Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sermon: "Standing on the Side of Love" (Delivered 7-12-2009)

The reading this morning comes from the writings of James Luther Adams (1901-1994), the greatest Unitarian theologian of the Twentieth century. [It is important to note that when Adams speaks of “Christians” he is not excluding Unitarians. For Adams, Unitarianism was a Christian faith. He was not writing about the “other,” but about the “us.” If this is a stretch for you, you might substitute “religious people” or “people of faith” for “Christians” in the following reading.]
Christians possess almost infinite capacities of dissolving the political symbolism of covenant and kingdom. These forms of dissolution include the reduction of Christian ethics to personalism, systematic theology that has no reference to institutions, psychotherapy that possesses no sociological framework, abstract existentialism that talks about concreteness and decision but does not drive towards actualizing concreteness and decision in the social-historical situation…

Why is it so extremely easy for Christians to become pietistic, in the sense that they see little connection between Christian ethics and structural institutional analysis or between Christian ethics and the responsibility for the character and influence of economic and political institutions?...

I pressed upon myself the question, “If Fascism should arise in the States, what in your past performance would constitute a pattern or framework of resistance?” I could only give a feeble answer to the question. My principal political activities had been the reading of the newspaper and voting. I had preached sermons on the depression or in defense of strikers. Occasionally, I uttered protests against censorship… But I had no adequate conception of citizen participation.

Let me begin with an image. This year’s Unitarian Universalist General Assembly was held in Salt Lake City at the Salt Palace convention center. The main entrance to the convention center has a tall circular glass tower. Before the assembly began, the UUA had hung an immense yellow banner on the glass tower that declared that Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. During the week a strong wind came over downtown Salt Lake City, the banner came partially detached, and a gust of wind slammed a metal grommet from the banner into the glass tower breaking one of the windows and causing glass to rain down.

Those of us who are more rational might offer an explanation for this event that combines the power of forces of nature and a technical criticism of the engineering capabilities of our denominational leaders. But there are other interpretations, for sure.

In the center of Salt Lake City, did God or the Angel Moroni reach down from the heavens to tear down our banner? Or, perhaps, the power of love incarnate had struck, offering evidence that love is a force too powerful to be constrained, or restrained, or limited.

I can tell you though that those of us who walked out of the building at around the time our banner was intently trying to tear down the convention center window pane by window pane were greeted by the presence of a bright rainbow in the Utah sky. Considering all of the money the Latter Day Saints had pumped into California to pass Proposition 8 perhaps the inclusive love that is often symbolized by a rainbow was exacting some small measure of revenge. After all, Jewish weddings end with a shattering of a glass. Perhaps this was a sign in favor of religious diversity and equal marriage. Or maybe I’m stretching the interpretation a little bit too much.

My words this morning will contain many things, but I want my words to go beyond those things. I will share some experiences from the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly which I attended at the end of June, but this sermon will not be a report about General Assembly. I will talk about a new and exciting initiative that has been launched by our movement, but this sermon will not be a denominational advertisement. I will talk about Unitarian Universalist history, but this won’t be a history lesson. I will revisit the theological insights of James Luther Adams, but this won’t be a theology lecture.

Standing on the Side of Love is the name of a brand new public advocacy campaign launched at General Assembly in Salt Lake City. The campaign is described as confronting the exclusion, oppression, and violence that is based on identity and that seeks to diminish the worth and dignity of any person. Standing on the Side of Love is a call to pursue social change through advocacy, public witness, and speaking out in solidarity with those whose lives are publicly demeaned. Two focuses of the campaign, and there will be more than two, are standing on the side of love for marriage equality and standing on the side of love with immigrant families. Next week Preaching Practicum graduate M. will preach about standing on the side of love with immigrant families.

My friends, let me tell you, I think we may have finally got it as a religious movement. This inspires me. Big blue billboards and bumper stickers calling us the “Uncommon Denomination” are nice. But, I feel it is sign of growth and maturity for us to turn our main public voice from an attempt to explain who we are to one that focuses on what we do in and for the world.

What we do in and for the world: we stand on the side of love.

If you are new to Unitarian Universalism, one of the things you will learn is that we are extremely proud of our history. In truth our history is full of great things but it also has its share of shameful moments and embarrassing episodes. But, we can trace our history and list the myriad ways that we have stood on the side of love. In the Northeast in the 1800s prominent Unitarians were effective at convincing the public of the inhumanity of slavery while in California Thomas Starr King was primarily responsible for keeping The Golden State in the Union during the Civil War. In advocacy for abolition, we stood on the side of love.

We were the first denomination to recognize the ordination of a woman. It was in these Unitarian and Universalist congregations that recognized the religious leadership of women that the women’s suffrage movement was born. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Olympia Brown are our religious forebears, but our congregations played a role as well, opening their doors for the suffragettes to organize inside and deliver stirring speeches. In standing for equal rights for women, we stood on the side of love.

During the Civil Rights movement, when Martin Luther King issued his call to Selma, Unitarian Universalist ministers and laypeople across the country answered his call. One layperson, Viola Liuzzo, and one minister, James Reeb were martyred in Alabama. In Selma we marched on the side of love and our blood was shed by violent hate while we stood peacefully on the side of love.

Most recently, Unitarian Universalists have stood on the side of love for marriage equality. The tides have shifted. Love will win out over fear, love will win out over bigotry, and love will win out over homophobia. But were it not for the powerful organizing of Unitarian Universalists in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Iowa, the equal marriage movement would be ten years behind where it is today. By standing on the side of love, we have sped up the realization of equality and dignity for more people in our country. [One of my friends here in Kansas City says that she recently saw someone wearing a tee shirt that proclaimed, “Iowa: Cooler than California since 2009.”]

When I originally heard about the Standing on the Side of Love public advocacy movement, my thoughts immediately turned to a theological essay by James Luther Adams entitled, “The Evolution of My Social Concern.” I love even this title. Just as we are a faith community that values the counsel of reason and teachings of science, and that finds splendor in the biological theory of evolution, so too do we understand our lives as consisting of growth and change.

Adams can be a bit hard to wrap our heads around. Heck, theology can be a bit hard to wrap our heads around. Heck, the writing that is produced by any academic discipline can be hard to wrap our heads around. So, I want to say just a few words about his essay on the evolution of his social concern. And, mostly what I want to do is to contextualize, to frame the piece that I read from earlier.

To understand his essay you need to understand something about Germany. From the mid 1700s until the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party, Germany ruled the world in the fields of biblical scholarship and theology. You can imagine the most dominant thing in the world. That is how dominant Germany was in the fields of religious studies and theology. Germany was as dominant at theology as Tiger Woods is dominant at golf and as Roger Federer is at Tennis. In fact, to be taken seriously as a person of theological learning, you needed to go study in Germany. So, you had generations of Unitarian ministers all through the 1800s and into the twentieth century going to Germany to study.

Along comes James Luther Adams, this rising, promising Unitarian theologian who travels to Germany just as Hitler’s Nazi Party is seizing political control of the country. And his experience there is not at all what he expected and what he observes shakes him to the core of his being. It is like a trip to Niagara Falls only to discover that somebody has turned off the water. In Germany Adams encounters theologians who are shilling for the Nazi party. He runs into ivory tower academics trying to shield their academic field by insisting that theology does not mix with politics and that it cannot or should not speak to social questions. And then, Adams spends some time with those within the German church who were putting their own lives on the line by actively resisting Hitler’s Fascism.

James Luther Adams returns to the United States and he begins to formulate his own theological response to what he witnessed. He begins asking all these questions about the meaning of groups, association, and institutions. He asks questions about the difference between the inner and outer religious life. These would become some of the central theological projects of his life.

I could go on and lecture you for hours about James Luther Adams, but instead I want to turn the question on you. When Adams describes the evolution of his social concern, he describes going to Germany at this time in the course of human events and being shaken by what he experienced. What if I turned to each of you and asked you to describe the evolution of your social concern? Next week’s sermon by Preaching Practicum graduate M. will address the way in which welcoming an immigrant into her family helped to evolve her social concern. What is your “Standing on the Side of Love” moment?

For me, my “standing on the side of love” moment came in high school. I had a reputation for being open-minded and for being a safe figure. I was often the first person—or at the least the first student in my high school—to whom several teachers and even more students came out. With my identity as an ally secured, I participated in organizing and I was among the marchers who took to the streets for the world’s first ever Youth Pride Parade for GLBT teens and their allies. I remember, as we walked along our parade route on that beautiful June day, seeing mostly friendly and supportive and encouraging faces. However, at one part of the route a very small group of counter-protesters had gathered. They carried signs that proved their own ignorance and hate. If I had to find a word to describe them, the word would be “pathetic.” I found myself saying or maybe just thinking to myself, “We seem to be having a lot more fun than you’re having.” At this moment I felt in the core of my being a deep peace with where I stood. I stood with the marchers in the parade, not with the angry, scowling counter-protesters. I stood on the side of love.

If you’ve ever stood on the side of love, what motivated you? What inspired you? What swelled up within you and gave you the moral clarity and discernment to take a stand on the side of love? I am and remain profoundly grateful to all those who have over the years shared their stories of what had led them to stand. I am grateful to Holly Near, a singer-songwriter for peace, who described that day when she passed the group that was standing for peace, the group that always stood for peace, the group she had always dismissed with cynicism and deeply rationalized realism. And then, one day as she walked past, Holly Near asked herself the question, can there be any justification for my being here and not with them? I remain grateful to Kim Crawford-Harvie who entered into the ministry in the 1980s just as the AIDS epidemic in the United States had grown most virulent and before any medical institution or any church for that matter would develop a compassionate and merciful response. I am grateful for Kim’s testimonial of compassion and presence, as she tended the sick and stood on the side of love.

And so, I turn again to ask the question that James Luther Adams asked himself, “What in my own past experience would constitute a pattern or a framework for resistance?”

Whether it is standing on the side of love with immigrant families; whether it is standing on the side of love for marriage equality; whether it is standing on the side of love for health care that is more equitable, more available, and better serves human need; whether it is standing for peace with Julia’s Voice; let us ask ourselves from whence we derive the motivation, the courage, the commitment to stand on the side of love rather than standing on the sidelines of love. Can we stand on the side of love rather than taking a position of a detached observer on the side of love? Can we stand on the side of love rather than having a discussion group on the side of love?

I am convinced that our religious tradition is growing up and that we are becoming less stuck on trying to tell the world who we are. Instead, we will show the world what we do as a people of faith and as a people of love.