him on sexuality and intimacy.

Where do I even begin? Six reactions:

First, who is included and who is left out? Ed Young teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman and that only married couples should have sex. So, my first question is how he is going to spin this whole thing in a congregation that certainly includes unmarried people. Surely, his congregation includes unmarried couples and singles that range from teenagers to people who are hoping to partner to recently divorced persons who are going through a period of grief and reflection to the newly widowed who are in mourning. How will his message include these people instead of excluding them?

Second, one size does not fit all. (Ok, I probably could have said that better. I don’t mean it that way.) The idea of having sex every day might be appealing for some people but not for others. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a sexologist) to tell you that some people desire physical intimacy more often than others. When a couple consists of a person who wants sex a lot more often than the other person this can be a source of conflict. But quality is a lot more important than quantity and couples probably should be more focused on fulfillment rather than frequency. To completely misquote William Ellery Channing, “The great end of sexual instruction is not to counsel them to have a definite amount of sex, but to inspire a fervent love of intimacy.” (The original quote, by the way, is “The great end in religious instruction is… not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth.”)

Third, is the CNN reporter serious about rape? It is hard to tell if she is actually concerned about this or if she is just throwing out an extreme example to try to get a rise out of Ed Young. But, what she is talking about may not be all that farfetched. I do see a place for some very uncomfortable grey areas. I can certainly imagine someone deciding to consent to have sex even though they might rather not. Pressure and feeling obligated are things that are certainly destructive of intimacy and pleasure. This week may leave some people feeling a deep resentment towards their partner or their pastor.

Fourth, is this all one big publicity stunt? I was emailing back and forth with a colleague about this and we were suggesting possible sermon titles. My colleague suggested, “Our church is cool. Please attend this church, please.” Ed Young is certainly a showman.

Fifth, I wonder what Debra Haffner would have to say. My colleague Debra Haffner is a UU minister and the Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. She has a really great blog.

Sixth, what is the line between inspiring people to live well and micromanaging their lives? About a year ago, I proposed that those in the church that I serve participate in a month of gratitude. I came up with a gratitude exercise for each day of the month. A lot of them were very open-ended. I invited people to be in discussion with me and with each other about these gratitude exercises. Even though many people didn’t leave comments on my blog, I got lots of email from people who were exploring gratitude during this month. There are some members of the church I serve who want the leaders of the church to say exactly how much people should pledge. There are some members who do not want the leaders of the church to tell people what they should give. Knowing that I will never please everybody, I need to pick my places about offering general instruction and specific instruction. I can offer invitations and even offer challenges (such as my challenge last week for those in the congregation I serve to grow more aware of white privilege.) Regardless of whether having sex every day for a week is good advice or not, I definitely feel that this falls on the side of micromanaging lives, not inspiring people to live well.

Agree? Disagree? Comments? Email me at minister [at] smuuchurch [dot] org

And, here is the story I promised: I did my internship at a UU church in suburban Dallas in 2001-2002. While living in Texas, I dated a woman for several months. She had been raised un-churched and had never been to a church service. One Sunday, I invited her to come listen to me preach and she did. Afterwards, she told me that she enjoyed it and it made her curious about how a UU church was different from another type of church. We decided to go to an evening service at Ed Young’s FellowshipChurch.com. We walked into the gigantic auditorium and sat among the thousands of worshippers. During the sermon, Ed Young began talking about marriage and at one point he said that the only legitimate marriages are between believing Christians (or something similar.) My date had been seething for much of the service and, when Ed Young said this, she shouted, “Bullsh*t!” I kid you not. Even though we were well out of the minister’s hearing range, hundred of heads turned our way. I leaned over and told her, “We need to get out of here.”

On the way out to the parking lot, I decided to take issue with her decision to shout her disagreement. She told me, “I was only speaking the truth.” I responded by saying, “As guests we are supposed to be respectful and not disrupt their worship experience.” It was at this point that she got in the last word, “You should just be glad that I agreed with what you said when you preached.”

Week 25: "These Days" as performed by Fountains of Wayne

Back in week 3 I wrote about the first hit single by Fountains of Wayne, a song called “Radiation Vibe” that I think epitomizes summer. Later in the 52 songs in 52 weeks essay project I will write about FOW’s “Valley Winter Song,” which epitomizes winter. There may not be a better autumn song than “These Days.”

“These Days” was originally written by Jackson Browne and has been covered by an amazing variety of artists including Nico, Paul Westerberg, Mates of the State, and Elliott Smith. You can find FOW’s version of the song on their 2005 collection of B-sides entitled Out of State Plates. This 2-disc album contains a few wonderful live tracks, original Christmas and Chanukah songs, and an amazing cover of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” (It is true!) But the best track is their version of “These Days.”

It is amazing to think that Jackson Browne wrote “These Days” while only 16. It is an older person’s song of regrets and disappointments. It has been called a “classic of morose introspection.” The song reaches its deepest poignancy with the lines, “These days I sit on cornerstones and count the time in quartertones to ten, my friend. Do not confront me with my failures. I had not forgotten them.”

Adam Schlesinger’s beautiful voice brings out the pained beauty of this song. Unfortunately, I could not find a version of FOW’s version of this song on the web. However, you can listen to a live version of Elliott Smith (who did sadness better than anybody) covering “These Days” here. Or, check out this cover by Mates of the State as they offer a daring interpretation of the song. You may love it or you may hate it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sermon: "In Between" (Delivered 11-9-08)

Reading
Despite people's disclaimers, they held plenty of stereotypes. I saw glimpses all the time—the assumption that I had grown up in a ghetto, that of course I could sing and had rhythm. But my dance moves, which these off-the-wall white folk thought cool, had sent my siblings to the floor in fits of laughter. Most outlandish, however, was their admiration of my basketball savvy, which was non-existent. But I wanted approval so desperately I actually did my best to act out the stereotypes, faking it all the way.

I held within me a question that I didn't know how to formulate nor had the courage to ask: What hides behind white people's claim not to notice race?

During the fifties and sixties, as social mores liberalized and racial intolerance became stigmatized, white liberals chose color blindness. Not seeing race at all proved—to themselves at least—that they were not prejudiced, and served as a way to say, “I'm not a bigot.” For white liberals, facing glaring racial inequities and knowing the game was rigged in their favor, the feeling of guilt was unavoidable—as was the suspicion that blacks couldn't help but hate them for it. Saying “I'm color-blind” was like an incantation invoked to ward off these feelings. It was more a defense than a virtue, a willful naïvete which, like so much else, served white self-interest. If you ignore my color you can't understand the oppressive social reality that impinges upon Afro-American lives at every moment. Yet if you notice only my color you misread who I am. Color blindness protects whites from knowing that which they have to labor not to know. [And their need not to know keeps them from] simply asking me, “How is it for you?” [From In Between by Mark Morrison-Reed, pp. 92-93]

Sermon

In between. In between. We all live parts of our lives in between. In these times of great anxiety and great possibility, we live in between our awareness of the world as it is and our hope for what the world can become. Today, November 9, 2008 is the 70th anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, where State sponsored rioting terrorized German Jews destroying Jewish homes, Jewish businesses, Jewish synagogues, and Jewish lives. Today, November 9, 2008 is also the 19th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We live in between. We are not as divided as we might be nor are we as unified as we might be. We are in between.

One of the perks I enjoy is that am frequently asked to review books published by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s publishing house. What this means is that I get emails from Boston offering me a free copy, often an advance copy, of one of their books in exchange for my willingness to write a review of it. When I got an email asking me if I would be willing to review the memoirs of The Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed, I jumped at the chance. Days later, a package from Boston arrived containing a copy of the book In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby.

An Afro-American minister in a predominantly white denomination, Morrison-Reed writes about his own struggle to develop an identity while growing up on Chicago’s South Side first during a period of neighborhood tumult caused by white flight, then during the 60s civil rights movement, and then as a college-aged young adult during the Black Empowerment movement.

The blurb on the back of this book gives a not at all subtle hint as to why I’ve decided to place this book at the center of my sermon this morning. The blurb says, “In Between gives voice to the unspoken story of those Afro-Americans who were among the first to bring racial diversity to their neighborhood, school, church, or workplace.” Now that we can add the Oval Office to that list of firsts, the lessons Reverend Morrison-Reed’s life has to teach are all the more important.

My words this morning, however, will not just focus on the story of his life, nor will they exclusively dwell on the significance of our nation electing a black man to the white house. This sermon is for us. It is for us. I want to challenge the way we think about race. I want for us to grow in our awareness of what it means for us to be a predominantly white church. I want for us to understand a little of what persons of color experience when they walk through our doors. I want us to think about what it means for us to be a church that is located two blocks, almost visual distance, from a Head Start that is extremely racially diverse, about what it means for this congregation to be situated in a community that is one of the enclaves of growing racial diversity in Johnson County. And, I want for us to explode the concept of Johnson County as racially monotone. We know that Olathe has a substantial Latino population and that Roeland Park and Mission both have growing Latino populations as well. Just to our North the neighborhood is growing increasingly diverse. If you have taken a tour of the Stowers Institute on the Missouri side, you know that it attracts world class talent. Its research scientists hail from Korea and Japan, India and Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil, Germany and Sweden. So too do corporations like Sprint add to the multiculturalism of our suburbs, hiring talent who practice Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and even Zoroastrianism.

Early in Mark Morrison-Reed’s memoirs we learn something astounding about his family story. His great-grandmother had been a slave, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and by the Civil War. Her grandson, the author’s father, was a graduate student in nuclear chemistry who went to work on the Manhattan project during World War II, working on the chemistry of heavy metals that would be used to build the first atomic bomb. While remarkable, this rise from human bondage to the hallowed halls of academia within the course of two generations did not mean the author’s family was immune to the effects of racism. His father described his work on the Manhattan project as helping “democratized racism to defeat racist fascism.”

To give you an idea of why he felt this way, consider this: All of the white scientists in the laboratory enlisted in the Armed Forces, were quickly advanced through an officer training course in a matter of weeks, and returned to the laboratory with rank. Mark’s father was denied this opportunity on account of the color of his skin. Following the war, his co-workers were allowed to dip into all kinds of veteran benefits. For example, because he was not allowed to enlist, Mark’s father was ineligible to use the G.I. Bill to pay for the completion of his academic preparation.

There are some things I want to say about racism. First of all, I think there is a great imprecision in how many of us think about racism. We tend to confuse racism with race-based prejudice. They are not the same thing. Prejudice deals with what happens inside our own individual brains. Racism is something that is systemic. Racism has been defined as the multiplication of power and prejudice. Under this definition some scholars of racism have argued that it is impossible for almost all African-Americans to be racist. While it is possible for a person of color to harbor prejudicial feelings about people of another race, this theory holds that most African-Americans lack the systemic power to actually deprive other people of anything based on the prejudices they hold. Other thinkers who deal with systemic racism disagree, saying that this theory denies the agency and power that people of color do have.

You may or may not agree with these theories of racism, but there is another part of racism that I think is important to point out. Racism is not only systemic, but it has a time component to it. It has a history, a past, present, and future. Over the course of history, racist systems have granted privileges to some and not to others. White privilege means a lot of different things. It means, for example, that as a white man I can go into any neighborhood of this city, any restaurant, any store, any gated community without being asked why I am there, or getting stopped by the police because I seem suspicious and out of place.

Suppose I go to a fancy event at a hotel. I show up wearing my sharpest suit, but the friend I am supposed to meet is running a little late so I wait there in the lobby. White privilege means, if I am standing there, nobody is going to hand me a suitcase, thinking that I am the bellhop. Or, if I wait for my friend outside, white privilege means that nobody is going to toss me car keys thinking I am the valet. When I do weddings I never cease to be amazed (although I’m never that surprised either) when I observe an African-American guest being handed some white person’s empty wine glass or dirty plate because the white guest assumes that the black man in a suit must be with the caterer. I’ve seen a black man stand in front of the guests as a groomsman at the wedding only to be mistaken for event staff during the reception.

Tim Wise, a writer and public speaker on anti-racism talks about white privilege in very personal terms. [You can find one of his lectures here on YouTube.] He talks about growing up very white and very poor in the south. When it came time for him to go to college, he was accepted to Tulane, a school that is prestigious and expensive. His family could not afford it. Fortunately, Tim’s grandmother lived in a fairly upscale neighborhood and was able to put her house up as collateral so that Tim could get the money he needed for tuition. So far, this story is not all that different from what many families do to allow their children to get a leg up by attending an upper tier school. Only Tim’s grandmother had bought her home in a white-flight part of a city that was bound by racial covenants and where a person of color would not be allowed to live. This house was a great investment. Its value skyrocketed. It paid for her grandson’s college. This is how white privilege passes from generation to generation.

Before the election, some of you may have seen the email authored by Tim Wise looking at the candidates for office through the lens of white privilege. (You can find it easily if you google it.) One paragraph in that email compares the education of the candidates for office and asks, “What would people say if Governor Sarah Palin had been African-American?” As you may know, Governor Palin received her Bachelor's degree from the University of Idaho after attending four different schools (not including two separate stints at the University of Idaho) in three different states in the span of five years.

And, I want to pause right here to say that I bring this up not to take a cheap shot or to pile on. Because the question before us is how we make sense out of this fact. If Palin had been African-American, chances are somebody would have said to her, “You know what? Maybe college is not for you.” Or, “Maybe you are not smart enough.” And, some people would have inevitably thought to themselves or muttered to others, “Well, you know the only reason she was accepted is because she is black and the school was just trying to fill a quota system. That’s why she can’t keep up. And some deserving white student lost was deprived because they took her.”

A white student is less likely to hear this. A white student who goes through a string of transfers, a back-and-forth between community colleges and the University, is adjusting, is trying to find himself or herself. A white student seldom hears, “You’re not smart enough for college,” seldom hears, “College is probably not for you.” In fact, it is often a foregone conclusion that the white student deserves that degree because it is assumed that the white student possesses the innate intelligence that is required. The white student just needs to choose to apply himself or herself. Having other people assume that you are intelligent is white privilege.

And again, this is not about taking a cheap shot or piling on. This is to point out that other people will tend to take our actions, our stories, and place them into some kind of narrative in order to make sense out of them. And, the stories that people create to talk about the lives of African-Americans are often different than the stories people create to make sense of the experiences of whites. People who have skin color like mine are given the benefit of the doubt.

White privilege means also never having to live with the pressure that your behavior or your actions will be taken to represent your entire race or ethnic group. If I finish this sermon today and then decide to go hold up a convenience store (and whether I do this or not will depend on how much we collected in the baskets this morning) my actions will not be interpreted as me acting out some tendency of the white race. However, if I were a person of color, my actions would be seen as fulfilling a tendency of my race. I get to be an individual, not a caricature. I get to be a person, not a stereotype.

The Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed grew up in between. His father, as a star scientist at the University of Chicago, was a black man in an almost exclusively white profession. As a child, his mother rigidly enforced a standard of manners and personal conduct lest he be seen, in her words, as a “common negro.” His life was literally in between, neither one thing nor another. Though growing up with access to the world of educationally elite whites, he did not fit. White parents forbade their daughters from dating him; the University denied housing to his parents. Though growing up in a neighborhood with other black children, he was equally and always an outsider to that culture as well. He was a target of gangs and exiled for not supporting black militancy in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination.

His parents joined the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, a church that until the middle of the 20th century had a by-law stating that blacks were ineligible for membership. It took a resolution from the women’s group and then the threat of resignation from their popular minister for this rule to be done away with in 1947.

Perhaps there is no more poignant passage in the book than his passage about him singing with the Chicago Children’s Choir, started by the First Unitarian Church not long after the church had begun to integrate. When Morrison-Reed joined, there was only one other person of color. He tells of avoiding her, of looking away, because recognizing her meant recognizing himself and recognizing his own difference was too painful. My own heart breaks at the thought of these two young children doing something brave, joining an all white choir, taking on that pioneer role. My heart breaks thinking of them not recognizing each other out of some deep place of shame or pain, of forsaking the support they might have been to one another because it was too hard for him to see himself in her and for her to see herself in him.

Last Tuesday the election was called at 10:00 Central Time for Senator Barack Obama. By the time the dust was settled, he would claim 365 electoral votes, 95 more than he needed, meaning he could have conceded the two largest states he won, California and New York, and he still would have had votes to spare. Just as Mark Morrison-Reed was among the first to bring racial diversity to his school, church, and workplace, President-elect Obama is the first to bring racial diversity into the Oval Office, an office once held by a slaveholder named Thomas Jefferson and by the man, Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an office once held by Andrew Jackson, who ordered the Trail of Tears, and by Lyndon Johnson, who signed into law civil rights legislation.

The day after the election, the Unitarian Universalist Association sent flowers to the descendents of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, two Unitarian Universalists who lost their lives taking part in the march on Selma led by Dr. King. In part, it was their sacrifice that made possible the election of a person of color to the highest office in the United States. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, President-elect Obama asked us what we would be willing to sacrifice so that our children might see the same advancement of human liberty in our time.

In between. In between. These words not only describe the life of this one UU minister, living in between two worlds divided into black and white. They describe a society in which people live in between the reality of their condition and the high ideals and promises of liberty. They describe those in our world who have slipped in between the cracks of the foundation of a good and just nation.

In Seamus Heany’s poem, “The Cure at Troy,” he writes,
History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
My challenge for you today is this. My challenge to every white member of this congregation is to grow in your awareness and your understanding of white privilege, to more fully recognize all of the advantages afforded to you by your skin color. My challenge is also to ask yourself, “What is my responsibility knowing that I belong to a society that affords me privileges I did nothing to earn?” And, my challenge for all of us is to believe and to never stop believing, in the poet’s words, that hope and history can rhyme. Amen.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Week 24: "Stay" by Lisa Loeb

Before Sarah Palin, there was Tina Fey. Before Tina Fey, there was Lisa Loeb. Like Palin and Fey, Loeb is known for a particular look. All three are petite brunettes recognized for their eyeglasses. All three style their medium length hair in a way that gives it some size. All three have a look that could be described as “attractive librarian.”

Brown University graduate Lisa Loeb was a transplant to New York City from Dallas when her song “Stay” was discovered and featured on the soundtrack to the 1994 movie Reality Bites. Featuring actors Ben Stiller, Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn, Bites was the quintessential Generation X movie. Despite not being signed to a record label, Loeb’s song “Stay” hit number 1 on the charts. While never writing another song as popular, she has released a number of entertaining albums since her breakthrough hit.

“Stay” is a song about regretting a break-up, but it is also a tremendously fun song to sing as the song swings back and forth between being a slow paced ballad and a barrage of more quickly sung tongue-twister lyrics. The lyrics are really fun. No line is more fun to sing than the one that goes, “You thought that I was naïve…” in which the word “naïve” is intentionally mispronounced so that the “e” on the end is not silent, but pronounced as a long “A.” And then there is the second line of the song, “You say I talk so all the time so.” The lyrics seem to capture the self-conscious irony of the early 1990s.

What I love about this song is how ingrained it is in the memories of my generation. You hear it come over the radio at the supermarket and look around and find people mouthing the words. The song gets played on the radio at Muddy’s coffeehouse and someone (not me... well, sometimes me) will turn away from their book or laptop and sing out some of the lyrics. I popped this song in the CD player while I was driving to a retreat with the Intern Minister at SMUUCh and we both started singing along, neither of us missing a single word.

You can see the original music video here.
You can also check out Lisa Loeb performing the song live here.
Finally, New Found Glory recently released a punk version of “Stay.” You can listen to the album version here or catch part of it live here.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Earliest Election Returns

Things were swinging early this morning in the swing state of Missouri! I rolled out of bed at 5:15 this morning, threw on some jeans, a jacket, and a hat and walked over to my polling station at the Central United Methodist Church at 5144 Oak Street.

When I arrived at 5:25 I got into line behind about 30 people. At the front of the line there was a group of students from the University of Missouri, Kansas City who had arrived at 4:00. They were huddled under a blanket and were cramming for a psychology exam later in the day. The local NBC news affiliate was there filming. Church volunteers were handing out homemade chocolate chip cookies and Muddy's Coffee Shop had a table set up with free coffee. By the time the polls opened at 6:00 the line had about 200 people in it.

I talked with a lot of the people there. Right behind me in line there was a couple who said they have voted in every election since 1952! I was impressed by the number of students and by the determination of the crowd. One woman pulled an oxygen tank behind her. The volunteers from the church were delightful and the election officials were friendly. Everyone seemed patient.

When I walked out of the polling station at 6:20, I went over to talk with the volunteers working on campaigns. A team of seven Obama volunteers had been there since 5:00 in the morning. I didn't see a single person with the McCain campaign. I spoke briefly with the Obama volunteers (and would have spoken with the McCain volunteers had there been any.) They included a lawyer spending the day there as a legal observer and a group of people working their cell phones. I asked them if they had somebody to bring them lunch. They told me that they were so organized, they could bring me lunch.

Here are some pictures:


Arriving at the polls at 5:25. (Picture courtesy of Josine, a UMKC student.)


The line of people waiting to vote at 5:30 in the morning.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My Brand New Baby!




On account of a loving conspiracy, I left our church auction on Saturday night with a thing of beauty: a blue Fender Stratocaster guitar. My neighbors are going to hate me. And, I can only make one guarantee: "Go Now In Peace" will never sound the same again!

Sermon: "Democracy is a Sticky Thing" (Delivered 11-2-08)

Prayer for our Democracy
With awareness and abundant gratitude for this moment, this moment we are fortunate to enjoy as residents of this free country, where we celebrate the right to worship, the right to practice our faith, and the rights of conscience, let us pray for our democracy.

In less than two days Election Day will be here. We pray first of all for the candidates. We pray for the safety and for the health or Barack Obama. And we pray for the safety and for the health of John McCain. As well, we pray for the health and safety of each and every candidate for elected office in our nation.

For the winners on Election Day we ask that they receive and exercise the gifts of courage and humility, of integrity and wisdom. We pray that they accept the yoke of public service and serve with honor.

For every person eligible among us, we pray that we exercise our civic duty to vote, and partake of the holy sacrament of democracy. When we do vote, we ask that we go to the polls accompanied by the better angels of our nature and reminded of the loftiest aims of the faith we claim.

We join with others in this sacrament. Let us give thanks for the youth, 18 or 20 or 21 or 23 who will vote for the first time. Let us give thanks for the new citizen who will vote for the new time as well as for every first time voter, no matter what age.

We recall with pride those in our nation’s history who fought so long and so hard for suffrage. We remember generations of women who organized and suffered and battled for the right to vote. We remember African-Americans both long ago and more recently whose votes have been suppressed and denied. We remember the history of disenfranchisement, of poll taxes, voter intimidation, misinformation and misdirection. We are reminded that the democratic process requires vigilance and oversight.

And finally, let us pray that in the days and weeks to come a symbolic olive branch may be extended and civility rebuilt. We know that it is foolish to seek after a unity of ideas so may we aspire to a unity of purpose, for it is only with such a shared effort that we will be able to bring security to our hurting nation and peace to our hurting world.

Amen.


Sermon
[I began the sermon by passing out a two sided democracy quiz. One side of the page asked questions about the upcoming election. The other side asked questions about democracy in our church. Here is the quiz…]

1) Can you name the birthplaces of the following nominees on the Presidential ticket? (Hint: One was not born in the 50 states.)

Joe Biden:
John McCain:
Barack Obama:
Sarah Palin:

2) How many electoral votes are needed to become President?

3) How many electoral votes are up for grabs:
In Kansas?
In Missouri?

4) Who are the two major party candidates for the US Senate in Kansas?
Republican:
Democrat:

5) Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, and North Carolina all have closely contested US Senate races. How many candidates can you name?

AK: Republican: Democrat:
GA: Republican: Democrat:
MN: Republican: Democrat:
NC: Republican: Democrat:

6) Which two states will elect BOTH their Senators on 11/4? (Republicans are favored in all 4 races.)

7) Which state had the largest percentage of:
Kerry voters in 2004?
Bush voters in 2004?


Inside your order of service I’ve included an entirely non-partisan quiz to test what you know about the upcoming elections and about the democratic process here at the Shawnee Mission UU Church. I thought I would begin by giving you the answers to the Election quiz.

In the first question I ask if you can name the birthplaces of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates on both major party tickets. We’ll answer this is alphabetical order and the funny thing is that Biden’s birthplace may be the easiest to identify, because he often talks about being a boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania. McCain is the trick question here. He was actually born outside of the fifty states, on a naval base in Panama. Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and Sarah Palin was born, not in Alaska, as you may have guessed, but in Idaho.

As far as electoral votes go, there are 538 electoral votes up for grab so you need 270 to win the Presidency. The candidate who wins in Kansas will pick up six electoral votes and the candidate who wins in Missouri will capture 11.

The next several questions are focused on Senate races. Here in Kansas Democrat Jim Slattery is challenging Republican incumbent Pat Roberts. If you are watching the elections at home, you will want to pay attention to four other Senate races across the country. These are, in my opinion, the four most interesting and closely contested Senate races. In all four races the Republican incumbent faces stiff competition from a Democratic challenger. In Alaska, incumbent Senator and recently convicted felon Ted Stevens is trying to hold onto his seat against Mark Begich. In Minnesota, the Senate race has celebrity flair with comedian, actor, radio personality and author Al Franken challenging incumbent Norm Coleman. In North Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Dole is trying to win re-election against challenger Kay Hagan. Finally, in Georgia, incumbent Saxby Chambliss faces a challenge from Democrat Jim Martin. If Democrats sweep all four of these races, they will almost surely secure a 60 member super-majority in the Senate.

Both Wyoming and Mississippi will elect a pair of Senators on Tuesday. In the 2004 election, Kerry received the highest percentage of the vote, over 60%, in his home state of Massachusetts whereas Bush won more than 70% of the votes cast in the state of Utah.

I do have one more quiz question to ask. Two weeks ago Barack Obama came to Kansas City to deliver a speech in front of the Liberty Memorial. In his speech he mentioned many people by name, but one person he mentioned received the loudest boos. Who can name the person who received the loudest jeers from the crowd? The person was not George Bush. It was not John McCain or Sarah Palin. It was not Joe the Plumber. No, the loudest boos and catcalls from the audience came when Obama spoke the name of the Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards!

Election sermons are a part of our religious tradition dating back to our Puritan heritage. In this tradition, endorsements were common and those endorsements often carried a strong warning that choosing the wrong candidate might lead towards the path of ruin and God’s judgment.

Today, for better or for worse (but mostly I think for better), this practice no longer exists. Today, our reverence for democracy is enshrined in the fifth of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, the one that states that we “covenant to affirm and promote the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” I will come back to this principle, but I want to reflect on it in light of our seventh principle. The seventh principle declares that we are part of “an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Now, and maybe I’m just being picky about the wording, but I’ve never cared for the word “web.” It comes across as a little bit too Halloween-ish for me. I imagine a spooky spider. Fortunately, these same sentiments have been uttered by others using imagery without spiders. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley writes, “If recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.” Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.” Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I’ve always felt that these, deep down, are true statements although the words differ. There is truth in the image of the web, in the interdependence of life, in the bonds binding each to all, and in the inescapable network of mutuality. About this truth I’ve often wondered, what do we name the force that keeps us connected, that keeps the garment from being rent, and that keeps the filaments of the web from breaking loose?

It occurs to me that if this were the church of Star Wars, we might just call that force, “The Force.” If we were Taoists, we might call it the Tao. I posed this question to some colleagues of mine. One suggested we call the force “love.” Another suggested “compassion.” I called my Dad, a physicist, and asked him for a science lesson. He explained to me, and I hope I understood him correctly, that there are several forces at work in the universe. One of these forces is gravity, but gravity is actually an extremely weak force. According to my father, gravity was the primary force in the universe for only a very, very short period of time after the big bang. How short of a period? Well, for about one-billionth of one-billionth of one-billionth of a millisecond. After that, other forces such as electromagnetism, weak force which is also known as beta decay, and strong force which is also known as nuclear force, came into being. These forces are what hold together atoms and sub-atomic particles. Physicists have even theorized the existence of others kinds of forces. But, my point is that there are these extremely powerful forces within atoms that keep them, and us, stuck together.

The point of this detour is to create some space in our imagining for this idea of interconnectedness. And, while I may be picky about the word “web,” I want us to imagine that all of existence is sticky.

This morning, I want to talk about democracy as a sticky thing. A democracy, it seems to me, is simply this: a democracy is one way, among many, of organizing a bunch of apes into a group. There are other ways. In dictatorships one ape is given control of the whole group. In communist systems all the apes are coerced into an arrangement designed with the goal of all of the apes being equal. In oligarchies the apes that have the most bananas are allowed to rule. In theocracies all apes obey some divine, ape-like being and follow the commands of ape priests or priestesses who best know the will of the Great Ape. And then there are democracies, where apes freely select their leaders and have opportunities to change them at regular intervals.

Of course, none of these arrangements are natural. When hominids first evolved, families and then tribes were how our ape ancestors arranged themselves. Families are very sticky. The bonds of kinship are strong. Tribes are very sticky as well. There is an enormous human impulse to identify with a tribe. Tribes are neither good nor bad, but you can see tribal dynamics at play all over the place. Observe a group of teens at the mall. A fraternity or sorority. A rotary club. A small church. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book The Tipping Point, points to sociological research that says that when a tribe grows to a size of greater than one hundred and fifty persons, it will lose its sense of stickiness, its sense of cohesion.

And, if you look at the sociology of families, the sociology of groups, you can ask what gives any particular group a sense of cohesion and what threatens the sense of cohesion? Often, groups have found cohesion through exclusion. Throughout history you can look and see examples of this. In our nation’s history, racial segregation, whether official or silent, has often given a group a sense of cohesion. You can look, for example, at different golf courses, athletic clubs, social organizations, or even neighborhoods right here in Johnson County and ask, “Did that club not allow African Americans to join? Did that golf course not accept Jewish members?” There was a sense that the stickiness of the group could only be preserved by excluding certain types of people. There is someone I know who engages in ugly and vulgar acts of xenophobia. This man takes it as a personal affront whenever he sees signs that are written in both English and Spanish and loutishly complains to store managers demanding that they take down the signs in Spanish. For him, a multilingual culture is a threat to his tribal idea of cohesion.

I think there is a tribal element to the news reports we hear about people stealing each other’s political yard signs. In the elementary school game of capture of the flag, the children are divided into two tribes and try to steal the other tribe’s flag while defending their own. I read a CNN news report this week that the political yard sign of 70s rock star, Peter Frampton, who now lives in Cincinnati, has repeatedly been stolen. I had two reactions to this story: the first was to shake my head at those louts who steal yard signs. My second reaction was to think, “Why the heck does Pete Townsend live in Cincinnati?” Provincialism is its own form of achieving cohesion through exclusion.

There are others though, for whom racial differences, cultural differences, religious differences, and political differences are not threatening. I had this experience four weeks ago when, on a Friday night, I caught the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station at rush hour and then caught the subway Uptown to visit the Whitney art museum in New York City. Surrounded by the most amazing diversity, I felt blessed, not threatened. I recalled the remarks made by baseball relief pitcher John Rocker in the 90s, about his hatred of the diversity one finds on a New York Subway. I feel exactly the opposite. Stickiness is a way of being in the world, a way of feeling like you can fit no matter where you go.

In a nation larger than one hundred and fifty people, we need to find ways of being together: of being a part of an interdependent web, of recognizing the bonds that binds us, of being caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied in a garment of destiny. Democracy is a process that requires stickiness. We participate. We cast our vote. Our preferred candidate wins or loses and we stick with the system, until the next time our moment of choosing comes around. We live in a nation that requires that we stick with the people we elect whether we like them or not. We do not have to like their ideas. We do not have to agree with them. We should be civil and peaceful towards them, but we can challenge their ideas, protest their actions, and work our rear ends off to get a different person elected next time. But we also have to stick around.

I suppose we could move to a different country. I suppose we could try to organize for our small tribe to secede from the union. I suppose we could throw our hands in the air when we don’t like the direction we feel our country is headed and abstain from the process. We could ignore it all in the name of apathy and cynicism. But Democracy is a sticky thing. Democracy is a sticky thing. Imperfect countries are run by imperfect politicians elected by imperfect voters. We stick with it. The alternative is so much worse.

Our Unitarian Universalist fifth principle tells us that we are to affirm and promote democracy not only in our nation, but also in our churches. The most prominent Unitarian theologian of the Twentieth Century, James Luther Adams, called churches “Voluntary Associations.” By that, he meant that all of us are basically free to choose whether we will come here or not and the extent to which we will participate. And, he was basically right about that. It was a true statement. This is unlike, say, being a resident of the United States. For most of us, residing in the USA is not really a choice. Some of us did chose to come here from another country. Others of us could choose to give up our citizenship and live elsewhere. But for the most part, it is not a thing that we even think to choose.

I think we should apply that some of that same sense of stickiness that is required of us to be a functional part of a democratic nation to being a functional part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We are an imperfect church made out of imperfect members led by imperfect leaders. Our own spiritual growth depends, in part, on our own ability to be sticky and to fully participate in the democracy of this church. The fulfillment of our mission as a church requires that we stick together and stick around.

On the flip side of the insert I have included a quiz about the church:

1) Can you name the four officers and five at large board members on the SMUUCh Board of Trustees?
President:
Vice-President:
Treasurer:
Secretary:
5 at large members:

2) How many things can you list that the membership votes on at a Congregational Meeting? What percentage of the membership constitutes a quorum at a regular congregational meeting?

3) When is the next Board of Trustees meeting? What time? Where?

4) How would you go about requesting that an item appear on the agenda of a board meeting?


Here are the answers. Our board consists of President Al Forker, Vice-President Keith Dalton, Treasurer Jim Geiger and Secretary Elizabeth Barker. The five at large members are Patsy Pierce, Deneen Slack, Nancy Dumler, Tracy Goold, and Bill Roush. A quorum at a regular congregational meeting is 25% of the membership. The business conducted at meetings includes the election of the voting members of the board of trustees, the election of members of the nominating committee, voting on changes to the by-laws, the call or dismissal of a minister (which requires a quorum of forty percent of the membership), and votes that may be required or recommended by the Unitarian Universalist Association, such as our vote two years ago to become a Welcoming Congregation.

Board meetings are held on the second Monday of the month at 7:00 in Saeger House. One week before, the Executive Committee meets to set an agenda. The agenda, with supporting materials, is then sent out to the board so that they have the time to consider the pertinent information and make wise decisions. In order to get something on the board agenda, you would need to submit your proposed agenda item to Al Forker, Keith Dalton, Jim Crist, or myself. At our meeting, one week prior to the board meeting, we meet and decide whether an item will be taken up by the board or whether the item should be addressed in another capacity.

Stickiness. I ask you, in the days ahead and in the weeks ahead, to look into yourself and to determine how “sticky” you are. How willing are you to remain engaged, even when it is difficult? How willing are you not to pull back, or pull away, but stick with others in community? How willing are you to increase the power of your own personal gravitational pull, to form authentic relationships with all the diversity that is manifest around us? This is soul work. This is religious work. It is what is needed for vitality in our community, vitality in our church, and yes, even vitality in our democracy.

May the force be with you!