Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sermon: "The Battle Over Religious Freedom" (Delivered 4-28-13)

Last summer our church marched in the Lenexa Fourth of July parade.  Celebrating one hundred years of women’s suffrage in Kansas we dressed as suffragists – well, some of us dressed as suffragists – and walked the parade route through Lenexa’s downtown, just across the railroad tracks from where we’re sitting this morning.

While marching with our church I happened to spot a man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his home.  And, this man was holding a sign that simply said, “Defend Religious Liberty.”  “Defend Religious Liberty.”  Now, those words may be a little vague, they may be somewhat abstract, but I also knew that this man holding the sign was making reference to something very specific.

This man’s sign was a protest again President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, specifically a part of the law that requires health care plans to cover a range of preventative health care services for women including contraception.  If you will allow me to be wonky for just a bit, I might explain that the Affordable Care Act does allow a religious exemption to this part of the law but only to religious organizations that meet a narrow set of criteria.  To be exempt from offering a plan that covers contraception, a religious organization must have the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, must primarily employ people who share its religious tenets, must primarily serve people who share its religious tenets, and must be a 501(c)3 non-profit.  In other words, a congregation would not be required to follow this portion of the law, but a religiously affiliated hospital or a religiously affiliated university or a for-profit business whose owner has personal religious objections couldn’t decide to opt out of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act for religious reasons.  In other words, Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Avila University, Hobby Lobby, and Chick-fil-a can’t decide to opt out of the law for religious reasons.

So, to come back around, we find that this guy in the lawn chair with the sign at the Fourth of July parade was arguing that Obamacare violates the religious liberty of institutions and businesses by requiring them to make available services that the heads of those organizations might object to for religious reasons.

However, if you were to ask someone in this room about attacks on religious freedom that need to be guarded against, if you were to ask us what religious liberty needs defending, the examples that many of us might give would probably be quite different from the concerns of the man with the yard sign.  We tend to be concerned with things like attempts to teach creationism in public schools, attempts to offer prayer in public schools, and politicians who attempt to turn their own private religious values into public policy.  Here in Kansas and Missouri our concerns about religious freedom and the separation of religion and government are front and center.  In the news recently we’ve heard about a school district in western Kansas that scheduled a mandatory assembly entitled “The Truth About Dinosaurs” led by a religious organization that promotes Young Earth Creationism and teaches that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.  Here we are concerned when the Governor of Kansas writes religious notes on pieces of legislation that he signs, such as scrawling “JESUS + Mary” on the top of a piece of legislation restricting access to abortion and contraception.

The title of my remarks this morning is “The Battle Over Religious Freedom.”   And, I want to say that there are two substantially different views about what religious freedom entails that we encounter in society today.  I want to describe these opposing views, consider them, talk about why they are important to us as citizens and as Unitarian Universalists, and ultimately recommend to you an approach to issues of religious freedom.

This contrast between competing views of religious liberty is perhaps best seen by looking at two different websites.  On the website of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization with the stated goal of defending religious liberty, you find the following statement,

Throughout our history, America has been a land defined by religious faith and freedom. Religious freedom is our first and most fundamental, God-given right deemed so precious that our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the U.S. Constitution.  […]

[T]argeted attacks on religious liberty are more serious and widespread than you may realize. In courtrooms and schoolrooms, offices and shops, public buildings and even
churches…those who believe in God are increasingly threatened, punished, and silenced.

We might compare this statement to what we find on the website of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has the expressed goal of promoting the “free exercise of religion.”  The ACLU writes,

The right to practice religion, or no religion at all, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  The ACLU works to ensure that this essential freedom is protected by keeping government out of religion.

Federal, state, and local governments frequently prevent individuals from practicing their faith in a variety of ways. These burdens often disproportionately effect members of minority faiths, who are often forced to remove religious garb in public places, denied basic governmental services or privileges, and generally treated as second-class citizens.


Safeguarding the right of free exercise of religion and individual conscience is of vital importance to the ACLU’s mission.

At first blush, these statements seem to be fairly similar, even complementary.  However, if we dig a little deeper, we find that each organization’s understanding of religious freedom is significantly different.  The Alliance Defense Fund’s website states,

So why is religious liberty under attack in America today?

For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other radical anti-Christian groups have been on a mission to eliminate public expression of our nation's faith and heritage. By influencing the government, filing lawsuits, and spreading the myth of the so-called “separation of church and state,” the opposition has been successful at forcing its leftist agenda on Americans.

The battle for religious freedom is the battle between two very, very different visions of what religious liberty actually entails, and it has everything to do with the role of religion in the public arena, in government, education, health care, and in commerce and the marketplace.

The one place where religious liberty is most certainly not under threat is in houses of worship themselves.  Churches and synagogues and temples and mosques, by law, are allowed to do all sorts of things in the name of religious freedom that other institutions in our society are explicitly banned from doing.  Suppose the Catholic Church across the train tracks wanted to hire a new priest.  That church would be every bit within its rights to say, “Only Catholics are invited to apply.”  Sure, that’s discrimination, but someday you’ll get to choose a new minister and I guarantee that you won’t be fielding applications from Southern Baptists or Scientologists.  For churches, the right to discriminate is protected as a form of free religious expression.  Just as the Catholic Church is within its rights to say that only Catholics need apply, it is also constitutionally protected in saying “women are ineligible to apply for this position.”  People who try to argue that the government is scheming ways to regulate the free religious exercise practiced by houses of worship come across as rather delusional.  The truth is that religion, for better or for worse, and probably both for better and for worse, is one of the most unregulated areas of American life.

But what about the public square?  To what degree is a person protected in acting upon his own religious liberty, her own religious conscience, in arenas that are shared by the American public at large?  We have the First Amendment to the Constitution:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  At what point does free exercise run up against other public duties of citizenship within a democratic nation?

Twenty percent of the budget of the United States government goes to the Department of Defense, but a dedicated member of a pacifist religious group – a Quaker, a Mennonite, or a Jain – does not get to claim a religious exemption and pay 20% less in taxes.  If they did, the Quakers would be the fastest growing religious group in America!  A business owner who happens to be a deeply committed conservative Christian would not be able to cite passages from Paul to combat a gender discrimination lawsuit.  A company owned by a Jehovah’s Witness does not have the option of offering a health plan that excludes coverage for surgical procedures requiring blood transfusions.

While this may seem like rhetoric, it actually speaks to at least five decades of individuals and organizations attempting to claim that their religious beliefs exempt them from laws.
“Shortly after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on race in public accommodations, the owner of a restaurant chain argued that the Act violated his religious beliefs opposing integration, and that he should therefore be allowed to exclude African Americans from his restaurant.  Two decades later, Bob Jones University used the same argument.  It wanted to maintain its policy denying admission to “applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating,” but still get special tax status reserved for institutions that don’t discriminate – all justified by reference to religious belief.
“Other entities have argued that they should be allowed to pay women less or give them inferior benefits based on religious beliefs that ‘the husband is the head of the house.’  When faced with equal pay and employment discrimination laws that require employers to treat women equally, these institutions said those laws were an infringement of their religious liberty.  Yet other institutions have attempted to evade labor laws by asserting that wage and hour rules or child labor prohibitions impede the religious liberty rights of groups who believe, for example, that children should work, even in hazardous commercial enterprises.”  [As quoted in this document.]
The two competing views are one that says that religious liberty means the right to do whatever I want in any segment of society as long as it is for religious reasons, and another that says that the laws of society can constrain certain actions, even if those actions are based on someone’s legitimate personal religious views.

Religious liberals have historically spoken of two ideals when it comes to religious liberty.  One ideal declares that religious beliefs are a private, individual matter but that the public sphere that we all occupy must be protected as secular space.  Here we might define secular as free from religious rules and teachings and neutral on matters of belief.  In 2006, then Senator of Illinois Barack Obama gave a speech at an event known as Call to Renewal which was sponsored by Sojourners, a movement of progressive Evangelical Christians who work to influence government to combat poverty and promote environmentalism.  Obama’s speech laid out his philosophy on the role of religion in government.  One of the things he said pointed to this idea of secular universality.  “Democracy,” Obama said, “demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”  In the battle over religious freedom, I think many of us would hold up this concept of neutral secularism as important.

There is, however, another ideal that I think we turn to when we look at this battle over religious freedom.  This ideal is not altogether incompatible with secularism, but it approaches these questions from a different angle.  This other ideal we might call pluralism.  Whereas secularism deals with truth and the privileging of certain forms of authority and argument, pluralism deals with community and the privileging of certain ideas about how we should exist together.

Pluralism asks, “Who is being included and who is being excluded?  Who is heard and who is silenced?  Who is being treated fairly and who is being treated unfairly?  Who is granted power and who is pushed to the margins?  According to the ideals of pluralism, religious freedom does not mean the absolute right to conform institutions in the public sphere to a specific religious doctrine.  Instead it means that values such as fairness, equality, inclusion, and tolerance are defended and promoted.

Even as the Affordable Care Act continues to be upheld as established law, even as discrimination is found by courts not to be a protected form of religious liberty, the conflict over religious freedom will doubtlessly continue.  It remains our task to articulate the ideal of pluralism, the ideal of equality and fairness, as both a democratic virtue and as a way of embodying our own faith.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon: "Harmony in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 4-14-13)

Reading  “For a Five-Year-Old” by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

In the springtime, the town of Holmes’ Prairie emerges from its somnolence and for a time a cacophony pervades the countryside before giving way to the listless, dusty days of summer.  The songbirds begin to chirp even before the breaking of the dawn.  Soon nests full of hatchling robins and sparrows will fill the air with their hungry cries.  In only a short time the incessant whirring of insects will commence, the days and nights filled by the static hum of insect life.  Listen, and soon enough you will hear the croak of bullfrogs, the barking of dogs, the engines of farm equipment, and the wild yells and laughter of children rediscovering their outside voices as they ramble about and explore down by the creek.

The combined band of the Unified school district is outside practicing for the Memorial Day parade and the melodies of John Philip Sousa are carried by the spring breeze that rustles the first leaves dotting the branches of trees.  The teens of Holmes’ Prairie have developed an elaborate evening ritual that mostly consists of repeatedly driving up and down Main Street in their pickups with their windows down, the radio blasting, honking and revving their engines and demanding to be noticed.  These are the noises of this allegedly quiet town.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town out on the Kansas prairie going the way that small towns go.  It is a town known for its stifling neighborliness and overbearing decency, a town where nothing ever changes because nothing ever happens.  But if you listen closely and take the time to notice, you discover that important things are happening all the time here.

If you want to locate Holmes’ Prairie, the place to look is well to the west of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal geographically, as well as politically and religiously.  Drive west from Wichita until the radio stations have faded and be sure not to blink or else you’ll surely miss it.  Holmes’ Prairie is far away but feels closer when we can release ourselves from of our pretensions, let go of our self-importance, and relax from the false urgency that we often inflict upon ourselves.

It was not long after I arrived in Kansas that I received a letter from one of the crankiest residents of Holmes’ Prairie welcoming me to the Sunflower State.  (The letter was actually addressed, “Dear Preacher Boy.”  You can only imagine where it went from there.)  Why did he bother to send me a letter?  Your guess is as good as mine, although I might remind you that there is a historical connection between Unitarians and the town of Holmes’ Prairie.  Just as the City of Lawrence was founded by Unitarian abolitionists from the New England, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by Unitarian temperance activists.  However, they quickly realized that life in western Kansas was too sobering a proposition, picked up again, kept moving west, and eventually made their way to the San Francisco Bay Area where they found life much more agreeable.

Over the years, my friends in Holmes’ Prairie have sent me many letters informing me of the goings-on in their town.  From time to time, when it is perfect weather for a road trip, I’ve been known to take a trip out there to visit and hear the latest gossip.  One of the reasons I love going out there is because it gets me out of having to write a sermon.  I can just tell you about life there or even read one Pastor Sol’s newsletter columns.  It just so happens that my wife Anne took our baby Lydia to Washington D.C. this weekend so that Lydia could meet her brand new cousin.  Since I got out of dad duty for the weekend, I figured I’d day trip out to Holmes’ Prairie and pay them a visit.

If you ever find yourself passing through this town, you absolutely must stop in at Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street for a slice of her amazing pie and a mug of her dreadful coffee.  Annie’s was my first stop and when I walked in I knew I wasn’t going to have to chase down any of my friends.  Around the center table sat the leaders of all three of Holmes’ Prairie’s houses of worship.  There was Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, the longtime pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Don’t let the severity of his name confuse you; Pastor Sol has seen it all and his years living out on the windswept prairie has turned him into a bit of a Christian existentialist.  Next to him sat Father Roberto Diaz, the only priest serving one of western Kansas’ largest geographic parishes.  St. John’s Catholic Church is a multiracial congregation that serves rural Kansas’ immigrant population that includes laborers at slaughterhouses, food processing plants, and field workers.  Finally, at the table sat Mabel Pool, the moderator and matriarch of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship, or HPUFF, which boasts seven members, six committees, and a five member choir that has been trying for years to get the other two members of the fellowship to join.  When Mabel saw me she gestured to an empty chair and waved for Annie to come by with another slice of pie.  “Come and join us,” Mabel exclaimed.  “We’re planning the annual Harmony celebration.” 

The Harmony festival was dreamed up by Mabel Pool a few years ago as a town wide celebration of all the diversity the town lacked.  “We’re celebrating in preparation.  One of these days,” Mabel declared, ever optimistically.  The Harmony Festival would include each of the three houses of worship offering a morning service on the subject of harmony followed by a fellowship lunch hosted together by the three churches to which the entire town was invited.  The Baptists would bring brisket.  The Catholics would bring beef enchiladas.  The UU Fellowship would supply dessert, a vegan, gluten-free chocolate cake made with fair trade cocoa.
Right off the bat, Father Diaz knew exactly what he planned to say on the subject of harmony.  He planned to talk about the newly-elected Pope Francis and his hopes for greater harmony within worldwide Catholicism.  Father Diaz’s homily would connect Pope Francis’ conspicuous humility with the idea of promoting harmony, and he would propose that greater humility could lead us in the direction of greater harmony with those from whom we find ourselves estranged.

Mabel announced that she was working with the worship committee to create a harmony program at the Fellowship.  Mabel’s service would start with the subject of music, and offer an exploration of how harmony works within music.  One of the readings she had chosen came from Frank Zappa who wrote, “The creation and destruction of harmonic… tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama.  Any composition which remains consistent and ‘regular’ throughout is, for me, the equivalent to watching a movie with only ‘good guys’ in it, or eating cottage cheese.”  Pastor Sol and Father Diaz had come to expect these types of things from Mabel, but quoting Frank Zappa in church, the Unitarians never failed to surprise.

Harmonies, Mabel explained, augment the melody, giving it height and depth, but they do this through the interplay of consonance and dissonance.  Too much consonance and it is bland.  Too much dissonance and it becomes painful on the ears.  Harmony, Mabel explained, does not mean sameness; harmonies are like many different paths towards the same goal.  When the goal is clear, our differences will not threaten, but can be appreciated.  If we love alike, we need not think alike.  Mabel’s faithful hope was that most human beings actually want the same sorts of things in life: a peaceful existence, personal and relational fulfillment, love, and the freedom to pursue happiness.

It was Pastor Samuels’ turn to speak and share his plans for the harmony service.  Pastor Sol hemmed and hawed; he had an idea he told us, but it was still being formulated and wasn’t yet ready to preach.


That very evening Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III stayed up late until the cacophony of barking dogs, singing birds, and teenagers honking their horns had died down.  He packed up a flashlight, a shovel, and some other tools and set out across town. 

Long ago, long before even Pastor Samuels had come to Holmes’ Prairie, one of the town’s leading businesses had been Helverson’s Farm Supply Company.  Old Man Helverson was getting up there in years and preparing to turn his business over to his son John.  In fact, Old Man Helverson had two sons, John and Eddie.  John was the responsible, dutiful son, the one who had taken a keen interest in the family business.  Eddie was not at all interested and was more than happy to let John have it.  When John first took over the family business, things didn’t run smoothly at first.  John messed up a couple of accounts.  His father, to his surprise, was understanding and quick to forgive.  “It happens,” he said.  After Old Man Helverson passed away, John had the idea of bringing Eddie back to work for him.  It was mistake from the beginning.  It was disaster.  John took it personally, turned on his brother Eddie, and told him to scram, that he was an embarrassment to the family, and that he never wanted to have anything to do with him ever again.  As the brothers grew older they never reconciled.  Eddie, for his part, was mostly sad and indifferent.  John seethed with an anger that burned almost constantly.

Time went on.  Helverson’s Farm and Supply Company eventually had to close its doors, losing out to the competition of the national supply companies, meeting the fate of so many of the mom and pop stores that were once woven into the fabric of towns like Holmes’ Prairie.  Eddie was the first brother to die.  John followed him to the grave a few years later but stipulated that he remain estranged from his brother even in death.  At the family plot of the old town cemetery, John Helverson stipulated that the back of his tombstone be turned to his brother.

Pastor Samuels, shovel over his shoulder, passed through the gates of the cemetery.  Following the beam of his flashlight he located the Helverson plot and grave markers facing away from one another.  The shovel sunk into moist spring earth.

As he worked, in his mind he talked through his sermon idea for the Harmony Service.  Over the years, many times Pastor Sol had been asked which of Jesus’ teachings was hardest to follow.  Was it the teaching about loving your enemy?  Was it the teachings about non-violence, about turning the other cheek?  Was it the instruction to sell everything and give it to the poor?  To leave your family to follow him?  All those were tough, Pastor Sol agreed, but if he had to choose just one teaching that is the most difficult to follow, it would be what Jesus tells Peter in the book of Matthew.  “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”  [Matthew 18:21-22]  Yes, that one seems like the most difficult teaching.

When Pastor Sol had first heard the story of the Helverson brothers and their grave markers indicating estrangement for all eternity he thought of Jesus’ insistence on harmony.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  [Matthew 18:18.]

Pastor Sol threw down his shovel, stepped back, wiped the mud off his gloves, and admired his work.  The grave markers for John and Eddie now had been turned so that they were now face to face.  Sol smiled.  The morning songbirds sung.  The breeze gently rustled the leaves.  The insects buzzed.  The engines of the tractors revved.  Symphony.

That is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas prairie, well to the west of Wichita but far to the right of liberal, a town where nothing much ever happens unless you take the time to be still, to listen, and to notice.

1) The story of Old Man Helverson and the Helverson brothers is actually a loose interpretation of the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:23-35.  What is your reaction to this parable?

2) What is your reaction to the poem by Fleur Adcock?  Have you ever felt like the mother?  Have you ever felt like the five year old?

3) The Gospel of Matthew contains many of Jesus’ teachings about harmony, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  See  Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-35.  What is your reaction to these texts?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sermon: "Home of the Holy" (Delivered 4-7-13)

The first job I had working for a church was as the middle school youth advisor at the First Church in Boston.  I had been working with this group for about two months when I showed up for a youth group meeting on the first Sunday in November.  When I walked into the youth group room, there was a weird energy in the room.  The youth all looked a little nervous, like they had a secret that they wanted badly to share but that they also didn’t want to share.  You know that look?  Starting to say something and pulling back from saying something at the same time.  Their eyes were darting around the room, daring each other to be the first to speak.  Then, finally, the one member of the youth group spoke up and broke the tension.  The member of the youth group announced that a subset of the youth group had gone trick-or-treating together on Halloween and during the course of their evening may have decided to throw a few eggs in the general direction of the church, and a few of those eggs might have even struck against the side of the church.

How is a youth minister to respond when the youth group announces that they had egged the church?  I remember pausing to ponder how I should respond to their confession.  Should I get angry?  Should I display my disapproval?  Was I to assign some sort of punishment?  I decided to respond with curiosity.  “Why did you decide to throw eggs at the church?” I asked, matter-of-factly.  They gave me an answer.  I told them that “I dunno” was not an acceptable answer.  After all, I reasoned, this attack had been premeditated.  It was a conscious decision they had made.  I was curious about why they had been inspired to egg the church.

Finally, one of the kids blurted out, “We did it because we were kind of curious about what would happen.”  This was interesting.  “Curious, like would the egg break when it hit the wall?” I asked.  “No,” the kids said, “Curious like what would happen.”  I sensed they were getting at something deeper.  “Curious, like would it make God mad,” I asked.  “Yeah,” they said, “More like that.”

Let me observe that this group of teens and preteens was your run of the mill group of Unitarian Universalist youngsters.  Some were atheists and agnostics.  Others had some kind of a belief in some kind of God.  But, none of them, I’m pretty confident, believed in an image of God as some kind of cosmic being watching their daily actions and prepared to strike them down with a lightning bolt if they messed up.  These Unitarian Universalist youth had gone through their UU religious education program in which they had not been exposed to lessons about an angry God who resembled a jealous tyrant or a strict drill sergeant.

“Like would it make God mad?” I asked.  “Yeah, more like that.”  I think that answer implies something about how we think about the holy.

Allow me to be so bold as to say that the approach that these Unitarian Universalist youth took to something they perceived as holy is not in fact all that different from the approach that some UU adults take.  It is just that the adults mostly manage to refrain from lobbing groceries.  There are UU adults who can point out the self-contradictions and historical translation errors in sacred texts.  Who can historicize and deconstruct holy rituals.  Who can point out the hypocrisies of religious institutions.  And, in the end, we can come to resemble that old UU joke:

There is a priest walking down the street who sees the church is on fire.  He runs in, grabs the communion set, and runs out.  The church burns down, but he gives thanks that the communion set could be spared.  There is a rabbi walking down the street who sees the synagogue is on fire.  He runs in, grabs the Sefer Torah, the scrolls on which are written the five books of Moses.  The synagogue burns down but the rabbi gives thanks that Torah was spared from the fire.  A Unitarian Universalist minister is walking down the street and sees that the UU church is on fire.  She runs in and grabs the coffee maker.

I am fond of saying that a church is a house of the holy and a home of the human.  Last month I preached on the human part of the equation.  I spoke about the church as a human institution, a place that will unavoidably be a home for human frustrations, human failings, and human messiness, but also a place of human resiliency, human capability, and human progress.  A church is most assuredly a home of the human, I said.  Congratulations.  My condolences.  Welcome home.

And, this morning, a few weeks delayed by a spring snowstorm, I am going to conclude this theme of home, talking about the church as not just a home of the human, but also as a house of the holy, coffee maker jokes notwithstanding.  What exactly, you may be wondering, do I mean by that?  What is this house of the holy business all about anyways?

Let me reassure you of what I don’t mean when I say that a church is a house of the holy.  A few years ago I took a sabbatical during which I traveled to South America.  Most of my trip I was based in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and while I was there I toured the Cathedral and the various churches of the city.  I believe I was touring the large Jesuit church in Quito’s historic district, and my guide came to a chapel within the sprawling complex of this church.  This room was striking because it seemed like the entire room was covered in gold leaf.  My guide, if my translation of his Spanish was correct, pointed out that this was nothing.  The church across the square was gilded with seven tons of gold leaf, but even that isn’t all that impressive because the conquerors had shipped most of the gold they could get their hands on back to Spain where they had so much of it that the altars were coated in gold leaf inches thick.  The gold of conquest, gold acquired through death and slavery, filled the treasuries of the palaces and the cathedrals built to honor God.

When I talk about a church as the home of the holy, let me be clear that I don’t mean an elaborate mansion designed to impress a deity with lavish tastes.  Such an understanding of God is embarrassingly small.  It is incredibly petty to imagine that God is impressed by fortune and golden luxury.  God is not a celestial Donald Trump.  It is sin – it is idolatry – to imagine that God would be impressed by demonstrations of excess, especially demonstrations that are the direct consequence of murder, oppression, and theft.

Further, when I speak of the church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean to imply that the church is a sacred space separated from a world that is unholy or wicked or sinful.  I’m not trying to advance any kind of sacred / profane dualism.  UU folk singer Peter Mayer rejects this dualism in his wonderful song “Holy Now,” which we heard earlier.  The song suggests how we in the liberal religious tradition might think about what is holy.  The first verse describes the singer’s past,

When I was a boy each week
On Sunday we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now.

And by the fourth verse of this folk song, Peter Mayer describes his new vision of the world in which everything is holy.

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
This morning outside I stood
and saw a little red wing bird
shining like a burning bush
singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now.

Let me be clear.  When I talk about church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean that the building somehow serves as God’s luxurious personal palace.  God would have to be petty, puny, and narcissistic to be much impressed by even the most extravagant cathedrals.  If you believe that God created galaxies and nebulas and rainforests and mountain ranges, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a mere building as holy.  And, when I talk about church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean to imply that the rest of creation is some kind of second rate hand-me-down, as Peter Mayer puts it.  So, what exactly am I getting at with this “house of the holy” business, anyways?

In his classic book The Idea of the Holy philosopher of religion Rudolph Otto describes the Holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that is both utterly compelling and frightening.  “Why did you throw the eggs at the church on Halloween?” I asked the middle school youth group.  “Because we wanted to see what would happen.”  Despite the demystification of religion, they still perceived some compelling and frightening force, however slight, connected to the church.

Why did they feel tempted to egg the church and why did they feel compelled to admit it to the youth advisor?  I want to suggest that they were testing their sense of the holy.  Not that God would strike them down with a lightning bolt, but what would happen?

If we offend, will we offered forgiveness?

If we transgress, will we be shunned?

If we push away, will we pulled back in?

If we disappoint, will the relationship be severed or restored?

If we let down, will we be given another chance?

These are frightening questions.  These are questions about holy relationships, holy community.  When I talk about the church as a home of the holy, I am talking about a place where grace happens.  Where we are neither shunned for the beauty of who we are nor rejected for our ugly moments, and we’ve all got our ugly moments.  Where we are given permission to fail and can admit defeat.  Where we are vulnerable enough to share our struggles.  This home of the holy.

Peter Mayer sings,

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament

See a nest on a swaying branch, painstakingly woven from twigs, ornamented in ribbon and discarded fabric, holding a pair of bright blue robin’s eggs.  The holy is most assuredly present, at home, in the tenderness that holds our fragility, in these places where our own vulnerability can rest.  This home of the holy is described as grace by Paul when he pronounces “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

In the home of the holy, middle school Unitarian Universalist youth with eggs will not be able to separate us from holy love.  In the home of the holy, no matter who you are, or who you love, or what you fear will be able to separate you from holy love.  You are in my prayers and love for you is in my heart.  Amen.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Sermon: "Sorry About Jesus" (Delivered 3-31-13)

Reading – The Gospel According to Matthew 28: 1-8, 16-20

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.


To tell you the truth, I waffled a bit on whether to preach an Easter sermon with the title, “Sorry About Jesus.”  It’s a title that can very easily be taken the wrong way.  Let’s just say that I decided not to put the title of this sermon on our church sign out front.  I worried that it might give our neighbors the wrong impression.  So let me begin by explaining the title of this sermon.

“Sorry About Jesus” is actually the title of a beautiful and moving, albeit rather obscure, folk song.  I don’t always listen to folk music, but when I do, a folk singer that I particularly enjoy listening to is Susan Werner.  Back in 1998 Werner released an incredible album Time Between Trains that contained the song “Sorry About Jesus.”  A decade later, Werner released an entire album, The Gospel Truth, that deals with issues of faith, social justice, and religion from an agnostic perspective.  I’ve seen Susan Werner in concert in three times and she’s never performed “Sorry About Jesus.”  You can’t even find a version of the song on YouTube.  So let me describe this wonderful, rare song to you.

The lyrics to the song are one side of a conversation.  As an adult, the character portrayed by the singer has run into an old classmate she hasn’t seen since high school and in catching up there is a revisiting of their high school years.  We learn in the lyrics that her youth was surrounded by brokenness.  There was domestic violence.  Her father beat her mother and her mother was struggling to leave him.  There was addiction.  Her classmate’s mother was an alcoholic.  In one side of this conversation we learn that her teen years were marred by brokenness and instability. 

We also learn that the character given voice by the singer, as a teenager, sought refuge and stability in an Evangelical Christian church.  We learn that the she became zealous in her faith and became obsessed with trying to convert, with trying to save, her friends and classmates.  So, years later, when she runs into her classmate from high school, we hear her say, “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.  I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.  When I memorized the Bible I went overboard… I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.  I try to just forget about it all.”  And, finally, we learn that this woman has moved on with her life and moved on with her faith, that she has discovered a sense of wholeness, or at least equanimity, in her life even though her life is far from perfect, far from ideal.  All this in a three minute folk song.

While I’m reluctant to spend so long talking about this particular song that I’m guessing next to no one here has ever even heard of, I’m guessing that maybe you might be able to relate in some way to some part of this song.  Maybe you knew someone when you were younger who was zealous in their faith and was very focused on saving your soul.  Maybe you know someone now who is very focused on trying to save your soul.  Maybe, way back when, you were that zealous person trying to win conversions.  Maybe, if you ran into a classmate from long ago, you might find yourself saying, “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.”  Or maybe, just maybe, you hear this description of the song and are reminded of a particular experience of brokenness and disappointment in your life, whether from long ago or in this present moment.

At the most recent meeting of the worship team I played them this song and teared up, as I do each time I hear it.  Whenever I listen to that song, I am overcome by such a sense of compassion for the character whose story is being shared with us.  I feel sad for the pain, abuse, and addiction that were a part of her formative years.  I feel compassion for her seeking out a refuge of strength and steadiness in the midst of life’s challenges.  And, I even feel compassion for her awkward, uncomfortable attempts to try to fix the pain that surrounded her life, her desperate attempts to bring about some kind of salvation in the lives of those she loved and cared about.  Understandable, isn’t it?  Her proselytizing did not come from a place of judgment or self-righteousness.  She was trying to bring some order to a world that was chaotic, some healing to an existence that was painful.  If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation like this, maybe you eventually came to realize that the chaos was outside your control.  So, I regard with compassion her desperate attempts to fix all this brokenness.

In a just a minute I’m going to draw a parallel between the character’s experience and one of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection.  This isn’t about taking the story of the resurrection literally.  This isn’t about believing in the resurrection as a supernatural event.  Hear me out.  The story of Jesus and the disciples’ final week in Jerusalem begins with a community, a small band of Jesus’ disciples and friends and followers, coming to the holy city to celebrate the festival of Passover.  As a community, Jesus’ followers demonstrate a way of living faithfully that gives dignity to the outcast, includes those at the margins, and claims that the Commonwealth of God is with us in the here and now if only we could behold it.  Their time in Jerusalem contained moments of tenderness, service, and intimate fellowship – rituals of washing, anointing, sharing meals, and keeping vigils – that are recreated in the Christian Holy Week the world over.  But, during this week, the hopes and their dreams of the community of Jesus’ followers are dashed.  Their beloved leader and teacher is accused of sedition and is humiliated and brutally executed.  There is betrayal and fear, and Jesus’ followers scatter.

The last chapter of Matthew begins in a place of utter brokenness.  Mary and Mary go to the tomb to mourn the dead.  There they encounter a sign and a vision, a glimmer of hope, and they go to share this hopeful news with the rest of the followers of Jesus.  The Gospel According to Matthew ends with Jesus appearing to the disciples and instructing them to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, and to spread Jesus’ teachings.

In the world of religious studies, this final message in Matthew’s Gospel is known as the Great Commission.  In more conservative circles, it is taken to mean, “Go out and convert people.”  Historically, this has been a convenient text for Christian nations with imperial ambitions, seeking to exploit foreign lands and indigenous peoples the world over.  More recently, and more familiar to those of us living in the American Bible Belt, the great commission is held to be one of the most important texts for the Evangelical Christian movement. 

Let me just point out that there is such a remarkable parallel between Susan Werner’s folk song and the last chapter of Matthew.  Both start with brokenness.  In both, there is found some glimmer of hope, some refuge, in faith.  In both, we are told that what needs to be done is to go out and get people saved.  In the song, we find out this last step doesn’t exactly work.  “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.  I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.”  In real life, for all the effort that so many have put in over the centuries to winning souls for Christ, it sure does seem like we’re still a long ways away from the creation of heaven on earth.  In fact, we can say that such a focus has worked against the creation of heaven on earth.

In the “Sorry About Jesus” folk song, we learn that the character’s efforts to create wholeness out of brokenness are awkward and fail to bring any relief to the wounded world in which she lives.  In Matthew’s Gospel we see that the experience of resurrection is connected with a mandate, a commission, to spread the gospel.  So I wonder what resurrection might mean for us as religious liberals and, if it means anything, what sort of progressive commission might be connected to it.

Notable feminist theologians have argued powerfully that salvation does not come through Jesus’ agonizing death on the cross.  Rather, they argue, salvation comes in the form of communities of resistance, memory, and hope that gather in the aftermath of devastation and dare to do the work of healing and rebuilding.  As the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, “I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

I happen to believe that this theology is absolutely correct.  I like that this theology can work from a theistic perspective as well as from a non-theistic humanist perspective.  The community that comes together to reconstitute the world can be inspired by the divine, even moved by the experience of the risen Messiah.  Or, the community can come together to reconstitute the world out of a sense that doing so is a worthwhile and honorable human endeavor.

Resurrection means, literally, rising again.  It means to return to life.  Believing in resurrection does not necessarily mean giving assent to a set of supernatural claims.  Believing in resurrection simply means the ability to imagine life again despite the signs that point to a lack of life.  Believing in resurrection simply means the ability to hold out hope for wholeness, for healing, for life to get better despite the reality of pain and loss and brokenness.  Resurrection is an attitude of the human spirit that looks at things as they are and sees the possibility of rebirth, of resurgence

And, the experience of resurrection will inevitably ask something from us.  One does not return to life and simply take it for granted.  For those whose beliefs are focused on the historicity of a literal resurrection, the great commission is to get others to believe the same thing that they believe.  I would say that for those of us who see the possibility of life again, there is a responsibility that accompanies hope as well.  There is a great commission for religious liberals, a great commission for Unitarian Universalists, that has nothing to do with winning converts, with convincing others of the rightness of our beliefs, with making disciples of all nations, whatever that would mean for us.  No, instead, our great commission is to side with the forces of life in the world, to bless the peacemakers, to feed the hungry, to care for the refugee, to visit the sick, to liberate the imprisoned, to welcome the marginalized, and to include the ostracized.

I leave you with these words about rebirth by the author D.H. Lawrence:

“I believe that one is converted when first one hears the low, vast murmur of life, of human life, troubling one’s hitherto unconscious self.  I believe one is born first unto oneself – for the happy developing of oneself, while the world is a nursery, and the pretty things are to be snatched for, and the pleasant things tasted; some people seem to exist right to the end.  But most are born again on entering maturity; they are born to humanity, to a consciousness of all the laughing, and the never ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that comes from the terrible multitude of brothers and sisters.”

It is our great commission to look for the promise of life in the twiggy plant, the bare tree, the inanimate seed, to look for the promise of life in the ruins of civilization and in the broken human heart.  It is our great commission to side with the forces of life.  Indeed, may it be so.