Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Homily: "Divisive Religion is False Religion" (Delivered 6-13-10)

Sunday, June 13 was a fantastic morning! We celebrated Gay Pride month with a special Pride themed worship service. Our morning began with Jessica Farmer, a community outreach and education specialist with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, leading a forum about the services that KCAVP provides. Jessica also offered a wonderful testimonial during the worship service.

Here is the homily that I delivered during the worship service:

Divisive Religion is False Religion: Remarks on Entering Our Fifth Year as a Welcoming Congregation

In ministry I am frequently reminded of the divisiveness that exists in our world, the forces of separation that diminish human life. Each year, the early summer brings me into contact with the reality of the divisiveness. In the early summer I perform a lot of wedding ceremonies. This puts me in touch with family dynamics, and, from time to time, these dynamics give me a firsthand glimpse of divisive human behavior. Not always; but sometimes. I’ve seen grandmothers scowl during outdoor weddings: “Why can’t they get married in a church?” I’ve seen uncles frown during church weddings: “Why can’t they get married in the right type of church?” There have been weddings that family members have boycotted, or attended under protest, because the person their relative was marrying belonged to the “wrong” religion, or belonged to no religion, or was the "wrong" race, or fell short in some other way.

And, of course, churches and clergy often further this divisiveness. I have had couples who have come to me because their own minister would not bless them because one was Christian and the other was Jewish, or because one was Catholic and the other was Protestant, or because they lived together before marriage. These couples come to me angry and hurting after being told that their relationship was unworthy of being blessed. They come to me wary and defensive, wondering if I will choose to bless them or shun them.

We live in a divisive world. Over the last few years hate speech, vicious and venomous, has been on the rise. Our politics is divisive; I’ve observed children fighting over a pail in a sandbox who have shown greater civility and dignity than many politicians. Our media is divisive. If you can shout outrageous and offensive things you too can have your own editorial news program. We continue to live with racial divisiveness and xenophobia, where fear and mistrust is sown between those of differing skin tones.

And of course, of course, we continue to live in a nation that insists on dividing people based on their sexual and affectional orientation and their gender identity and expression. Too often being openly gay can get you bullied at school, shunned by acquaintances, and disowned by family members. Being gay is cause for discrimination under the laws of our nation.

As if there was not enough divisiveness in the world, religion has too often done its best to start fires and fan flames: Flames of divisiveness within religious traditions, between Sunni and Shiite, for example. Flames of divisiveness between religious groups: between Christians and Jews, between Hindus and Muslims. Religion has stoked fires of persecution and discrimination against women, against racial minorities, against gays and lesbians. Too often, religion has played the role of the divider, separating the “saved” from the “damned.”

Last month, the Episcopalian diocese in Los Angeles consecrated Mary Glasspool as the first openly lesbian Bishop. Since then leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopalian Church in America is a part, have divisively condemned and attacked this decision. One news report described the “widening chasm” in the Anglican Church.

In my mind, it is the true work of religion to heal divisions, to mend torn relationships, to build understanding, to decrease ignorance and fear, and most especially to help people to better treat their neighbors as themselves. When religion fails in this task, as it so often does, it fails to serve the cause of human need and fails in its holiest endeavors.

I am proud to be a part of a religious tradition that honors human dignity. As early as the 1950s, ministers in the Unitarian Universalist tradition conferred their blessings upon same-sex relationships. Since the 1970s, our tradition has funded staff positions at our national headquarters to promote GLBT awareness and equality. Since the 1970s, we have taught non-heterosexist sexuality education in our churches. In the 1980s, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Unitarian Universalist clergy and laypeople ministered to those stricken with the AIDS virus at the same time when clergy in some other denominations refused hospital visitation to those suffering from AIDS and refused to perform funerals for those who died from the dread disease.

At a time when the acceptance of gays and lesbians was proving to be an issue that tore apart many mainline Christian congregations, Unitarian Universalists increasingly embraced full inclusion. Our movement created the Welcoming Congregation program, a curriculum designed to educate congregations on how to be fully welcoming and inclusive of LGBT individuals and families. Our movement developed the Beyond Categorical Thinking workshop to help congregations imagine choosing ministers who are not straight, white, men. (Some good it did this church.)

As many other mainline denominations struggled over questions such as ordination of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists established themselves as the most credible religious voice for marriage equality, playing a key role in victories for equal marriage in Massachusetts, Iowa, Washington D.C., and elsewhere.

This morning we look ahead our coming church year, which will be our fifth year as a recognized Welcoming Congregation. Since the Welcoming Congregation program was launched in the mid-90s, almost 600 of our 1,000 congregations have completed the Welcoming Congregation program. And, even those numbers are misleading. In Unitarian Universalism, about half of our congregations are very small, less than about 100 members. For many of these churches it is a weekly fight to open the doors on Sunday morning, much less commit significant volunteer time to a time-intensive program for fostering greater inclusion. Of congregations that are more than 150 members, I estimate the upwards of 95% are Welcoming Congregations.

So, while we celebrate entering our fifth year as a Welcoming Congregation I have to divulge in the interest of transparency that this was something with which this congregation actually struggled the first time we attempted it. In the late 90s, before I became the minister here, the board of this church considered going through the Welcoming Congregation program. They decided against it. What I’ve heard I have only heard at second hand, but from what I have heard, the reason the decision not to go ahead was made had to do with worrying that it might make someone uncomfortable, that it might be a source of fighting and conflict and divisiveness. From what I have been able to gather, nobody really had any idea who that “someone” was or if there was really someone at all. That is the history as I have been able to glean it.

When this church and I began to court each other in the process that would lead me to being called as your minister, one of my biggest reservations, if not my biggest reservation, had to do with this decision not to pursue becoming a Welcoming Congregation. Would I really want to serve a church that shies away from projects and programs out of fear that someone might get upset, that there might be some conflict, or that someone might decide to pack up their toys and go home?

I took it as a challenge. At the end of my first year I gathered a social justice team and we decided to take on the Welcoming Congregation program as a project. Over the next year and a half we went though the program. Nobody cut their pledge in protest. Nobody left the church in anger. It was a breeze. We did what was right. We proclaimed our values. It did not divide us.

And, this is something we should be proud of. Because at around the same time while we were successfully engaging with the Welcoming Congregation program, one of our very liberal neighboring congregations, the most progressive church in Prairie Village, went through the equivalent program in their denomination and they wound up having a hell of a fight. There was bitterness and divisiveness. There were accusations and a general lack of trust. The issue at stake did not have all that much to do with LGBT individuals. The issues were about whether the church would take public stands and declare what it stood for. But, it was hurtful for so many members of that church to see the church fighting about whether it would come out and openly welcome their own families, their own friends, and their own children.

I began my remarks this morning by talking about the early summer as a season of weddings. I opened with these remarks fully cognizant of the shameful and disgraceful fact that in both Kansas and Missouri, as in so many states as well as at the federal level, the laws of our country discriminate against gay and lesbian relationships. Rights are denied. Equal protection under the law is denied. Gay families are treated as second class or third class families.

But, something happened this spring that overwhelmed me with joy. Two of the couples who came to me to enter into a conversation about whether I would officiate at their wedding had a question to ask me. Two of the couples asked, “Do you also bless same-sex unions?” My answer, of course, was a resounding, “Yes! Of course I do.” The question they asked was a litmus test. They did not want a minister who practicing discrimination to officiate at their weddings. By asking this question, these couples were sizing up my integrity. Was I a minister that practiced fairness, inclusion? Or was I a minister that discriminated, that judged that which was not mine to judge?

Are we a church that amplifies the divisiveness in our society? Or, are we a church that heals brokenness, bridges divisions, and promotes greater unity? We pass the test. This is something to celebrate. Let’s keep celebrating!