Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: "Jesus Was Not a Unitarian Universalist" (Delivered 9-29-13)

Call to Worship
I want you to imagine with me.  Imagine a particular corner of God’s green earth. The place is beautiful and fruitful.  Not necessarily more beautiful or more fruitful than other lands, but beautiful to those who call it home.

This place is sacred.  It is the place where faith is practiced.  The people who live there don’t always get it right.  There is a need for prophets to call them out, and also call them back to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

Things have not been easy lately.  A powerful empire is ruling over them.  The people are divided.  Many think that they should rise up against empire.  Others find the occupiers too brutal; the cost of resistance is too high.

This is the world that Jesus was born into, two thousand years ago.  His life was inspiring, tragic, and short.  He practiced care for those who had it hardest, the most vulnerable in his day and age.  He followed his faith passionately, even when it meant he would pay the ultimate price.  He challenged powers and principalities that caused suffering and humiliation.

Today, in our own little corner of God’s green earth, we live a place that is beautiful and fruitful.  There is considerably more freedom of faith today, but we don’t always live up to the demands of our faith.  The world is still very much in need of justice, mercy, and those who walk humbly.  Today we still live in the midst of empires, of powers and principalities that often do not have human well-being in mind.

This morning we look back, hoping to learn something for this day.

This morning we consider our place in the world of things.

Let us worship together.

I want to begin the sermon this morning by doing something a bit different.  I’d like to offer a retelling of what is probably Jesus’ most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But, I’d like to call on you for your help in retelling this parable.  Let’s make this a collective retelling.

Let’s start with the characters. Who are the characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan?  The characters of the story include a man, several robbers, a priest, a Levite, the Good Samaritan, and an innkeeper.

Can you tell me about the narrative arc of this parable?  Can you describe the story?  The man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is set upon by robbers who beat him, strip him naked, and leave him lying half dead by the roadside.  The priest walks by and does not stop.  The Levite walks by and does not stop.  Finally, the Good Samaritan stops to help, binds his wounds, places him on his animal, brings him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper to care for him.

Can you tell me about the moral of this story?  What lesson are we supposed to take from this story?  My guess is that you’ve always thought of this story as a lesson that teaches that the real practice of our faith is in how we care for those who are vulnerable and hurting.

And, finally, how do we feel about this story?  Do you agree with the moral of the story?

I invite you to take a moment and listen to what Reza Aslan says about the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Christians have long interpreted this parable as reflecting the importance of helping those in distress.  But for the audience gathered at Jesus’ feet, the parable would have had less to do with the goodness of the Samaritan than with the baseness of the two priests.

The Jews considered the Samaritans to be the lowliest, most impure people of Palestine for one chief reason: the Samaritans rejected the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem as the sole legitimate place of worship.  Instead, they worshipped the God of Israel in their own temple on Mount Gerizim, on the western bank of the Jordan River.  For those among Jesus’ listeners who recognized themselves as the beaten, half-dead men left lying on the road, the lesson of the parable would have been self-evident: the Samaritan who denies the authority of the Temple, goes out of his way to fulfill the commandment of the Lord to “love your neighbor as yourself.’  The priests, who derive their wealth and authority from their connection to the Temple, ignore the commandment altogether for fear of defiling their ritual purity and thus endangering that connection.

Let me be completely clear about this:  Aslan is saying that the moral lesson that we should derive from the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem are corrupt.  They’ve been bought off by the Roman occupiers.  They’re indifferent to the suffering of the Jewish people.  They’ve sold out their people, their God, and their good name.  It’s time for new leadership.

How does this interpretation of the parable strike you? That it is not a universal teaching about service to humanity.  No, the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is particular, partisan, and political.  The moral of the story is that it is a call for first century Jews to turn against the priests in Jerusalem.


This week and next week we’re going to be doing a short, two-part sermon mini-series on two religion books that came out this year that I think are important and that I think are challenging.  The two books are very, very different.  Next week I’m going to preach about the book When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough by Lillian Daniel.  Daniel is a liberal, mainline Protestant minister.  Her book is informal, edgy, and funny, and it is her testimony about the importance of religion, of the church and the church community, in an age of consumerism and narcissism.  Reza Aslan is not a white woman.  He is not a liberal Protestant, not a Christian, and not a member of the clergy.  He is not informal or funny.  He is a scholar of religion (and an American Muslim of Iranian descent) and this past summer he released his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Two really different books.  Next week is Lillian Daniel.  This morning is Reza Aslan.

My guess is that most of us don’t stay up to date on current trends in New Testament scholarship.  Heck, even I don’t stay up to date on current trends in New Testament scholarship.  But, I’m guessing that most of us heard about this book Zealot.  Reza Aslan had the good fortune of stumbling into some manufactured controversy about his book that made Zealot a sudden focus of the culture wars in our country and propelled the book to the very top of bestseller lists.  In late July he was interviewed on a cable news station.  The interview went viral.  And, the consequence of this interview was that if you were a person who likes pluralism, who likes religious tolerance, who likes intellectual freedom and academic history, you might feel inclined to pick up the book and throw a few dollars Aslan’s way, even if you didn’t plan on reading the book.  Therefore, this sermon.

For the record, I did read Zealot.  My main takeaway from the book was that it would make for a great academic lecture but a poor sermon.  And, it would make for an especially bad sermon for Unitarian Universalists.  Sorry.  So here is what Reza Aslan does:  He separates the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history.  He looks at the best of contemporary scholarship about what we know about Jesus’ life and times, the historical reality in which Jesus lived and in which Jesus’ earliest followers lived.  He paints a picture of what the Jesus of history may have been like.

The Jesus of history, Aslan writes, was a “revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, [a] magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, [a] radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Jewish occupation and lost.”

Aslan makes a case for a Jesus who would have been defined by zeal.  “Zeal,” he writes, “implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master – to serve any human master at all – and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.  To be zealous for the Lord was to walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old, men and women who tolerated no partner to God, who would bow to no king save the King of the World, and who dealt ruthlessly with idolatry and with those who transgressed God’s law.”

Rather than get into the minutiae of his scholarship, I want to make a religious point about Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot.  The real challenge of this book is the way that Aslan presents Jesus in a way that makes him difficult to connect with.  This Jesus is not friendly, is not polite, is not all-loving or all-accepting.  This Jesus is more wild than domesticated.  He’s partisan, political, and nationalistic.  He’s strident.  He’s zealous.  If you’re a person who has ever felt a real kinship with Jesus, a real connection, this book is especially challenging because Jesus winds up more distant, more foreign.  That is both the challenge of Aslan’s book, but also the gift of it.

If you go on and type in the phrase “Jesus was not a” it will present you with several different options.  You can purchase a self-published book called Jesus was Not a Christian that is written by an author who has issues with the Christian religion.  You can purchase a book called Jesus was Not a Trinitarian written by someone who is not a Trinitarian.  And the book Jesus is not a Republican was written, of course, by someone who is not a Republican.  While I’m unclear whether the author of Jesus Was A Feminist is a feminist, I do know that the author of Jesus Was A Liberal is a liberal. This is not exactly shocking.

It should not be surprising that Unitarian Universalist statements about who Jesus was make Jesus sound like, well, like a Unitarian Universalist.  A UUA pamphlet about UU views of Jesus states,

The man called Jesus of Nazareth was the inheritor of the Hebrew prophetic tradition of bearing witness to justice, the primacy of ethical living in community, and the possibility of reformation for all. His life was an example of the supremacy of human agency, as well as the model of struggle for healing and recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of the poor and oppressed.

If Reza Aslan could dialogue with me this morning, I think I’d read him those quotes and ask him, “So, professor Aslan, do you think Jesus was a Unitarian Universalist?”  I can tell you what his answer would be.  “No, Reverend.  Jesus was not a Unitarian Universalist.”

It has been said, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you hate.”  You know you’ve created Jesus in your own image when Jesus teaches all the things you already believe.

Jane Rzepka writes the following about a story in the news from several years ago, “There was a news story a while back about a play in New Jersey, the Passion Play about Jesus’ last days, where, for the first time in the theater’s 82-year run, a black man had been cast as Jesus.  Five tour groups cancelled their reservations.  Others wanted to reschedule for performances when a white actor played Jesus.  After a couple of vague death threats were phoned into the theater, two church schools cancelled out of fear for the safety of their students… Why in the world do potential members of the audience think that Jesus, a resident of the Middle East, would look like white people in New Jersey?!”

While the racism and ignorance of that story is horrifying, it is also true that many of us think about Jesus, to the extent that we think about Jesus, as someone who would agree with the Seven Principles.  What I’m really interested in is how we respond to the notion that Jesus was a zealot.  For us here I’m guessing that recasting Jesus as a nationalistic zealot instead of a universalistic prince of peace isn’t such a big deal.  We also know that lots of other people freak out when you mess with their traditional understanding of Jesus.  But us, well, either we don’t have a horse in this race, or the stakes aren’t all that high for us.  We just don’t become zealous when it comes to different ways of picturing Jesus.

Let me ask another question, then.  How do we feel about zealots?  It is a term we use to describe people who make us uncomfortable.  It is almost a pejorative term, isn’t it?  How many of you would want to be seated next to a zealot on an airplane?  If you’ve ever thought that someone was a zealot, you probably weren’t thinking kind thoughts about that person.

Jesus has always been a challenging figure for Unitarian Universalists.  One reason that Jesus is challenging is that there has been so much myth, miracle, and mystical theology attached to him through the ages that his humanity has often been hidden.  A second reason that Jesus is challenging is that his commandments are demanding.  Who among us lives up to his moral code.  And now, Aslan has gone and given us a third reason to find Jesus challenging.  He gives us a Jesus who is particular, partisan, and nationalistic.  Jesus is zealous.  He is most truly himself when he is turning over tables, driving out moneychangers, cursing the priests, and rising up against the Romans.

Reza Aslan’s gift to us is a Jesus who is definitely not a Unitarian Universalist.  Well, duh.  But it begs the question of what we do with someone who doesn’t necessarily live up to our standards of perfection.  Or, in other words, someone who is human.

I think our human inclination when we encounter someone who is zealous is to push that person away.  But the spiritual lesson of Aslan’s book might be not to do that.  We’re dared to be in relationship with someone who is human, warts and all.  It isn’t necessarily an easy challenge, but one that makes us better.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" ...

... or some thoughts on the longest book I've ever read.

Share something about Rising Up and Rising Down that will make people want to read it:

If you watch TV you may have seen those beer commercials that feature a fictional character known as The Most Interesting Man in the World.  Well, I’m pretty sure that William T. Vollmann is a real life contender for the right to be called the most interesting man in the world.

In the pages of Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann shares many incredible adventures.  He pays a visit to the secret jungle hideout of Southeast Asia’s largest opium kingpin.  He dodges sniper fire during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and then walks away from a landmine explosion that kills two fellow journalists he’s traveling with.  He kidnaps a child prostitute and smuggles her to an anti-human-trafficking safe house in Thailand.  He hangs out with Yakuza bosses in Japan, zebu rustlers in Madagascar, and street gangs in California.  He dodges sniper fire (again) while embedded with US marines in Mogadishu.  He tracks down the head of a terrorist organization in Malaysia, conducts interviews with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and spends the first anniversary of September 11 in Yemen attempting to locate al-Qaeda operatives to interview.  He attends Voodoo and Santeria rituals in Louisiana and Florida and then travels to Idaho and Montana to meet with white supremacists, militia men, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis.

If that doesn’t sound interesting, don’t bother picking up this book.

What is Rising Up and Rising Down about?

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is William Vollmann’s project that attempts to answer the question of when violence is justified.  It is a work of obsession that took him 17 years to complete.

The first four volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down are “theoretical.”  Here he considers various justifications for acts of violence and judges whether or not violence is justified.  When is violence acceptable in defense of war aims?  In defense of homeland?  In defense of honor?  In defense of authority or revolution?  When is violence acceptable in defense of class, race, gender, or creed?  How about for the purposes of punishment, deterrence, or retribution?  To attempt to answer these questions, Vollmann turns to philosophy as well as to the annals of history.  In these pages we find a parade of violent actors:  Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin and Trotsky, Hitler, Hernando Cortes, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown.  We meet members of activist groups such as the Guardian Angels, the Animal Liberation Front, and Earth First!  He synthesizes all these case studies into a philosophical “Moral Calculus” that differentiates between justifiable and unjustifiable violence.

The fifth and sixth volumes deal with the “consequences” of violence.  Here we find Vollmann traveling the globe as an intrepid journalist, interviewing people whose lives are caught up in violent circumstances.  He sends us dispatches from the United States, Jamaica, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia during its civil war, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Japan.

A final volume, entitled The Moral Calculus restates the Moral Calculus in its entirety, provides additional information in numerous “annexes”, and contains an extensive 44 page bibliography.

The size of this book is legendary, right?

Every review of Rising Up and Rising Down includes descriptions of its voluminous size.  Here is what you need to know about its size:

            Volumes:          7
Pages:              3,161
            Footnotes:        7,799
            Weight:            19 pounds
            Dimensions:      7” x 10” x 10 15/16”

Why did you read Rising Up and Rising Down?

As a Unitarian Universalist I grew up learning about figures from our history who were martyred or persecuted for their beliefs.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva.  Francis David died in a Transylvanian prison.  Joseph Priestley fled England after a mob torched his laboratory; only by accident did they not also take his life.  Then there were the UUs who were murdered while working for justice.  Norbert Capek died in Hitler’s concentration camps.  James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Selma.  In high school in 1994, I read an article in the UU World about James Barrett, a UU and a retired Air Force colonel, who was gunned down in Florida while volunteering as an escort at a women’s health clinic.  Starting at an early age I had this sense that living a faithful life as a Unitarian Universalist might mean putting myself in situations where I might become the target of violence.

At the same time that these victims were praised and the non-violence of King and Gandhi was idolized within the church, I found one particular moment in our history that was significantly different.  Our tradition celebrates Theodore Parker for his violence in resisting slavery.  Parker famously wrote his sermons while packing a pistol that he said he would use to defend the liberty of the fugitive slaves he harbored.  He armed fugitive slaves so that they might defend themselves.  He stirred up mobs to rescue captured slaves from their jail cells.  In addition, northern Unitarians were among the most generous supporters of John Brown’s failed attempt to violently overthrow slavery in the south.  Unitarian poets such as Louisa May Alcott and Lydia Maria Child wrote poems praising John Brown’s violent acts as divinely sanctioned.

Should a faithful UU aspire to James Reeb’s non-violence or to John Brown’s militant revolution?  Who personifies a faithful life?  Is one better than the other?  Is it simply a matter of individual choice?

I’ve twice preached sermons on the question of when violence may be justified.  In 2010 I decided to preach a sermon inspired by the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds.  I contrasted the film’s fictional portrayal of a violent revenge fantasy enacted against Hitler and the leaders of the Third Reich with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s actual attempt to assassinate Hitler.  In 2013 I preached about the violence in another Tarantino film, Django Unchained, comparing its message with the history of John Brown and Theodore Parker.

I’m not sure either sermon fully answered the question of when violence is justified, but it’s a question that continues to interest me and led me to read Rising Up and Rising Down.

What’s the other reason you read this book?

As you can imagine, not a lot of presses were clamoring to publish a work like Rising Up and Rising Down.  It wound up being published by McSweeney’s in 2003.  I am a huge fan of McSweeney’s and I’m currently working towards reading every book they’ve ever published.  With the completion of Rising Up and Rising Down, I’ve now read 150 of the 200 works McSweeney’s has published.

Do you agree with Vollmann?

While I can appreciate his attempt to formulate a consistent system for rationally evaluating whether violence is justified or not, it seems to me that violence is too chaotic and unpredictable a force to adhere to the tight logic of his calculus.  This point is made far better than I can make it in this review panning Rising Up and Rising Down in the New York Times.

The other issue I had with Vollmann is that he is a much bigger fan of the Second Amendment than I am.  He disagrees with calls for increased gun control after the mass school shooting Columbine; I could not disagree with him more strongly.  I found his portrayal of survivalists in Idaho disconcertingly sympathetic.

These objections notwithstanding, and even though there were long passages I had to slog my way through, my experience reading all seven volumes was fairly positive much of the time.  I find his around-the-world adventures chronicled in volumes five and six to be fascinating.  The section on violent defense of Earth was especially provocative.  Even when I didn’t find the subject at hand to be interesting, I could still marvel at the depth of Vollmann’s obsession.

Wasn’t Vollmann in the news recently?

Yes.  In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, William Vollmann writes about reading nearly 300 pages (heavily redacted) of his nearly 800 page FBI file and learning that he was suspected of being the Unabomber.  He discusses this with NPR here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sermon: "Vocation: Curating" (Delivered 9-22-13)

Allow me to begin with a personal story about a favorite library experience.  When I was nineteen I took the train to New York City for the purpose of looking at a reference book.  I walked up the stone stairs, between those enormous lion statues, and consulted with a reference librarian.  I was shown to a fancy reading room with wood paneling and oil paintings of dead white men.  On the shelves I found a reference book that may never have been opened.  The book was a catalog of Coptic manuscripts held by the British Library and Museum.  I spent most of a day flipping through descriptions of thousands of ancient religious texts and writing down the reference numbers for the texts I most wanted to see.

A few weeks later I was on a plane to England, where I would spend a semester studying.  London was my first stop.  I carried with me a letter from the curator of the British Library and Museum offering me unlimited access to their ancient manuscript collection.  How I had decided to learn Egyptian Coptic is a story for another time.  I’d leave my hostel in the morning, cross the Thames, show my credentials and pass through security, enter a climate controlled reading room, and fill out library request forms with a stubby golf pencil.  Then the librarians would bring out and set before me ancient sacred texts that had been handwritten on papyrus parchment in Egypt more than 1500 years ago: chapters from the Gospels, heretical Gnostic texts, a late but beautiful copy of the Book of Revelation complete with illustrations.

I think I’ve always regarded libraries as sacred, magical spaces.  The magic of libraries transcends any architectural elements: the woodwork, the stonework, the statues of lions.  The magic of libraries even goes beyond any invaluable treasures that may be kept in the vaults of the special collections.  The magic of libraries has to do with what they do even more than what they look like or what they have.  It has to do with how they provide access to information, inspiration, and imagination.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation.  All this month we’ve explored different callings.  We’ve heard from people in different professions about the meaning of what they do and their spiritual connection to their work.  In previous weeks we’ve heard from teachers and also from those in the healing professions.  This week we’re going to hear from librarians.  Allow me to say once again that in focusing on educators, healers, and librarians, I am not suggesting a hierarchy of professions with these at the top.  I’m not saying that vocation is limited to only those in helping, service oriented professions.  I’m not saying that vocation is limited to professional professions, to those jobs that require an advanced degree.  I’m not even saying that vocation only applies to paid work.  Parenting might be your vocation, or volunteering, or an artistic endeavor done for love rather than money.  As Unitarian Universalists we do like broad, inclusive definitions.  This series is less about elevating a few specific professions than it is about providing a template allowing each of us to reflect on the place of vocation within our own lives.

One of the reasons I selected librarians was that I noticed that in the past couple of years we’ve had five people who work for libraries become members of this church.  (And that doesn’t even include our numerous members who have served or do serve on library boards, or several of our members who have opened Little Free Libraries in front of their homes.)  I was curious about whether there might be an overlap between what might call a person to work as a librarian and what might lead a person to join a Unitarian Universalist church.  I knew I was on the right track when I sent an email to a handful of librarians in the congregation asking if they might be interested in sharing a few thoughts with me.  In response I received paragraph after paragraph of reflections and observations.

For this series I decided to give each sermon a one verb title.  What teachers do is called teaching or educating.  What medical professionals do is called healing or treating.  So, I asked our librarians to help me brainstorm a single verb that best explains what they do?

We help.  We serve.  We assist.  Those verbs are a little too vague. 

We collect.  We catalog.  We lend.  Those verbs are too impersonal.

We connect.  We inform.  Now we’re getting warmer. 

We resource.  Perfect, except I don’t think that word is a verb. 

Find something better, I thought, or else I’ll title this sermon, “Vocation: Shushing.”* 

There is no single verb for what a librarian does, but the verb I landed was to curate.  I like this word.  It has both spiritual and secular significance.  In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, a curate is a type of priest who attends to the cure of souls.  Curates are strongly oriented towards service to humanity.  In the secular sense, a curator is someone who works for a museum or another type of cultural institution whose role is not only to acquire, collect, and preserve, but also to display, to exhibit, to make accessible, and even to make comprehensible.

At the beginning of this sermon series, I suggested two ways in which a person might begin to reflect on the spirituality of vocation. The first way was to ask a question about connections.  Who does your work connect you with?  Whose lives does it impact?  Whose lives does it touch?  The second way to reflect about the spirituality of vocation was to ask a question about story.  What is the meaning of the story that your life, that your work, is a part of?

When I spoke with librarians about what was meaningful to them about their work, they all said that as a librarian it is not enough to just love books or to just love reading.  You do have to love books.  You do have to love reading.  But you have to love people even more.  This answer had to do with connections.  One librarian told me that listening and being responsive is a significant part of his job.  Another librarian told me how much she loves making someone’s day.  They come to the reference desk annoyed, frustrated, or just in a bad mood and they leave satisfied, content, grateful.  One librarian spoke earlier in the service about the desire to commit his life to service and how being a librarian helps him fill his need to serve.

Here’s how one person put it, “I've worked at a very small town library with a high poverty rate and now a big city library.  My work has changed my outlook from instilling that love of reading to helping families gain the skills to be successful in the world, either through learning and improving their reading skills, which we know are so important, or providing access to materials that will educate as well as entertain.  We know that reading skills at third grade are great predictors of graduation rates.  And early literacy has become a huge focus of libraries in recent years…”

Meaningful and positive connections were key to how librarians understood their service.  But, even more powerful was how the librarians thought about their work as a part of the story of civilization’s unfolding.  I’ll say more about this is just a second.  The librarians I spoke with talked easily and openly about the ethical dimensions of their work.  This, I will admit, was actually a bit surprising to me.  I had never thought of librarians as a profession that requires a strong sense of ethics.  Let me show this connection between story and ethics by sharing the words of some members of the church.

Here’s what one member of the congregation wrote, “What inspires me about being a librarian – maybe as spiritual as it gets for me – is that librarians stand for intellectual freedom.  Librarians intentionally create spaces, opportunities, and environments where people can express themselves and be heard…  We support this freedom of expression in ways that other cultural and educational institutions don't.”

“I’d like to echo those comments,” chimed in another librarian.  “The intellectual freedom issue… is paramount to what we do. There can be drudgery in our day-to-day work to keep things moving. But if you don't have the dedication to the principles of free and equal access to information and materials, you're not going to last long in this profession.”

The story behind these comments is the same story that was behind the Declaration of Independence, a story of self-evident truths and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It was the story behind the First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, petition, press, and assembly.  It is a story that says that we as individuals are best served by being able to explore ideas freely, and that society is best served when there is broad and equal access to information. 

One part of this is access to materials that some in society find objectionable.  Ever since Socrates went to his death as punishment for corrupting the youth of Athens, there have been those who have tried to outlaw, destroy, remove, restrict, or ban certain teachings and certain works.  The same malevolent force that led Socrates to put the hemlock to his lips also persecuted Galileo.  It is the same force that banned Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby, Salinger and Vonnegut.  It is the same force that claims that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft and the occult.  It is the same force that has residents of this community again launching an inquisition against a bare breasted statue at the Overland Park Arboretum.

It is wonderful serendipity that I’m giving this sermon on the day that Banned Books Week begins.  Around the country, libraries are celebrating freedom of speech and freedom of the press, these most American of freedoms.  One of the librarians in the congregation refers to this week as “books challenged by people who haven’t read them week.”

One thing worth remembering about censorship is that “values” is often a code word for racism, sexism, heterosexism, and religious intolerance.  A book with a gay character aimed at high school students will almost surely result in the book being challenged.  A book with a strong female protagonist will face more resistance than a book with a strong male protagonist.  A book where the protagonist is a person of color who is angry about the history of slavery or the history of Native American genocide or even present day racism is more likely to be challenged.  And God forbid that the hero of one of these books is someone who challenges authority.

Truthfully, I’m probably a bit too biased to work for the library.  I’m not sure I could in conscience place a book order for a parenting guide by James Dobson or put a political satire by Laura Ingraham on the shelf without feeling a twinge of guilt.  However, I’d never go so far as to launch a petition drive asking for those books to be removed from the shelves.  But the librarians in our congregation really do believe in collecting books that contain a variety of viewpoints.  Doing so is an ethical requirement that they take seriously.

If access to a diversity of materials is one value that librarians stand by, equality of access is another.  Information and resources need to be available to all, especially those of all socio-economic backgrounds.  There are no VIPs at the library.  It is a value of our free society to insist that books, periodicals, newspapers, films, and even and especially access to the information sources of the digital age need to be available to all members of society.

From cuneiform tablets and hieroglyphics, to papyrus scrolls, to the library of Alexandria, jump ahead to the printing press, to the Carnegie libraries and the birth of the public library system, to the digital age.  From books being a sign of royal or priestly privilege to universal access to information being a requirement for a functional society, I would say that librarians are definitely a part of a great story of freedom and civilization, of information, inspiration, and imagination.

* A further thought:  While the image of the "shushing librarian" may be a stereotype there has actually been a bit of a discussion about whether libraries should be bustling centers of activity or places of silence.  One of the librarians in our congregation who helped me most with this sermon is inspired by R. David Lankes' writings about the library as conversation.  (This doesn't only mean people talking, but it certainly has implications about how a library will function.)  Laura Miller of challenges this focus calling for the return of shushing librarians.  Whichever side you take, and I'm probably being overly dualistic here, you have to admit that this is a sweet tattoo:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sermon: "Vocation: Healing" (Delivered 9-22-13)

This morning is the third installment in this sermon series on Vocation that began on Labor Day weekend with an introductory sermon about the spirituality of calling and continued last week with a service about the spirituality of teaching.  Next week this sermon series will conclude with a service in which we’ll hear reflections about the spiritual significance of the vocation of being a librarian.  This morning, inspired by the reflections of several members of this congregation who work in medical professions, we’re going to explore the spirituality of healing.

There’s an image that came to mind several times as I thought about this sermon.  I used to write my sermons at a coffee house near my home and I used to share a table with a group of medical students from KU who were in their early years of medical school.  Over time I got to know these students.  They were incredibly smart and passionate.  They projected a sense of bright-eyed enthusiasm.  These medical students would sit there with their laptops and their earphones and watch videos of med school lectures. Only the videos would be watched on “fast forward,” so that an hour lecture could be received in forty minutes.  It sounded like a medical school lecture given by Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks.  One of the students explained her study habits to me this way, “The thing about medical school is that if you actually go to the lectures you don’t have enough time to learn all you need to learn.  It’s all about finding a way to squeeze 28 or 30 hours into the day.”  I think of the residents and interns I met when I worked as a hospital chaplain.  They explained their 36 hour shifts in the same way.  In order to get the experience you need, you just need more hours in the day.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”  He wasn’t talking about medicine.  It is a quote, though, that could certainly apply to any vocation.  Moreover, it is a quote that applies to the entirety of our lives.  “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”  This morning we explore the vocation of those who serve in the medical professions – doctors, nurses, therapists – those who have dedicated a significant and substantial portion of their lives to the work of healing.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken with a number of medical professionals in this congregation, including several nurses and several doctors.  Those I’ve spoken with represent just a small sampling of those in this congregation with whom I might have spoken.  (It is estimated that one in eight Americans work in a health care related field.)  When I spoke with some of our members, I asked a series of questions:  What inspired you to choose work in a healing profession?  What is the spiritual connection with what you do?  What do you wish I would say about the healing professions?  And, what is something going on in your field that you think is important or that needs to be mentioned?

When I asked members of our church how they discovered their calling to heal, the responses I received were all over the map.  One doctor said the decision to become a doctor came to her at the age of twelve as she sat in a chapel.  She insisted that she didn’t experience the voice of God, but rather instead experienced an inner sense of conviction about the path she would pursue.  Another member of our church was drawn to health care because of a childhood illness that she faced and because she experienced the care of a nurse who powerfully touched her life and inspired her to want to be a nurse.  The most common response, though, was pretty matter of fact.  It involved people who said they liked science and were good at science – a blend of affinity and acumen – but came to feel that they also desired to help people directly.

For some the choice of a career in the healing professions came from a strong sense of calling.  For others it was something they just happened to navigate towards.  But, regardless of the motivations that led them to the healing arts, every single healer I spoke with said exactly the same thing when I asked them if their work had a spiritual dimension.  Each person I spoke with began by speaking about what a privilege it is to work as a healer.  It is privilege to enter into people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable, in the midst of pain, suffering, and fear.  It is a privilege for people to share their deepest, darkest secrets with you, and to be there during some of the most intense moments of their lives.  It is a privilege to be present for a human being’s first breath or last breath, not to mention all sorts of breaths between.  It is a privilege to be trusted with some of the most intimate details of a person’s life and the tremendous vulnerability involved in that sharing.  It is a privilege to be the one called to administer care when a life has been adversely affected by a medical condition, to relieve pain and promote healing.

At the same time that health care providers testify to the tremendous privilege of the work they do, they also find that the work weighs heavily on them.  Privilege and burden are like two sides of the same coin.  One doctor put it this way.  She said, “The burdens of this work are insane.”  She went on to describe that practicing medicine exposed her to her share of “Wow! moments,” as she called them: amazing breakthroughs, surprising recoveries, miracles.  But practicing medicine also exposed her to horrifying things, things that doctors and nurses I spoke with said made them shake their heads or want to shake their fists.  A nurse told me, “Caring requires me to be vulnerable, but I also find myself needing care and support for what I carry home.”

When I spoke two weeks ago I cited a study that said that about 70% of Americans disliked their jobs.  Last week when I talked about teachers I cited a study reporting that 62% percent of teachers reported feeling low morale in regard to the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, I was not able to find any good statistics about how medical professionals feel about their work, although I did discover one study that found that year after year, nursing is far and away the most trusted profession in America.  One doctor I spoke with claims that 50% of doctors say they regret choosing to enter the field of medicine.  Despite not being able to cite any good survey data, I will tell you that all of the doctors and nurses I spoke with did speak of roadblocks, frustrations, and aggravations.  Chief among their complaints is the burden of documentation and completing paperwork for insurance companies, work that they feel is not a good use of their time or skills.  There was a deep resentment about exchanging life in order to fill out forms.  One doctor put it sardonically, “In my practice I can spend an eternity documenting the treatments I prescribe, or I can go work at the free clinic and avoid the paperwork because the treatments I’d like these patients to receive are not available to them.”  One doctor fantasizes of a health care revolt on the part of skilled healers, a rising up against the paperwork and bureaucracy.  Those I spoke with mentioned feeling a disconnect between the rewarding nature of healing and working within a system that is profoundly flawed.  A nurse told me that she gets heartbroken and angry when she encounters cases that have no place existing within a developed nation.  How is it possible that we are seeing people with these maladies in the first world?

Early one morning this past week I received a call from a church member insisting that I turn on NPR because they’re doing a story about a doctor’s sense of calling.  The story was moving and heart-wrenching.  It dealt with a doctor named Jim Olson in Seattle, Washington, who heads a lab at a prestigious medical institution, operates two biotech companies, and is also a practicing physician who treats children with brain cancer.  (Somehow his days must have way more than 24 hours in them.*) The story begins with Jim Olson recounting the types of conversations he has had to have too many times, in which he explains to the parents of a young child that their child’s brain tumor is in a location that makes it impossible for it to be removed surgically, that it is a form of cancer that doesn’t respond well to radiation or chemotherapy, and the cancer will likely take the life of their child within a year.  He explained that his calling had two different components to it.  Central to his calling as a researcher and scientist was developing new technologies and treatments so that he could offer better prognoses to the children and families he worked with.  But most of the story had to do with a complementary calling of his which is to offer an excellent quality of care even when the medicine doesn’t go the way you want it to.  He tells stories of the wisdom and strength of the families he sees.  He mentioned how moved he was when parents told him that he helped to make the death of their daughter as beautiful as her birth had been.  He talks about learning from his patients to focus on the beauty of life rather than the tragedy of death.  In turn, he is able to help others to do this.

He was speaking of the same spiritual elements of his calling as our members did when they described the privilege of being in the presence of humanity in all its messiness, the vulnerability of healing work, being with people when they’re vulnerable and in pain, when their darkest moments are before you.

A member of the church told me that she always found it offensive when people she met, upon hearing that she was a doctor, would ask her, “How’s business?”  I’m not in business, she’d reply defiantly.  I practice medicine.  Every doctor I spoke with told me to tell you that it is a gross misconception that doctors are mostly in it for the money.  The skilled work of healing is something for which they’ve exchanged an immense portion of their lives for the privilege of being able to do.

Most of us will never perform a surgery, will never read an MRI, will never present during Grand Rounds.  But virtually all of us will have the opportunity to engage in the work of healing, comfort and care.  We’ll kiss boo-boos and place band aids on the skinned knees of a child, make chicken soup, change bandages, schedule medical appointments, and hold the hand of a friend or family member in the hospital.  Thanks be to those in this church community and beyond who have dedicated a massive portion of their lives to the work of healing.  For them and for all of us, may the words of the poet Marge Piercy ring true.  “May the thing worth doing well done have a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”  Amen.


(* In the list of people who seem to have more than 24 hours in their days, I can't help but mention Chris Adrian, one of my favorite authors.  Adrian is a pediatric oncologist, a successful author having written 3 novels and a collection of short stories, and was named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best authors under 40.  He also was a student at Harvard Divinity School.)

Questions for Reflection:
1) Have you ever been called upon to function as a healer?  Was there anything meaningful in the experience?

2)  Thoreau said, "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it."  Does this quote ring true in your experience?  What are you spending your life for and what is spending you?

3) Has a healer ever played an important and valuable role in your life?  What made that person an effective healer?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon: "Vocation: Teaching" (Delivered 9-8-13)

For the reading I adapted a spoken word performance piece by the writer, education activist, and slam poet Taylor Mali.  Taylor Mali had a nine year career as a high school teacher before becoming a full-time poet, author, and performer.  Mali has a local connection having earned his Masters degree in English and Creative Writing from Kansas State University.  There were some vexing questions concerning how to adapt his most famous slam poem “What Teachers Make,” especially considering it ends with his middle finger waving defiantly in the air. 

Please take a moment to watch Taylor Mali perform What Teachers Make.

There is an old saying that in a Unitarian Universalist church, whatever topic the minister chooses for the service, there is certain to be at least one person in the congregation that morning who is an expert on that subject.  Well, last week as we were kicking off this sermon series on vocation I walked into the sanctuary a few minutes before the first service and saw two of our members, both vocational psychologists, sitting next to each other, chatting.

This morning I feel like I’m stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  I want to start this morning by recognizing that I am going to speak about teaching to a congregation that includes dozens and dozens of professional teachers and educators:  early childhood educators and university professors and every age and stage between; teachers of the sciences and social studies and math and business and medicine; teachers of foreign languages and dead languages, of English and English as a second language; teachers of music, art, and athletics; teachers of teachers.  We have brand new teachers just at the very beginning of their careers and we have retired teachers who dedicated decade after decade to the profession teaching.

Allow me to take a moment to credential myself.  I am, first of all, the son of two teachers.  My mother had a career teaching high school English and drama that spanned four decades.  She was also a stalwart member of the teacher’s union, serving as a union representative when teachers in her district filed grievances.  My father taught physics over a span of four decades, first at the university level at MIT, and then at a high school in the Boston area.

I grew up with the tremendous privilege of attending school in one of the nation’s very best public school systems, a school system that spared no expense when it came to investing in education.  (Wayland ranks as the 7th best school system in the state.)  While there may be no such thing as utopia, I grew up in a community that endeavored to create one in its schools.  I remember the teachers I had growing up as intensely devoted, deeply caring, frequently inspiring, and often courageous.  Education was a priority where I was raised.

I have frequently spoken about the impact that my Unitarian Universalist church community had in my life during my childhood years.  School and church sometimes mingled together.  Remember, it was a Unitarian, Horace Mann, who was the father of universal public education in the United States and also a driving force for the professionalization of teaching.  The Unitarian church of my childhood had quite a number of my teachers as members.  (In one of the very first churches I served as a student minister, several of my elementary school teachers were parishioners!)

After high school I went to a college that was founded by a Unitarian minister.  This college ranks extremely high, year after year, on the Princeton Review’s list of schools that offer the best classroom experience.  (It also places high on the Princeton Review’s annual list of colleges whose students can be described as “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians” but that's a topic for another day.)  To this day, I regard many of my elementary, middle school, and high school teachers as well as my professors in college and grad school as some of the most inspiring people I’ve known.

Over the past several weeks I’ve spoken with more than a dozen professional teachers in this congregation.  While they only represent a fraction, a small sliver, of the teachers in this community, I think their responses are powerful and instructive.  I asked each of the teachers a series of four questions:  What is something that you wish everyone understood about teachers?  How did you discover your calling to teach?  What is your sense of the spirituality of teaching?  And, what is something that the teachers in the worshiping congregation would want me to say?

The number one thing our teachers wanted people to know about their work is that it is hard.  It is a challenging profession.  Several teachers spoke of the personal investment of being a teacher.  “Teachers refer to their students as ‘my kids’ and really see them that way.  They stay up nights worrying about their students because they care about their futures.  Nothing is more rewarding for a teacher than a note or letter from a parent or student saying, ‘Thanks. You made a real impact on me.’”

Another teacher reflected about this place of intersection between the challenge of teaching and the inner demands it makes.  He wanted others to know that teachers are always onstage, always on display, and have to be on-guard.  Everything a teacher says has an exponent attached to it.  At the beginning of his career, one teacher told me, he censored himself in order to feel safe being constantly onstage, but this resulted in a kind of detachment that didn’t serve his students well.  Successful teachers, he said, develop a persona that is authentic and natural but is still a persona.

One teacher told me about how there is so much going on in the classroom.  There is the material, the lesson.  There is the relationship between students and teacher.  There are the relationships between students.  There is the individuality of each student.  And, there are a never ending series of external distractions.  It all calls for a kind of presence, focus, and attentiveness.  This teacher told a story about when he was a student teacher.  As part of the program, the teachers would videotape themselves in order to better evaluate their teaching skills.  One day, they taped two student teachers co-teaching a class of middle school students.  The two teachers were deeply engaged in the day’s lesson.  During the class, caught on video, a student managed to climb out the window of the classroom, walk around the building, and come back in through the door to the classroom, all without either teacher noticing that this had happened.
Most teachers wanted to make sure that I said something about some of the external factors that affect teaching.  One teacher commented that while teachers sometimes are credited with success when education succeeds, they are usually given an unfair and disproportionate amount of blame for the problems in the education system.  One teacher commented on working in a school district where the students she works with are extremely disadvantaged.  The school itself and the families she works with have less money and fewer resources.  The students come to elementary school with less preparation and usually without the benefit of pre-school.  Some have parents who are illiterate.  Many come to school hungry.  It is a model of education as triage that is too common in our metro area and in our country.

When asked about the spiritual significance of teaching, the first thing that many teachers I spoke with mentioned was their sense of connection with their students.  One teacher spoke of the privilege of getting to learn her students’ thoughts and dreams.  Others spoke of the fulfilling and meaningful nature of the teacher-student relationship, either in general or in regards to one particular student whose life was particularly inspiring.  Others found fulfillment in helping students develop a passion for a particular subject.  Several teachers spoke about the spiritual nature of the breakthrough moment, the aha! learning moment, whether that is understanding a difficult concept in physics or figuring out a challenging phrase in music.

One teacher in our congregation shared with me a piece he had written that explores one spiritual dimension of teaching.  We teach, he writes, through our deepest beliefs about other people and about what we value.

We teach what we believe. More than that, students learn what we believe.  Not so much that they learn that we believe certain things, but I think that students take away from our classes what we hold most deeply to be true about our subject matter and about our students. What we believe gets taught, whether we want it to or not.

If I believe that my students are capable learners, that they can get what I have to teach, and can run with it to do great things…; if I believe my students are capable of learning the…skills…; if I believe my students are capable of great things – then my students will learn they are capable of great things.

If I believe my students are not very bright, that they are not motivated to work hard enough to master the content or the skills I have to teach; if I believe my students are not capable of performing at my level of scholarship or expertise – then my students will learn they are not capable of great things.

I am convinced that when my beliefs are great, my teaching is great. And when my beliefs are timid, or fearful, or contemptuous, my teaching is discreditable.

At the same time that teachers spoke passionately about aspects of the vocation that they found spiritually sustaining and inspiring, there was also a dark cloud that hung over several of these conversations.  The 2012 Metlife Survey of the AmericanTeacher revealed that teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008.  In 2008 62% of teachers reported being very satisfied and now only 39% of teachers say that they are very satisfied.  This was the lowest level of teacher satisfaction reported in twenty five years.  One in three teachers reported that they were likely to leave the profession within the next five years.  The Survey of the American Teacher further revealed that teachers felt most challenged by problems that originate beyond the doors of the school.  Teachers report a high level of satisfaction with their colleagues and their students, but find their passion diminished by budget cuts, decreased professional development opportunities, and from an increasing emphasis on standardized testing that saps teacher creativity.

In several of the conversations I had, there was at minimum an undertone, and often an overt expression, of anger and pessimism about the future of the profession of teaching.  This anger and frustration was directed at politicians at the state and local level who fail to value education, who resist adequately funding education, and who often treat educators with hostility and condescension.  One person I spoke with painted a horrifying, dystopian picture of what he saw as the likely future of higher education in Kansas:  the consolidation of all state schools into one massive university, a move away from classroom education and towards most classes being offered on-line, and a focus at the university level on career training rather than the development of critical thinking skills.  Our state, he intimated, is being increasingly run by anti-intellectuals who are suspicious of education and disdain intelligence and free thought.

And so I’m challenged in this moment, on one hand speaking to educators, many of whom chose this profession in order to make their lives of service, to inspire, to liberate lives through education, to make, in Taylor Mali’s words, a goddamn difference.  And, on the other hand, speaking to educators who too often find their calling disrespected, disinvested in, and scapegoated.

I think of Taylor Mali encountering boorish disrespect, “Is it true what they say about teachers, that those who can, do, and those who can’t teach?”  And I think of the boldness of his slam poetry, passionate and defiant.  I think of those many teachers who were truly great, who taught with their intellect and with their heart, who changed my life.  My American history teacher who taught us the American history curriculum but also assigned us Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and wasn’t afraid to point out where the textbook we used was biased or misleading.  The middle school social studies teacher who taught us government and also included a unit on student protest movements.  The French teacher who knew seven languages but impressed me even more by bringing his male partner with him to chaperone prom.  How every teacher in my high school declared their willingness to advise the Gay / Straight Alliance student club.  Or the professor of Biblical Theology at Harvard whose outspoken views on Middle East politics were costing the school millions in donations and who was called in to meet with the President of Harvard University and was told to tone it down.  He refused, explaining his refusal with reference to his theological understanding of the prophetic tradition in the Bible.

I think of the most moving classroom experience of my life.  It was junior year in high school, a spring afternoon, the Friday before the SATs.  Many of my classmates were stressing themselves out about the test; this after all, was a high school where an ulcer from academic stress was a badge of pride.  My English teacher that year was a brilliant man with a doctorate in English from Stanford.  He came in, saw the stress, and received a request to spend the period going over SAT test taking skills.  My memory of the what happened next was that he threw a blackboard eraser, shouted an expletive, and then sat down on his desk and told us his life story, especially how as a freshman in college he had made a series of bad choices and had almost not survived.  I don’t mean survived academically.  I mean survived survived.  My memory of the his story was that his college forced him to take an extended leave of absence as he recovered from the damage he had done to himself.  He came back and wound up going on to earn his Ph. D.  He told us that afternoon that our lives would not be determined by scores on a standardized test, grades on a transcript, or which college accepted or rejected us.  Our lives would be determined by our resilience, by how we handled the curveballs and the disasters; not by external circumstance but by inner strength.  As Taylor Mali puts it, “If you have [a brain] then you follow [your heart] and if someone tries to judge you, you give them [a vulgar gesture that communicates your intentions to be true to thine own self.]

I am grateful for these lessons from the professional teachers in my life.  And I’m reminded that if it is true what the member of our church wrote when he wrote, “We teach what we believe,” then in a way we are all teachers.  In our families.  In our communities.  In our church.  Amen.

Questions for Reflection:
1) Share a story about an inspiring teacher from your own life experience.

2) Consider the passage I quoted above from the "We Teach What We Believe" piece.  In what ways do you think you teach what you believe?

3) One teacher I spoke with was quick to say that while some people are trained, professional teachers, that all human beings function as teachers in one aspect of our lives or another.  When in your life are you a teacher?