Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sermon: "Staying Sane in the Election Season" (Delivered 9-16-12)

I want to begin by telling you about an educational experience that profoundly shaped the way I think about politics and the church.  During my first year at Harvard Divinity School we were required to take a course that was an introduction to theological education for ministry.  In part of the class, panelists would come and speak to us about their understanding of the ministry they did.  One speaker who came was a Harvard graduate and the minister of an African-American congregation in Boston’s inner city.  He told us about a major shift that had occurred in his understanding of ministry.  At first his ministry was predominantly concerned with personal morality and with the believer’s personal relationship with Jesus, the holiness and salvation of the individual.  His church taught a message of a religiosity that helped believers to stand apart from the corruptions of society and culture.  Then, something happened that changed the way he thought about ministry.  A gang member came to an event at his church looking and shot and killed a teenager in his congregation.

This incident changed the way he thought about ministry, he told us.  He came to believe that the church needs to go out into the world because the world will most assuredly come into the church.  The church, he explained to us, needed to be political, not just personal.  He explained that he used the word “political” in the original sense of that word, what the word would have meant in Ancient Greece and in the philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plato.  The word “politic” comes from the Greek word polite, meaning citizen, which in turn comes from the Greek word polis, meaning city.  The word “politics,” in its most basic sense, means the affairs of the city, the affairs of the state.  Polis, polite, politics.  City, citizen, the affairs of the city.

In response to the gang shooting that happened within the walls of the church, this minister began to reach out aggressively to the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and to other community leaders.  Working cooperatively, they began initiatives and launched programs that proved effective at reducing youth violence in the inner city.  In fact, their programs became a national model for addressing youth violence in the inner city.

I share this story because it represents for me a foundational understanding of what politics means and what politics is about.  I share this story because it has to do with politics in the very best sense of the word, people working together to shape the affairs of the city.  The minister of the African-American church who came to speak as a panelist in that class had a vision.  His vision went beyond the walls of his church.  His vision had to do not only with the youth of his church being safe, but with youth throughout the city being safe, and having better choices and better opportunities than had been available to them.  It was a political vision, a community and city that made real investments in the lives of young people.  It was also a religious vision, just one that was not parochial or provincial or sectarian.  The religious vision was that every youth in the city was a child of God, born with worth and deserving of dignity.

One of our congregation’s earliest homes was the Nallwood Junior High School in Overland Park, where we met for a time in the late 1960s before we purchased this property.  When Nallwood Junior High was constructed in 1961 it was dedicated with the plaque that read,
Erected and equipped by the tax payers of this school district as evidence of their faith in the American system of public education, this building is dedicated to the principle that education is the foundation of good government and world peace.
Such a plaque is evidence of a particular vision and a particular faith that presents itself as universal.  It is a faith that goes beyond any narrow denomination and beyond any particular name for the divine.  It is a vision and faith that scholars have called “civil religion” and politicians have called “the American dream” or “the American Way of Life.”  If you grew up in this country, you probably received some education in American civil religion, a worldview with its own mythology, its own pantheon of saints – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln – as well its own holy scriptures in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.   American civil religion tells us that liberty, freedom, and justice are inalienable and supreme rights and that the democratic process is sacred ritual.  Questioning and challenging these assumptions is often treated as more than dissent; it’s treated as outright heresy.  G.K. Chesterton once called America a nation with the soul of a church.  It is an apt description.

My message this morning deals with the disconnect between the soaring, sacred rhetoric of democracy and the much more challenging practice of actual democracy.  I’ve titled my sermon “Staying Sane in the Election Season” because the election season is so often a disorienting emotional rollercoaster.  It is my belief, and it is the point that I’ll argue in this sermon, that understanding democracy as a religious system helps to explain both why politics affects us in the way that it does, and how we can better stay sane this election season.

This year, and each election cycle, members of this church have told me how this time of the year can lead them to feel alienation, aggravation, cynicism, and despair.  One member of the church described to me a verbal confrontation in the Whole Foods parking lot with a rude shopper who objected to his bumper sticker.  Another member tells of how she found a nasty note pinned under the windshield wiper of her car in response to her political bumper sticker.  Other members of this church, through the years, have told me about their yard signs being stolen, their bumper stickers being removed, and their personal property being damaged because of their demonstrated support for a particular candidate.

I’ve witnessed political posts on Facebook turn into undignified shouting matches composed in all caps.  More than one member of this church has copied me on an email to a friend or family member telling that person that their political opinions are not welcomed, or sometimes just plain telling that person off.

There are many members of this church, I suspect, who experience feeling under siege, attacked, or just generally feel defensive in the presence of friends, family members, or co-workers.  There are many members of this church, I suspect, who have felt antagonized by neighbors, by other drivers on the road, or by fellow shoppers in the grocery store parking lot.  Truth be told, there may be people in this room who have actively antagonized others.  Congregation, do you resonate with what I’m describing here?  Have you found yourself embattled with the stranger in the parking lot or with the in-law over email?  Have you found yourself embattled on the inside, feeling your blood-pressure rise on account of a yard sign or bumper sticker?

In terms of the coming election in November, for better or for worse, those of us here in Kansas and Missouri may actually experience a little less drama than many of our friends in other states.  Neither Kansas nor Missouri is considered a “swing state” and the presidential campaigns are spending less money advertising here than they are elsewhere.  In Kansas we are not electing a Senator or a Governor, and the Congressman in this district is running unopposed.  In Missouri, the National Republican Party has pulled its support for the Republican candidate for the Senate, which means fewer dollars going to the candidate and fewer ads running on television.  This is not to say that the election in either state is unimportant.  Quite the opposite.  There are races at the national, state, and local levels that are hugely important, but those races won’t receive nearly the same amount of coverage in the media.  Our storm has relative quiet before it, but it is still a storm.

In a true swing state or in a particular race that garners significant national attention, you can imagine how even more bombarded you would be with political advertisements.  In swing states, the mood experienced can be a kind of mania.  Here the symptoms tend more towards depression. 

All through the summer I’ve been reading the frequent postings by my colleague Meg Riley that are published on the Huffington Post.  Meg Riley lives in Minnesota and has been extremely active in working to get voters in that state to reject the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.  The title of each blog post is always the same, “X number of days till Minnesota votes on my family.”  For Meg I suspect, part of staying sane in the election season means working like hell to defeat the amendment even though the work is frustrating.  In her post, Fifty three days Till Minnesota Votes on my Family, Riley writes about volunteering at a phone bank making call after call to a conservative rural area of Minnesota where she is judged over and over again.  Feeling dejected, she talks to her daughter who has also been working the phone banks.    Her daughter told her, “But when you change the minds of one of those people, it’s the best feeling in the world.  I did that just yesterday.  One of those calls is worth being sent to hell fifty times… The calls I make, just me myself, could decide this election!”  She’s right.  It could, though it is an uphill battle.

We might do well to ask, what exactly sanity means in the context of a charged and combative political environment?  What does health really look like?  It would be a far easier question to answer if the stakes weren’t so very real.  Political choices might make the difference between ending war and continuing war, between choosing to start a war and choosing not to start a war.  Political choices might make the difference between certain health care options being available or not available to your family.  Political choices might make the difference between whether or not many social and health services are provided for those with disabilities or mental illness in our society.  Political choices might determine the amount of funding your child’s school receives, impacting everything from class sizes to the quality of materials to access to art and music.  Political choices might determine whether women will have access to health services.  Political choices might make a difference in the areas of environmental protection, financial regulation, taxation, immigration, education, and procreation.  Again, what does sanity look like in this context?

Earlier I made the claim that the American political system functions as a religious system.  I believe that we can apply some of what we know about religion to what we know about politics, and that this in turn can tell us a bit about sanity.  As Unitarian Universalists we know that salvation is not achieved at the level of the individual being promised a better world after this world.  Salvation is not a state of inner peace that we attain, but a social reality that we build.  It is tempting to think that staying sane in the election season is a matter of avoidance and separation rather than participation and engagement.  The stance that says, “Politics is a dirty business that I find distasteful and off-putting so I do not get involved,” is a form of denial.  It is a form of willful ignorance.

There is corollary to this.  Just as we understand that being a Unitarian Universalist means practicing your faith, it does not mean constantly trying to convert your family members, friends, or strangers.  The same is true of politics.  Not every conversation needs to turn into debate about politics.  This can be difficult.

When I say that politics is a religious system, I am making an analogy.  It is not a perfect analogy, but it is an understanding that offers plenty of insights.  For example, it is very clear to me that religions have the same fights over interpreting the Bible that politicians have over interpreting the Constitution.  Both are documents that approved of slavery, by the way.  There are battles over whether these documents ought to be read literally, or whether our interpretation ought to evolve over time.  Do new occasions teach new duties or is there never anything new under the sun?

At its core, here is what staying sane means to me.  It means having a powerful and profound vision of what a good society looks like to you.  Paint a picture of that powerful vision in your mind.  Imagine it engraved on a plaque in a public place.  Maturity and health means staying true to that vision.  State the vision positively.  Refrain from name-calling because there is a smallness there that is not worthy of you.

Maturity and health means stating and restating your powerful vision in the clearest and most powerful language you have, and working on behalf of it.  And the sanest thing you can possibly do is hold onto that vision no matter what.  Indeed, it is the only sane thing to do.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Sermon: "Question Box Sunday" (Delivered 9-2-2012)

One of Johnny Carson’s recurring late night bits was playing Carnac the Magnificent, a seer who could provide answers to questions hidden from him inside a hermetically sealed envelope. That’s a power they didn’t teach me in divinity school. And yet, there is often some mystical alchemy that happens in worship. A hymn, a prayer, a reading, a sermon illustration, or even a silence, manages to resonate with some part of your life, answering the question not yet fully formed.

Or there is the more direct route, this thing called Question Box Sunday in which we bridge the gap between pulpit and pew intentionally by actually asking you to ask the questions that are on your mind, and then providing you with wise and learned answers to those questions.

Looking at the range of questions submitted this year, the questions were interesting for what they asked as well as for what they did not ask. Not one single question was asked about this congregation’s programs, activities, staff, or administration. Additionally, not even a single question made reference to the new building or to the opportunity and potential that lies therein. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions here, but I found it interesting.

The questions I did receive broke down this way. Several questions dealt with the balance between atheists and theists in this congregation and other questions asked me to explore some aspect of UU theology. Several questions dealt with “hot-button social issues” such as homosexuality and abortion. A number of questions referenced politics and the fall elections and asked what the church’s proper role is during the election season. A few questions concerned the interpretation of the Bible or how and whether we might apply Biblical teachings to our lives. And, finally, the largest number of questions I received were more personal in nature. People wanted me to talk about myself and about my understanding of myself as minister. Go figure.

And then, every so often, a question comes along that is very particular. One person asked, “What should I do with my old books?” He then went on to explain that he has a collection of books written from a conservative religious perspective including a book entitled Kingdom of the Cults in which Unitarian Universalism is mentioned in the appendix. He doesn’t want to destroy the books but he also doesn’t want to give them away because their existence adds to the amount of judgment, intolerance, fear, and ignorance in the world.

By way of an answer I might mention a trip I took to Washington, D.C. a few years ago. While there I visited the Holocaust Museum. In the basement, the museum had a special exhibit about the history of a book called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is one of the most evil books ever written, a vicious work of anti-Semitic propaganda. The museum had an exhibit with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of copies of the book, published over many different decades, in many different languages, on different continents. In any other context, these books would perpetuate the amount of hate in the world. In that context, however, they served to educate about how propaganda can lead to genocide. So, I’d recommend sending your books to a place where they can be used for good, such as a research library at a University where some graduate student will someday write a paper on some aspect of religious fundamentalism.

Another person related the experience of visiting a mega-church during the election season of 2004. During the service the minister pointed at a candidate seated in the front row and declared, “I’m voting for this man.” According to the author of the card, this may not have violated the IRS regulations concerning political endorsement from churches. The person writing this question asked, “Where do you draw your line, and the church's line, this fall?”

First, let me say that two weeks from now I will be offering a sermon entitled “Staying Sane During the Election Season.” My sermon probably won’t address this question, so let’s take it today. Let’s look at where the IRS draws the line. IRS regulations say that a church can be penalized or lose its tax exempt status if it endorses candidates or political parties. Churches, however, are allowed to do issue advocacy and are allowed to instruct parishioners to vote in a certain way on ballot initiatives.

It is exceedingly rare for a church to lose its non-profit status for political activity.  In fact, I can find only one incident of a church losing its tax exempt status on account of political engagement. That happened in 1992 in New York when a conservative church took out full page ads in both USA Today and The Washington Post five days before the election telling Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. That church had its tax exempt status revoked and spent almost a decade fighting it in court before the decision was upheld.

On the Sunday before the election in 2004 the rector of a liberal Episcopal church in Los Angeles delivered a sermon in the form of an imaginary debate about the Iraq War between George W. Bush and John Kerry with none other than Jesus moderating the debate. Bush lost the debate and the IRS investigated the sermon. The church refused to cooperate and countersued the IRS, alleging that the Bush administration was selectively targeting progressive faith communities. Three years later the IRS concluded their investigation and found that the church had endorsed a candidate, but the IRS handed down neither penalty nor punishment.

Finally, it should be noted that since 2008, a California mega-church has endorsed candidates each year on the first Sunday in October, and will do so again next month. This church is joined by more than 500 other conservative churches around the country who together hold what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a Sunday in October when they endorse candidates. These churches then send recordings of the services to the IRS. The IRS has done nothing, has taken no action whatsoever, despite possessing more than 1,000 pieces of evidence of churches brazenly violating the rules. The churches are trying to provoke the IRS because they want the ban on candidate endorsement in churches to go before the Supreme Court. These churches are confident that the Supreme Court would rule the same way for churches that it ruled for corporations in the Citizens United decision. Churches are people. My theory is that the Obama administration has instructed the IRS not to enforce regulations against churches, recognizing that doing so would be a losing proposition, legally and politically.

Where should we draw the line? Well, we definitely won’t be joining in on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, if that’s what you are asking. Here is what shapes my thinking about candidate endorsement in church: How many of you are 100% sure that you are going to vote in November? Raise your hands. [Almost every hand in the room goes up.] This is the norm for UU congregations. All of us vote. Give yourself a hand for that. In this way we are different from many groups of people. Nearly half of all Americans won’t go to the polls in November. What the mega-churches are doing is running get-out-the-vote campaigns. And here we do not need to do that. You already get out and vote. If I did the greatest, fieriest sermon with candidates having a debate moderated by the Dalai Lama it might change one or two minds. It might provoke one person to vote who wasn’t otherwise planning on it. It would be a waste of my breath.

The next question asked about atheists in the church. “There are a significant number of atheists in our congregation. Do you feel they are as welcome to our church as anyone else? Do you think we can have “too many” atheists in our church community? How do you feel, personally, about this issue?”

A few comments: first, the questions could easily be flipped. I’ve actually had people come up to me and tell me that they believe in God and wonder if they will be truly welcomed here. Second, the humanist-theist debate within Unitarian Universalism goes back a generation. The result was a draw. Both sides won. Third, I believe this congregation has a really healthy theological diversity. It is one of our considerable strengths. I brag about this to my minister friends. A decade ago this congregation did a survey on the theological diversity of this congregation. It wasn’t forced choice; people could select multiple theologies, which is very UU of us. Here were the results:
60% Eclectic (Desiring exposure to many different religious and non-religious sources.)
49% Ethical Religion 
47% Ethical Christianity 
43% Humanism 
41% Agnosticism
37% Naturalistic Theism 
35% Earth Centered Spirituality 
23% Skepticism 
22% Mysticism 
19% Atheism or Non-Theism 
14% Theism 
5% Theological Christianity 
3% Judaism
Even though we’ve changed a lot since then, I would bet that the percentages are about the same today. That’s just a guess. There is no quota system, of course. But I do think that there is a good equilibrium that will continue to attract both theists and atheists, as well as the various other categories, in the future. Personally, I believe that your belief about God is not the most important thing about you. It will never be a barrier to me caring about you. Whether theist or atheist our ideas about God never give us the right to be jerks to each other.

Two questions asked me to comment about homosexuality in the Bible. Allow me to preface these remarks by saying that it is extremely problematic to look to the Bible as an authoritative guide for contemporary sexual ethics, and we would be very unhappy if we tried to do so.

The book I’m holding right now is a concordance. It is a listing of all the words in the Bible with a reference to all the scripture passages that contain that word. So, if you open it to “A” and look up “Angel” you can find every time the word Angel occurs in the Bible. It’s a handy reference tool. If you look up the word “homosexuality” you find that the word does not occur within the Bible. There is a reason for this. The words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not actually exist until the 1860s, when they were invented. They are both ugly words, as far as words go. The first parts of the words, hetero- and homo- come from the Greek while the sexual part comes from the Latin. You’re not supposed to mix your Greek and your Latin. It is an abomination.

According to Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank, a particular cultural milieu in Europe that included the industrial revolution, urbanization, changing gender roles, and various new forms of science and pseudoscience gave birth to the way we tend to categorize human sexuality in the modern world today. Interestingly, it was this same period of great social change that led to the emergence of Christian fundamentalism.

Blank writes, “Naming and cataloging can be real and powerful science. They can also be real and powerful cultural magic. This is precisely why we have to be wary of who is in charge of naming and cataloging things.” As it turns out, the first five books of the Bible, especially Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are extremely concerned with cataloging life. Further, many of the Epistles are very concerned with re-categorizing life during a time of religious upheaval. Between the Old and New Testament, there are a total of six passages that mention sexual contact between people of the same sex. In comparison, Strong’s Concordance tells me that there are 86 passages that deal with circumcision. When people read the Bible today, they tend to read those six passages and to project onto those passages a modern system of categorization that was invented in the 1860s, but easily dismiss passages like those relating to circumcision because that’s not a category that we tend to recognize as having importance today.

These Biblical passages demand to be read within a specific historical context, in which the attempts to categorize human sexual behavior had a lot to do with emphasizing differentiation between Jewish and Canaanite culture and religion in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish and Hellenistic Greek culture and religion in the New Testament. These passages have absolutely nothing to do with modern understandings of sexual orientation. It is so important to point out that the categories we find in scripture don’t make much sense today. Ancient Israel and the United States in 2012 are very different worlds. If they were not, how else would you explain the 86 verses dealing with circumcision, 39 verses dealing with concubines, and 27 Biblical mentions of eunuchs?

One person posed the question, “Does either SMUUCh or Unitarian Universalism overall have a position on abortion?” At the national level, the delegates to the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed resolutions in support of a woman’s right to choose in 1963, 1968, 1969,1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1993. Additionally, at the year’s General Assembly, delegates including yours truly voted to select Reproductive Justice as the congregational study action issue for the next three years. Individual churches tend not to vote on positions in the same way that our national body does. My position is that I am proud to minister in a tradition with this proud history, and I was honored to receive an award this past year by the Kansas Choice Alliance for my advocacy work for Reproductive Justice.

I have time for a few more questions. One person asked how I could better get to know members of the church. This message was sent to me at the same time that I was having coffee in downtown Overland Park with a newer member of the church who invited me to coffee so that I could get to know him better. I love coffee.

Finally, one member of the church, in her question to me, made reference to a 90s pop song by Joan Osborne entitled, “One of Us.” The chorus goes, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home, like a holy rolling stone?”

Here is the question in its entirety: “I really love the song, ‘What if God Was One of Us’ by Joan Osborne, especially this line: ‘What would you ask [God] if you had just one question?’ This exercise reminds me of that song! The question that immediately comes to my mind is inspired by Bob Dylan: ‘How does it feel?’ So, that's what I'm asking you - since I don't believe in God but do believe in the holiness of all, from the stranger on the bus to my minister - how does it feel to be you?”

Interestingly, this question provides an answer to another question that was posed to me. That person wondered about the phrase, “the divine within each of us,” and whether there was a humanist way to understand that concept. To quote the author of the former question, “I don’t believe in God but do believe in the holiness of all, including the stranger on the bus.” I suppose another way to phrase it would be to say the inherent worth and dignity, that inherent worth and dignity we do not abdicate even when we act unworthily or in an undignified manner.

So, how does it feel to be me? What an interesting question. I mean, how does it feel to be any of us? How does water feel to the fish? There are times that I feel incredibly lucky and each day feels like I’ve won the lottery. There are times that I feel restless, afflicted by a kind of prophetic impatience that can be both blessing and curse. There is a side of me that is edgier than most people want their minister to be. This too is both a gift and a curse. There is a side of me that is drawn to things that are idiosyncratic, poetic, mystical, unusual, odd, quirky, and weird, which may be why I like this question so much. If you could feel what it feels like to be me, you might be surprised by how often I hum the tunes to hymns in our hymnal. One of those hymns this past week has been the one with the words, “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer ‘Yes’ to life, truth, and love.” That’s how it feels, to be a person who tries to answer yes to life, truth, and love. May we sing together and may we answer with our lives in the same way.