Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sermon: "Where Freedom and Responsibility Meet" (Delivered 8-25-13)

Call to Worship
You got to sing when the spirit says sing.
            You have to sing.  You can’t not sing.
            You have to speak up for what you feel is right.
            You have to let the world know your truth.
When the spirit says sing, you got to sing.

You got to dance when the spirit says dance.
            You have to dance.  You can’t not dance.
            Sometimes that means you are dancing to a beat
            That no one else can hear.  And other people will
            Think your dancing is strange.
But when the spirit says dance, you got to dance.

And you got to laugh when the spirit says laugh.
            You laugh and say I’m just being me.
            I’m just being how I’m meant to be.
            Joyfully.  Honestly.
When the spirit says laugh, you got to laugh.

You’ve got to do when the spirit says do.
            You have to.  You can’t not do.
            You have to act on your deepest convictions.
            You have to do what you think it right, even when it’s not easy.
When the spirit says do, you got to do.

There is a spirit of freedom calling us into this place of laughter and song, of dancing and doing.
There is a spirit of freedom calling us to worship together.

Back what feels like a long time ago, when I was the intern minister of a Unitarian Universalist church in suburban Dallas, I was invited by one of that congregation’s small group ministry groups to come along with them as they did their annual day of community service.  (Each of the small groups did a day of service as part of the group’s process of deepening in their relationships.)  This particular group had chosen to do their service at a distribution center that sorted food that came in from canned food drives.  A church or a school or a business would do a canned food drive and then the donated food had to be sorted into boxes of corn, green beans, chicken noodle soup, and so forth.  The members of the group arrived and jumped right in to the work of sorting.  They jumped right in to the work without bothering to listen to the instructions of what they were supposed to do.  The coordinator at the distribution center tried to rein in the group, tried to bring them together so that she could teach them the system that was used to sort the food.  But these instructions fell on deaf ears.  At one point, a member of the group explained to her, “You’ve got to understand, we’re Unitarians.  We don’t really like to follow the rules.  And besides, it seems like we could come up with our own sorting system that works well enough.”  I gazed across the warehouse to another group, a group of Lutherans, who were listening attentively for directions and then later checked with the coordinator to make sure they were following the directions correctly.  That day part of me secretly longed to be a Lutheran.

William Ellery Channing wrote, “I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion:  which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.”  These are powerful and inspiring sentiments.  But somehow I think Channing didn’t have the task of sorting canned goods in mind when he wrote it.  Just my gut feeling here.

Back in the first week of August I described the overarching theme that runs through this month of sermons.  That theme was inspired by a provocative quote that I found in an odd little book by David Byrne.  The quote went, “What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.”  We defined sin, in the words of Forrest Church, as “anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.”

Back in the first week of August I talked about how striving for perfection is often regarded as a treasured virtue worthy of our ambition and how the quest for perfection can often wind up becoming a source of division.  In the second week of August I talked about how being a trusted keeper of secrets may be regarded as a virtue but can actually do more harm than good.  This morning I’m going to talk about how exercising freedom can be a treasured virtue, but how it can also can have a shadow side.

Unitarian Universalist minister Jane Rzepka once authored a piece introducing what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  The title of the piece was How We Break the Rules.  “I hate to say it,” she writes, “but rule breaking just might be right up our alley.  Maybe it’s not the positive tone we try to strike in describing our religion, but I’m going to say right out loud that Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in a lot of rules that our religious neighbors take for granted.”  She then lists nine rules that UUs break and even challenges the reader to come up with a tenth.  Surely there are rules worth breaking that even she has not considered.

According to Reverend Rzepka, the seventh religious rule that we break is that heresy is bad.  We believe that “heresy can be heroic.”  She mentions that during the late 1960s, the UUA President Dana McLean Greeley met with Pope John XXIII during the Vatican II Council.  Supposedly the Pope, with a twinkle in his eye, told Greeley, “You’ve made a religion out of all our heresies.”

To make just a tiny digression here, there is something about my family that may interest you.  More than a decade ago I received a package in the mail from a relative in Tennessee whom I had never met.  The package contained a book about life in a small town in the south of France during the 1300s.  Lest you think this entirely random, it just so happened that this small town was the center of a heretical movement known as Catharism.  The Cathars were being violently persecuted and an Inquisition was launched to vanquish this heresy.  And, it just so happens that a prominent family in this small town that was helping to support the Cathars happened to have the last name “Belote.”  The letter from my cousin said, “We’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church here in Tennessee.  Do you suppose that heresy is genetic?”

The word “heresy” actually means “choice.”  A heretic is one who chooses.  The most popular introductory book to Unitarian Universalism has the title, A Chosen Faith.  Heresy.  Choice.  Freedom.  Rule-breaking.  “I hate to say it, but rule-breaking just may be right up our alley.”  “You’ve got to understand, we’re Unitarians.  We don’t really like to follow the rules.”  How many of you think of yourselves as choosers?  As heretics?  As rule-breakers?  As questioners of authority?  [Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the worshippers raised a hand.]

This past week I began teaching an adult religious education course on Unitarian Universalist identity.  Texts for Deepening Unitarian Universalist Identity.  I began the class by sharing some introductory texts.  One of the texts was Jane Rzepka’s article on How We Break the Rules.  The participants in the class had an extremely positive reaction to this text. 

It is no exaggeration to say that our tradition is replete with grandiose language extolling our free faith.  “I call that mind free…”  The 2004 Commission on Appraisal report on Engaging Our Theological Diversity (p. 155-158) puts it this way, “We agree that the conscience of the individual is the ultimate locus of religious authority… We agree that no one owns the truth, and that each person must be free to search for the truth in a responsible and disciplined way and to choose what to believe based on individual experience and conscience.”

In my office I have a framed poster of a painting that was commissioned by one of our largest UU congregations.  The beautiful painting is a Unitarian Universalist still life, where all of the elements in the painting symbolize aspects of UU identity.  Two of the items in the still life are a miniature statuette of the Statue of Liberty, representing freedom, and a miniature statuette of the scales of justice, representing justice, balance, prudence, and responsibility.  In the painting, these items are in tension with each other.  Freedom is balanced against responsibility and prudence.

When I think of this tension, the image that comes to mind is the can sorting disaster from so many years ago.  I asked others what came to mind when they imagined freedom being out of balance with responsibility.  My wife Anne, who used to work in student services at Rockhurst University, immediately recalled the struggles some first year students face to use the freedoms they’ve been given constructively.  It is not uncommon that a student will decide not to go to any classes but instead play video games all day for a whole semester.  A minister colleague of mine told me that the image that comes to mind is the deregulation of large energy companies and large financial institutions and the catastrophic result of the irresponsibility of those institutions.  A friend of mine with teenagers said that trying to balance freedom and responsibility describes the existential challenge of being a parent to teenagers.  A member of the Worship Team said that for him what comes to mind is the issue of free speech.  Just because you have the freedom to say something doesn’t mean that you should.  As a follow up to my sermon from two weeks ago, I might mention that the news site The Huffington Post decided to ban anonymous comments as a way of encouraging more responsibility in its online community.  I would venture to guess that you could come up with additional examples in your own life, in your families, in your work, in your social networks, or in the larger world where freedom and responsibility are out of balance, and where the result is division: within ourselves, against our neighbors, from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.

Our first hymn this morning was a lively hymn that declares “You’ve got to do when the spirit says do.”  To me, this is a song about freedom, a song about having the freedom to follow that to which you owe your highest allegiance, whether to you that means the Spirit of God, your own inner light, your conscience, your truest self, or what Channing called the free mind.  The hymn describes following the spirit by singing, dancing, and shouting.  At times that’ll mean – if you’re truly following the spirit – singing your own words, stepping on toes, and raising your voice.  But it won’t always mean that.  Other times it will mean blending your voice with the choir, following a partner’s lead, our shouting out encouragement to your companions.  It is a delicate balance, these places where freedom and responsibility meet.  Good luck in your discernment.

Questions for Reflection:
1) In the second to last paragraph of this sermon I listed several examples of times when "freedom" is in tension with "responsibility."  Have you ever experienced this own tension in your own life?

2) In the song "When the Spirit Says Do," what does the word "Spirit" mean to you?

3) David Byrne writes, What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.” Can you think of any other virtues that have a shadow side?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Does He Say He Says He Is?: Reza Aslan's Zealot and the Politics of the Historical Jesus

A sketch of Jesus used to hang in a squalid corner of the Reed College Student Union.  Rendered in pencil, it depicted a pale, scruffy messiah with flowing locks of unkempt hair.  Typewritten words under the picture announced, “You kids can wear your hair however you want.  Just tell them I said so.”  While obviously a joke, there was no shortage of scrawny, white-hippie-Jesus lookalikes on campus when I was a Reed student.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede.  The Enlightenment had opened the door for a historical-critical approach to The Bible and Schweitzer surveyed dozens of scholarly efforts to describe the historical Jesus that had been published between the late eighteenth and the turn of the twentieth century.  Schweitzer’s book raised the issue of bias in the quest for the historical Jesus.  He observed that the scholarly depictions of Jesus tended to resemble the scholars who authored these studies.  Schweitzer did nothing less than call into question the legitimacy of the historical Jesus project.  Schweitzer then promptly left the field of religious studies to earn a degree in medicine and undertake a medical mission to Africa.  Scholarly interest in the historical Jesus dried up for half a century.

Later in the twentieth century, breathtaking discoveries such as the Nag Hammadi Library (1945) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1946-1956) helped to reignite an interest in late second temple and early rabbinic Judaism, ancient Christianity, and the Jesus of history.  With thousands of new texts and new archeological discoveries, along with new approaches to literary theory, scholars renewed the quest to discover the historical Jesus.  Probably the most noteworthy effort was attempted by The Jesus Seminar which convened dozens of scholars and used the democratic process to arrive at claims about the historicity of the sayings and actions of Jesus.  Two of the leading contributors to the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, published popular biographies of Jesus.

Both Borg and Crossan did a tremendous service to liberal and mainline Christianity by helping to rescue Jesus and The Bible from the forms of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity that dominated the American landscape in the 1980s and 90s.  They presented Jesus as a wisdom teacher helping to advance a spiritual revitalization movement within Judaism and as a liberal social activist speaking truth to Rome’s immoral power.  However, one wonders how Albert Schweitzer would regard Crossan and Borg.  Had they blended biography and autobiography?  Was the spiritual and social progressivism they attributed to Jesus a true reflection of Jesus or a reflection of their own values?

Consider Stephen Prothero’s fascinating American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.  In this work Prothero reveals how Americans have imagined Jesus as a soft, maternal figure, as a scrappy prize fighter, as a corporate CEO, as an Eastern religious yogi, and even as a countercultural icon who would feel at home with hippies.  (Think of the portrait of Jesus in the Reed College Student Union.)  If religion and culture can so dramatically shape Jesus to suit its own purposes, who is to say that religious scholarship has not done much the same thing?


The newest attempt to write about the Jesus of history comes in the form of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Presenting ancient history and biblical scholarship in a way that’s compelling and exciting, Aslan contextualizes Jesus in the politics of his own day.  He chronicles the brutality of Roman rule, the responses to occupation by diverse Jewish factions, and the seemingly endless parade of revolutionaries who openly defied Rome and were slaughtered or crucified as a result.  Aslan presents us with a Jesus full of zeal, a man of fiery faith.  His Jesus is rough around the edges, strident, uncompromising, and at times violent.

Most everything we know about the historical Jesus can be summarized in a single sentence:  There was a Jewish man named Jesus who was crucified in Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate for the crime of sedition.  Reza Aslan’s exploration of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth coheres with this history, focusing on the political history of first century Palestine and what we know about the history of Jewish resistance against the Roman Empire.

Consider how Reza Aslan interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan.  He argues that the thieves on the road are the Romans, the beaten man left to die represents the Jews, and the priests who walk by and ignore the man are the Temple priests who are complicit with Roman rule.  The Samaritans, historically speaking, “rejected the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem as the sole legitimate place of worship.” (p. 101)  The parable is less about the moral obligation to help out those in need and more a challenge to the authority of the priests of the Temple.  Aslan interprets this parable as particular and politicized, not spiritually universal.

As a scholar, Aslan’s biography of Jesus is far from original.  He draws extensively from generally accepted scholarship of the New Testament and the world of early Christianity.  His biography may paint Jesus as a revolutionary, but it is far from a revolutionary work of scholarship.  He distills mountains of accepted scholarship into his biography of Jesus as a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed.”

I suppose it is possible to critique Reza Aslan’s Zealot a-la-Schweitzer by pointing out that Aslan’s previous scholarship, especially his doctoral thesis entitled How to Win a Cosmic War, concerns religious violence and international conflict.  Is Aslan giving us a selective biography of Jesus focusing on these aspects of his life, or does the best available scholarship about Jesus point to him as a historical figure best defined by zeal?  (Let me be clear that this observation does not invalidate the scholarship of Aslan any more than it invalidates the scholarship of Pagels, Borg, Crossan, Wrede, Strauss, or Reimarus.) 

There is a more interesting story here than whether Reza Aslan has looked into the mists of history and seen reflected back the Jesus he had hoped to see.  The story involves contemporary difficulties with seeing Reza Aslan and with seeing the Jesus that Aslan sees.  I find myself thinking again about the infamous interview that Lauren Green conducted with Reza Aslan on Fox News.  As painful as the interview was to watch, it was great for business, helping to propel Zealot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  What is striking about the interview is how challenged Green is to see Aslan.  “You’re a Muslim.”  “I am a scholar of religion.”  “You’re a Muslim.”  “I am a scholar of religion.”  In hindsight, I bet Reza Aslan wishes he had thought to ask, “Who do you say I am?”  Just as some said that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets, Lauren Green seemed to have projected her biases and stereotypes about Islam onto Professor Aslan.

Make no mistake.  Aslan’s Jesus is a zealot, a radical Jewish nationalist driven by his strong faith to revolutionary, even violent, acts.  This is not the Prince of Peace we’re talking about here.  Can we imagine Jesus in this way and not simultaneously see Aslan through an Islamophobic lens?  If it is so difficult to see one another when we are face to face, how much more difficult is it to dare to understand the life of a Jewish peasant from Nazareth who lived two millennia ago?


Other notes:
The nearly 60 pages of notes at the end of the book are almost as good as the book itself, especially if you are interested in Biblical scholarship.  In these notes he weighs the evidence supporting the various claims he makes and why he prefers some interpretations to others.  He is a total boss in these notes!

Note to copy-editor:  In the acknowledgments section (p. 217) the name of one of Aslan’s professors at Harvard Divinity School is misspelled.  Jon Levenson, not Jon Levinson.

Personally speaking, one of the best parts of this book was that it allowed me to take a trip down memory lane to my undergraduate education at Reed College where I majored in religion and my three years of coursework at Harvard Divinity School where I received a Master of Divinity degree.  At HDS I took Intro to the New Testament from Professor Karen King who was a fellow with the Jesus Seminar.  I also took an unforgettable class with Jon Levenson on the Jewish Liturgical Year, which is why I remember how to spell his name.  Ah, fond memories of Q, two source theory, the fact that half of Paul’s letters were not written by Paul, the awareness that it is doubtful that a single word in the New Testament was written by anyone who met Jesus and that the bulk of the Epistles were written before the Gospels, that the Gospels were not meant to be read as histories, and all sorts of other interesting things like this.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sermon: "Secrecy and Sin" (Delivered 8-11-13)

The reading this morning is excerpted from an article by Daniel Ellsberg entitled Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing.

Between 1968 and 1971, I repeatedly broke a solemn, formal promise that I had made in good faith: not to reveal to any “unauthorized persons” information that I received through certain channels and under certain safeguards collectively known as the classification system.

I had signed many secrecy “oaths,” or contractual agreements, over the years… All of them were blanket promises never to give any information that was identified as safeguarded or secret – as ”classified” – to a person who did not have a proper “security clearance” for it and moreover, explicitly authorized by higher authority to receive it.

Implicit in my promises not to reveal such information to unauthorized persons was that I would obey this commitment no matter what this information might be:

–even if it revealed evidence of official lies, crimes, planning for wars in violation of ratified treaties or the US Constitution, violations or planned violations of laws made by the US Congress;

–even if the unauthorized persons or agencies were officials of the legislative and judicial branch who vitally needed the information to carry out their constitutional functions and had a legitimate right to learn the truth;

–even if an election, congressional investigation, or vote that decided issues of war and peace might be affected by public ignorance or by my silence and obedient lies about the government’s secret actions and plans;

–and even if countless people had died and were continuing to die because the information was being wrongfully withheld by my own colleagues and superiors under a policy of secrecy and deception.

That is how I was meant to understand those promises. And for many years, I followed the rules. Of course, they were not explicitly spelled out in these terms in the papers I signed, nor were they told to me in briefings. If they had been, they would have given me a good deal of pause, to say the least.


In the “national security” area of the government – the White House, the departments of state and defense, the armed services, and the “intelligence community,” along with their contractors – there is less whistleblowing than in other departments of the executive branch or in private corporations. This despite the frequency of misguided practices and policies within these particular agencies that are both more well-concealed and more catastrophic than elsewhere, and thus even more needful of unauthorized exposure.

As a former insider I can attest to psychological dimensions of this [secret keeping] behavior that seem rarely to have been discussed…   In my experience, the psychological stakes for officials in keeping their commitment to keep secrets – even what appear to be “guilty” secrets that not only preclude democratic accountability but endanger the welfare of many people – go beyond careerist calculations of keeping a job or possible punishments for disobedience.

What is most feared by most prospective secret-tellers… is social isolation, ostracism, [and] exile, if they reveal the secrets of the group. If they are found out, they can expect… the loss of friends and relationships, more or less irrevocably, as well as loss of job and career…

Humans are herd animals. The threat of expulsion from a group on which their well-being and self-regard depends will keep them participating in (or helping to conceal) behavior they would abhor in the absence of that threat.  Socialization in the practice of keeping their organization’s secrets gradually blinds them to moral ambiguities or conflicts that might earlier have given them pause…

Some of the biggest new stories in recent months have involved the Obama administration’s policies and practices of secret keeping and information gathering.  Even as I speak today the court martial trial of Bradley Manning is in its sentencing phase.  Manning was acquitted on the charge of aiding the enemy, a crime punishable by death, but was found guilty on more than a dozen other charges and faces as many as ninety years in prison.  Manning’s trial comes three years after he was arrested for leaking voluminous amounts of classified information including sensitive diplomatic communications as well as videos of US airstrikes against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Even as I speak today the saga of Edward Snowden continues to play itself out.  Earlier this summer Snowden spent several weeks in the international terminal of a Russian airport while trying to negotiate for asylum in some nation that will accept him.  Snowden is wanted by our government for leaking information about our nation’s surveillance practices both in regards to accessing the emails and phone calls of American citizens as well as communications of our closest allies.  While some have branded Manning and Snowden as traitors and criminals, others have called them courageous whistleblowers, heroes of truth, and defenders of civil liberties.

As Unitarian Universalists, our movement has a fascinating history of challenging government secrecy.  In the late 1960s, Daniel Ellsberg, who had access to classified government documents through his work for the Rand Corporation, began to leak documents to the New York Times that revealed that Congress and the American public were being lied to about the Vietnam War.  Later, Ellsberg provided these documents to Mike Gravel, a United States Senator from Alaska and a Unitarian Universalist.  Gravel entered more than 4,000 pages of classified documents related to the Vietnam War into the public record during a subcommittee meeting he chaired and Ellsberg tried to find a press willing to publish these documents.  Beacon Press, owned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, agreed to publish these documents which became known as The Pentagon Papers.  Before publication Beacon Press’s editor received an intimidating phone call at home from President Richard Nixon himself.  After publication J. Edgar Hoover tried to intimidate our religion by ordering the seizure of the UUA’s financial records.  To this day, our denomination brags about our role in publishing The Pentagon Papers, highlighting it as a proud moment in our history.  Every few years Daniel Ellsberg and Mike Gravel are guests of honor at the UUA General Assembly where they are regarded as inspiring heroes of our faith.

I was not surprised at all to learn a few weeks ago that the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the surveillance practices of the NSA that were revealed in the Snowden leaks are in violation of the first, fourth, and fifth amendments of the Constitution of the United States.


I’m willing to bet that none of the members of this congregation have come here this morning debating whether or not to leak classified government documents that have come into your possession.  (If you do find yourself receiving asylum, I will come and visit you, especially if it’s someplace nice.)  However, I am willing to bet that most of us have had the experience of being told a secret that has made us uncomfortable or of being asked to keep a confidence that doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m willing to bet that we’ve all run up against secrets, against information that’s been kept from us, and have had to contend with issues of trust that have come up as a result.  We’ve all had to wade into murky waters of secrecy, confidentiality, and anonymity.  This morning, I’m less interested in delving deeply into the stories of Snowden and Manning, the NSA and the Obama Administration, and more interested exploring concepts of privacy and secrecy, confidentiality and anonymity, as they relate to our lives, to our communities, and to our faith identities.  And, as we figure out what these mean to us in an ethical and a religious sense, our thinking about these larger issues cannot help but be informed and shaped as a result.

I would like you to consider two overly generalized statements.  First:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with privacy.  I think the reason this is the case has something to do with our theology.  Not all Unitarian Universalists believe in a deity, but even those that do, even those UUs who have a strong belief in God, don’t generally imagine God as a cosmic voyeur.  The idea of God as a “peeping tom” – I take offense to that term – tracking our actions and keeping a log of our thoughts is off-putting and disturbing.  Other religious traditions institutionalize their notion of the divine as all-knowing and ever-watching.  Some religious traditions set an expectation of regular confession, the sharing of private information with a religious authority.  In my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister I do act as confessor from time to time, but I also understand that people will choose to keep some things absolutely private.  In some religious traditions, members of the church present their tax returns and bank statements to the church elders or the clergy for review and then are told what they are expected to give as a tithe.  Let’s just say I doubt that would go over very well in this church.

Overly generalized statement number one:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with privacy.  Here’s the second overly generalized statement:  It has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very concerned with transparency.  This is certainly the case with Daniel Ellsberg and Mike Gravel and the editors at Beacon Press and others of their ilk who insist that citizens have the right to access information that concerns them.  My colleague Marilyn Sewell has written provocatively about this dynamic, pointing out that we’re a religious movement that has institutionalized our distrust of power.  Of all the church parking lots in the city, ours is the one where you’re most likely to see a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.  There is, perhaps, a good reason for this.  One need only to look the damage caused by government secrecy, or by secret keeping within the Catholic Church, or by corporate secrecy in order to justify an attitude of skepticism, vigilance, and distrust.

But, I want to ask, how do these issues of privacy and secrecy play out within the communities to which we belong?  What does privacy mean in community?  How do confidentiality, anonymity, and secrecy impact the communities to which we belong?

When I think about privacy there are a few different images that come to mind.  The first image I think of is a child maybe eight or nine or ten years old who begins to assert the right to privacy.  Maybe a sign appears on the bedroom door:  “My room.  Keep out!”  Maybe a diary is labeled secret and hidden underneath a pillow.  Maybe there is a secret treasure box whose contents are not to be known by another living soul.  What I’m describing would seem to be a universal impulse.  We would insist that there is a right to some degree of privacy.

Another image that comes to mind when I think of the word private, is that of the lowest military rank.  The term, as I understand it, originated hundreds of years ago and indicated a conscript or volunteer, a person pulled from the ranks of private citizens in order to serve in the military, as opposed to a professionally trained soldier.  But what is interesting to me and what I would want to point out is that the rank of “private,” as I understand it, is also without authority, lacking the ability to command or control, and lacking the formal responsibilities for others that comes along with being a sergeant or lieutenant, a captain or a general.  What I’m getting after here – and I understand that this is a play on words – is the sense that what is private is what isn’t in a position to influence anyone else.

We talk of some people – politicians, civic leaders, members of the clergy – as public figures.  This is a way of saying that certain details of our personal lives are not considered private.  Our positions carry with them the expectation of certain values and virtues and responsibility and trustworthiness, and our larger lives are supposed to model and embody those expectations.  Our lives are said to be influential.  I recently read a news item about the California mega-church pastor Rick Warren, one of America’s most recognizable religious leaders.  He recently returned to the pulpit after a four month absence following the suicide of his 27 year-old son.  He delivered a sermon called, “How to Get Through What You’re Going Through,” which was about his and his family’s experience of loss and grief and how his Southern Baptist faith was a source of comfort and healing.  I mention this because as I read the news item I was struck by just how public this man’s tragedies and trials and tribulations are, and how public they have to be, because he is in a position where his life is supposed to influence others.

Privacy, I’m suggesting, has one meaning constitutionally speaking, and another meaning in terms of community.  In terms of community, privacy is what doesn’t influence anyone else.

In community, confidentiality has to do with relationships of trust and faithfulness.  Confidentiality has to do with how information is managed.  Sometimes within this church our small groups (Covenant Groups, the Men’s Group or Women’s Group, the parenting group, maybe an adult religious education class that deals with a personal topic) may decide to set an expectation of confidentiality among the participants.  A participant within these groups might say something that feels safe to share within the small group but might embarrass them if it was announced to the entire congregation.  Confidentiality means that information is entrusted to others with the expectation that this information will be treated with care and respect.  As a minister, lots and lots of things are shared with me confidentially.  Spiritual and emotional challenges, along with the myriad of other challenges that people face.  Stories of shame, embarrassment, regret, and pain.  Sensitive personal information.  Confidentiality is not the same thing as secret keeping, however.  For example, I am a mandated reporter if I know or suspect that someone is planning to hurt themselves or hurt others.  That is not a limit to confidentiality; it is a natural extension of confidentiality.  There is a greater trust, a greater faithfulness, that would be violated by keeping silent and doing nothing while someone is in immediate risk of being harmed.  I think of the silences of the Catholic sex abuse scandals.  Secrets were kept that resulted in lives being shattered.  A further result of such secrets being kept was that a greater sense of confidence, trust, and faithfulness was shattered as well.  Confidentiality always results in the preservation of a larger sense of trust.

Anonymity involves the utter absence of trust.  In the larger world, there are times when anonymity is necessary.  Those times usually signal a climate marked by fear and danger.  Anonymous tip lines exist for crimes because reporting a crime may put you in danger.  A journalist may not reveal his or her sources when those sources face the danger of retribution and retaliation.  Anonymity involves the absence of any sense of community.  Anonymity destroys community.  If you don’t believe me, go to the comment sections of a news website.  I recommend doing this if you feel your blood pressure is too low.  What you are likely to find is the Wild West – rants and diatribes, hate speech, slurs, epithets, personal attacks, nastiness, and embarrassments of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

One of my friends had a blog.  He left the comments section open hoping to generate discussion.  Instead, he found his blog swimming in personal attacks, abusive language, personal agendas, and hate speech.  It was as if every troubled individual on the internet had invited himself to the party.  My friend said it was like he had posted a sign that said, “Please drive by and throw your trash on my lawn.”  My friend changed the settings on his blog, requiring commenters to provide a name and an email address.  All of a sudden, when people had to take responsibility for what they wrote, the conversation became healthier.  In community, anonymity invites the worst angels of our nature.

In last week’s worship service we heard Forrest Church’s definition of sin.  He said, “Sin is anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being.”  Secrets, I believe, function in the same way as sins.  Secrets function to divide, exclude, and separate.  They are powerful in that they give some people a feeling of power and a special insider status.  The power though is only the power to withhold information.  The special status is only the ability to exclude.  Secrets are inherently divisive.  Daniel Ellsberg writes that “wrong-doing virtually always requires both secrecy and lies, and further secrets and lies to protect the secrets and lies.”  Secrecy always involves a separation, a division, a sense of brokenness.

Our lives are complex.  Our relationships are complex.  Our families are complex.  Our communities are complex.  We all have a right to privacy, a choice of which thoughts, which opinions, which stories to keep private and which to reveal, to make known, to make public.  And then there are those fraught things somewhere in the middle between public and private.  In those matters we all carry the responsibility of speaking and not-speaking in ways that increase trust and strengthen faithfulness, and avoiding ways of speaking and not-speaking that separate and that divide.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sermon: "The Enemy of the Good" (Delivered 8-4-13)

During the study leave that I’m just now returning from I was able to read a number of books that were informative and useful, but I want to talk about a different book.  The book that stuck in my mind the most was also, by far, the weirdest thing I read.  I happened to stumble across a bizarre manifesto  by David Byrne, the former front man of the band The Talking Heads.  This slim book, entitled The New Sins / Los Nuevos Pecados contained Byrne’s absurd musings on the topic of sin.  However, in the midst of his madness there were a few lines that fascinated me.  He writes, “The new sins… are usually mistaken for virtues.  What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.”  I was intrigued by this idea that there may be things that we think are good for us – habits, attitudes, desires, ways of being in the world – that don’t actually turn out to be good for us after all.

A few days ago I met with this year’s Worship Team for the first time and I asked them to free associate about the word sin.  Though we didn’t reach any sort of consensus, many members of the group had a strong negative reaction to the word.  Some members of the group rejected “sin” as a concept that had any meaning to them at all.  Several commented that it felt like such a judgmental word.  It evoked memories of being judged and condemned.  It is a word that causes us to think of televangelists, shouting fundamentalists, and religious bullies.  A person who talks about sin is someone we hope not to find ourselves seated next to on the airplane.  I think of that awful, cringe-inducing line about sin – “love the sinner, hate the sin” – and how ugly a saying that is.  It is a way of saying that not only am I going to judge you, but while I’m judging you I’m going to deny to your face that that’s what I’m doing.  The brainstorm basically went in that direction.

I took the resistance to the concept of sin that I encountered as an indication that I was on the right track.  Sometimes resistance means you’re heading in the wrong direction, but sometimes it means you’re heading in exactly the right direction.

Sin is a tricky word to define.  It is tempting to use it as a synonym for things that we would consider bad or wrong or unjust or immoral or illegal, though those words do not mean exactly the same thing as sin.  I floated a possible definition that sins are attitudes or behaviors that diminish and detract from human life.  But I didn’t feel like I had gotten this definition exactly right either.  Another member of the Worship Team suggested that we could define sin as the failure to love.  I decided to look up how some other Unitarian Universalists had defined sin and was most impressed by the way in which Forrest Church defined it.  In a piece published in the UU World magazine in 2004, Forrest Church urges Unitarian Universalists to take sin and evil more seriously.  In that piece Church writes, “I define the word sin simply.  It is anything that divides us:  within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.”

The opposite of bad is good.  The opposite of wrong is right.  The opposite of injustice is justice, of immoral is moral.  Forrest Church writes that the opposite of sin is wholeness.  He remarks that the words for whole, holy, health, and hale all share a common root.  Sin is division and separation; its opposite is connectedness, wholeness.

Forrest Church is in good company when he identifies sin as separation and division.  A member of the Worship Team reminded me that in Dante’s deepest circle of hell, the punishment was to dwell in an eternal state of absolute separation and isolation.  “The deepest separation,” Dante writes, “is to suffer isolation from the source of all light and life and warmth.”

If Christianity is a part of your background, you may remember being taught that in the New Testament there are a number of different Greek words that are all translated as sin, but that the most commonly used word is hamartia, which is often said to literally mean “to miss the mark.”  If you come from a Christian background does this sound familiar to you at all?  The image often put forward is that there is a great big archery target with an extremely precise and narrow bull’s-eye in the perfect center of the target and that sin is missing the mark.  In this theological system, sin is distance from the perfect divine ideal.  Sin is unavoidable because of our less than perfect human nature.  One of the most famous passages about sin in the New Testament occurs in Paul’s letter to the Romans and this passage causes us to imagine such a cosmic archery range.  Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Did anyone ever do archery as a child?  I don’t know how much that is a common experience or not, but I remember getting lucky and hitting the target – not the bull’s-eye, the target – once or twice at the archery range at summer camp.  More often the arrow would sail over the target and get lost in the tall grass.  Occasionally the shot would seem to be right on the mark, but then there would be some kind of aerodynamic failure and the arrow would drive itself into the ground five feet short of the target.  For everyone’s arrow will fall short (or sail wide) of the glory of the perfect bull’s-eye.

I don’t want to belabor this point too much, except to say that even if we don’t know a lick of New Testament Greek, even if we’ve never tried archery, even if we don’t particularly care for the word sin and don’t find it to be a concept that is personally meaningful to us, there still may be a part of us that sets up impossible targets, for others or for ourselves, and then proceeds to act like a cruel judge of anything that is not a perfect bull’s-eye.  And further, there may be a part of us that is sure that this is the way that we are supposed to approach life.

I remember serving as the Intern Minister of a UU church in suburban Dallas, Texas.  One of my projects that year was to get a young adult group started in that church.  I remember that one Sunday when I was preaching, there were a pair of first time visitors, a young couple that seemed to have this energy, this charisma about them.  During the service and during my sermon they were smiling and nodding their heads in agreement with what I was preaching and I was making eye contact with them.  I was picking up all these great vibes from them.  After the service they came up to me and were complimentary and enthusiastic and they were saying how excited they were to find a church that was so theologically liberal.  Then they asked if the church had a volleyball team and I told them that I was very sorry that the church did not have a volleyball team.  This young couple looked very crestfallen and said, “Oh, we like liberal theology but we also really like volleyball.”  They never came back.  What kind of impossible standard of perfection was that?  Yeah, that Martin Luther King guy was OK, but I was hoping to join a civil rights movement with a softball league.

I’ve got another story about difficult bull’s-eyes.  How many of you have volunteered at Harvesters, either as a part of this church or on your own?  The first time we had a church workday at Harvesters, more than fifty children, youth, and adults from our church participated in stuffing bags for the Harvesters “backsnack” program.  This program provides school aged children with a pack of food that they can take home for the weekend.  The children served by this program not only receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch at school, but they live in food insecure homes where there may not be any food in their household over the weekend.  Imagine eating lunch on Friday and not knowing if you’ll have anything to eat until Monday.  Harvesters provides more than 10,000 backpacks with snacks in them every week to children in our metro area.  Adults, youth, and children from our church formed an assembly line and in just a couple of hours stuffed more than 1,000 bags with shelf-stable milk boxes, juice boxes, granola bars, fruit rollups, cereal, and single serving cans of mac and cheese, ravioli, and tuna.  It was an amazing experience.

Once I encountered a person who had similarly volunteered with the “backsnack program” but reported having a different reaction.  She worried that the food that went into the backpacks had too many preservatives, wished that fresh produce was included in the backpacks, and was concerned about possible ethnic, cultural, religious, and dietary sensitivities of the children receiving the backpacks.

Have you ever encountered a standard of perfection that is too impossibly high?  It is easy to regard another’s standards of perfection as quirky, as humorous, perhaps even as fascinating and idealistic, when we ourselves are safely out of range of their demands.  It is far less a laughing matter when the standard of perfection is directed at us by a partner or a parent, by a boss or a person we serve.  What damage we can do to ourselves and to others when we insist on our own perfection or condemn others for not rising to our own impossible standards.

David Byrne lists ambition among his “new sins” calling it “a cousin of aggression, accumulation, and attrition… infecting the unhappy, the unfortunate, and the unlucky, and turn[ing] them into desperate strivers…  Is this a value to hold worthy?  Is this the kind of life that is good and true?”

Each year, around the first week of August, I dust off the three ring binder advertising this congregation created by the Shawnee Mission UU Church’s ministerial search committee in 2002 as they went through the discernment process of whom to invite to become the next minister.  The search materials began, “Just as we are not a perfect church, we realize that there are no perfect ministers.  But there are nearly perfect sermons and we delight in those.”  Words of wisdom.

The old sin was missing the mark, falling short, sailing wide, failing to strike precisely a lofty and impossible standard.  “Be ye perfect,” said Jesus.  The old sin expected that we should hate our own failure to measure up.  Forgetful of the commandment about who is allowed to throw the first stone, the old sins tempted us to judge others for their perceived shortcomings, noticing the speck while missing the beam.

Let us heed the warning that what is held so often to be virtue may actually be vice.  In the words of Vivian Pomeroy from our prayer this morning let us remember the confession, “Forgive us that we expect perfection from those to whom we show none.”  The enemy of the good, this perfection divides, separating us from ourselves, from our fellow human beings, and from the ground of our being.  Fortunately, there is a better, though still imperfect, translation of Jesus’s words urging perfection.  Actually, the better translation urges “Be ye complete.”  Be ye whole.  Amen.

Questions for Conversation and Reflection

1) What is your definition of the word sin?  Do you find it to be a concept that is personally meaningful to you?

2) This sermon was inspired by David Byrne’s provocative statement that “What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices…  One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.”  Have you ever felt sure that what you were doing was helpful and good only to learn later that it was hurtful?  Have you ever had to rethink a treasured virtue?

3) Does the shadow side of perfectionism resonate with your experience?  Have you ever had a negative experience demanding perfection from yourself or from others?  Have you ever felt forced to live up to someone else’s impossibly high standards?