Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sermon: "Radical Welcome" (Delivered 10-28-12)

About ten years ago, a Christian spiritual writer named Don Miller wrote a spiritual memoir inspired by the lessons he learned about faith while hanging out at America’s most liberal liberal-arts college, a place with a reputation for its skepticism and its brazen rejection of orthodox religious views. This happened to be where I went to college, which was the reason I read his memoir. What happens in a nutshell is that the author goes there expecting to find a den of iniquity, a place oozing hedonism and heathenism, but instead he discovers that it’s his own exclusiveness, the tendency he has learned to be in judgment of others, that gets in the way of him being whole. The author introduces us to a student named Nathan, a brilliant physics student who also happens to speak with a pronounced speech impediment. Here’s what Don Miller writes,
I never thought of that [college] as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there… and nobody will ever make fun of him. [But] if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love…, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. Nobody would bother to find out that he is a genius. [He] has spent four years in a place where what you are on the surface does not define you, it does not label you. And that is what I love about [this place] because… there is… this foundational understanding that other people exist and they are important.
Unlike Don Miller, I also belonged to a church where what you are on the surface does not define and does not label you. One of the greatest blessings in my life is having grown up in a Unitarian Universalist church, in a liberal religious community where I was welcomed, truly welcomed, as I was, where I was treated with respect, and where my inherent worth and dignity was honored.

Listen, I just became a parent. The other day I was holding this four week old being, this mystery in my arms, and I felt so incredibly blessed by something that I absolutely knew to be true. There is a reason I chose this faith community for myself, why we choose it for ourselves, and why we’ve chosen it for our daughter. It is because here she will not be judged. Here she will be welcomed. She will not be judged if she happens to have a speech impediment or if as a teen she dyes her hair or shaves her head. She will not be judged if she expresses gender in a way that does not conform to society’s standards. She will not be judged if it turns out that she loves women or if it turns out she loves men. She will not be judged if she comes to discover that she does not believe in God, or if she feels moved to worship the Goddess. We’ve chosen this faith community for her because here there is this foundational understanding that other people exist and that they are important. We’ve chosen it because we believe that this is a value that that needs to be taught.

In our first four weeks of worship services here in our new church home we’re going to be exploring together some of the foundations of liberal religion that help to define our presence in our new community. We’ll be considering some of the core understandings of who we are and how we try to be in the world. I use the term liberal religion because we’re going to be talking about things that we as Unitarian Universalists don’t claim to have a monopoly on. We’re not the only faith tradition that practices radical welcoming. We don’t think we’re the only path to salvation. Rather, these are the values and practices that we try to live up to, that we try to embody, but that also can be found in liberal forms of thought and liberal forms of faith the world over.

In the Islamic tradition, the mystic poet Rumi writes of a welcoming friendship between a frog and a mouse.
A mouse and a frog meet every morning on the riverbank.  
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.

Each morning, the second they see each other, they open easily, 
telling stories and dreams and secrets, 
empty of any fear or suspicious holding back.

To watch, and listen to those two is to understand how, 
as it’s written, sometimes when two beings come together, 
Christ becomes visible.

Bitterness doesn’t have a chance with those two.
Rumi is also the author of a song we often sing, “Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving – ours in no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.” It is a song of being welcomed back, unconditionally, into reconnection. In the teachings of Jesus, welcoming the stranger is treated as a moral imperative.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises his disciples saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” But the disciples were confused, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?...” We all know how Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” The outcasts of the ancient Roman Empire and of today include the poor and the underclass, racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the physically infirm and mentally ill, and those who do not conform to dominant gender or family roles considered normative within society.

I am deeply proud of the way this church and the Unitarian Universalist religious tradition has outwitted the forces of exclusion. It seems that we strive to be the embodiment of the lesson of Edwin Markham’s short poem, “Outwitted,”
He drew a circle that shut me out, 
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout – 
But love and I had the wit to win: 
We drew a circle that took him in!
Our tradition draws the circle wide. Here in this church the circle we have drawn welcomes the full participation of women in all human endeavors, including religious leadership. We are richer for it. Here in this church, the circle that we have drawn allows interfaith couples to feel welcome. One partner comes from a Jewish background; another partner comes from a Christian background. Or, one partner is theistic and the other is humanist. Or, one grew up Buddhist and the other was raised Catholic. Here, neither partner is the outsider who doesn’t quite belong. Neither has to swear off their identity or their origin as a condition of being fully welcomed. We are richer because of our diversity and our differences.

Here in this church the circle that we have drawn welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families. We are proud to be a Welcoming Congregation. We are richer for it. Last week the Kansas City Star ran a story about a musician at a large conservative church in Hutchinson, Kansas. Did you read this story? This man was told he could no longer play music, could no longer volunteer as a church musician on account of the fact that he is gay. That church is not only poorer in music; it is poorer in spirit. It is poorer in soul. It is morally impoverished. The story went to say how this man now worships at the tiny UU Fellowship in Hutchinson, where they may be small in number, but they are rich in what it means to be human.

Here in this church the circle that we have drawn welcomes in the immigrant. Sara Sautter shared with me earlier this week that the cousins of one of our Iraqi Families will soon be coming to the United States and are being placed in the Boston area. Sara asked me for a reference of a UU minister in the Boston area she might approach about sponsoring that family. My first thought was that one UU church in the Boston area is going to be very lucky.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism tells us that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity. Other people exist and they are important. It can become easy to pay this idea lip service, to treat it casually. But, it is actually a radical idea. Your neighbors have worth and dignity. The stranger you pass on the street, the family living on the other side of the tracks, the person living in the refugee camp, the person who is filled with anger or hate or apathy: all of these people have worth and dignity. When we say that every person has worth and dignity, let me be clear that we are not saying that every idea has worth or that every action is dignified. There are words and ideologies that hurt people, that damage and wound people. There are actions that hurt, that endanger, and that cause suffering. There are words and actions that fail to honor the worth and dignity of other people.

Despite our best efforts and our intentions, we are not perfect in our welcome. There are times when we fail, both individually and collectively, to be welcoming. Welcoming is a skill developed through practice. Part of the discipline of being welcoming is listening to another person’s experiences and trusting that the other person understands their own experiences. In Rumi’s poem about the mouse and the frog, he writes, “The mouse starts laughing out a story he hasn’t thought of in five years, and the telling might take five years.” Understanding does not always come immediately. We get better at it when we commit to listening.

Before I began as the minister of this church, I served a year as an intern minister at a church in the Dallas area. As I got to know the people in that church, I learned their stories, their backgrounds, how they came to join a Unitarian Universalist church. One story in particular sticks out to me. She told me about how she had grown up in a religious tradition that had emphasized judgment, but that she had gone to college and wound up meeting and falling in love with and marrying a Jewish man. When they had children, they sought out a religious home. They tried the Unitarian Universalists.

One of their earliest visits was to attend a solstice ritual put on by the church’s pagan members. They arrived to find members of the church dressed in flowing garments, looking like extras from the Lord of Rings. She felt self-conscious in her floral print dress. She wondered, “Is it OK for me to be here?” She was greeted with a warm, welcoming smile. She described how as she entered she was stepping way out of her comfort zone. In her mind, she recalled all the judgments that the family and church of her upbringing would have passed against those types of people and against her for being there with them. And something melted in her. The realization came to her: Here it is safe to be who you are.

So may it be for us.