Monday, December 30, 2013

Sermon: "The Religious Year in Review" (Delivered 12-29-13)

The reading is from an editorial about Pope Francis by E.J. Dionne that ran in the Washington Post.

Pope Francis has surprised the world because he embraces the Christian calling to destabilize and to challenge. As the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere, he is especially mindful of the ways in which unregulated capitalism has failed the poor and left them “waiting.”

His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is drawing wide and deserved attention for its denunciation of “trickle-down” economics as a system that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It’s a view that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and has created “a globalization of indifference.” Will those conservative Catholics who have long championed tax-cutting for the wealthy acknowledge the moral conundrum that Francis has put before them?

But American liberals and conservatives alike might be discomfited by the pope’s criticism of “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” since each side defends its own favorite forms of individualism. Francis mourns “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” not a phrase that will sit well with all on the left.

And in light of the obsessive shopping on Cyber Monday and Black Friday, here is a pope who paints consumerism in the darkest of hues. “We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” he writes. “In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

Yet this critic of our age refuses to be gloomy, scolding “querulous and disillusioned pessimists,” whom he labels “sourpusses.” I like a pope who takes a stand against sourpusses.

Francis makes many liberals swoon, even though he is not, in a conventional sense, a liberal. He also has split American conservatives between those trying to hold fast to him and those who believe he is, from their perspective, up to something dangerous.

It’s quite true that liberals who love Francis need to come to terms with aspects of his thought that may be less congenial to their assumptions… Meanwhile, Conservative Catholics… are torn between expressing loyalty to a pope who has captured the popular imagination and fretting over whether he is transforming the church with a speed that few thought was possible.

Most news outlets, in their rush to attract readers during the month of December, run lots of year-in-review stories this time of year. Some of these pieces inspire discussion and debate. Why was that book snubbed on the New York Times best books of 2013 list? Others help you to remember things that you forgot, or inform you of things you never even knew happened. One of our church members, a writer for Forbes magazine, compiled a list of eleven great space exploration moments from 2013, which is ten more than I could name. Whether it is to fuel nostalgia, to incite debate, to educate about recent history, or just to generate advertising revenue, we’re awash in these countdowns and best-of lists this time of year. It isn’t surprising that some news sources have decided to compile lists of the biggest stories in religion from 2013. You can find such stories over at the HuffingtonPostReuters, and elsewhere.

One religion story from 2013 that generated significant conversations among Unitarian Universalists was the birth of the Sunday Assembly. Founded by two British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, in January 2013, Sunday Assembly was their attempt to create an atheist church. These Sunday Assemblies, first held in a deconsecrated church in London and later in a concert hall, attracted several hundred atheist Londoners once a month to come together to fellowship, sing pop songs, and listen to a talk about how to live a better life. Sunday Assembly became international news when Jones and Evans announced plans to travel the globe establishing Sunday Assembly franchises throughout the English speaking world and to raise £500,000 to help spread the movement. We’ll have to wait and see how many of the franchises take root. Various news outlets sensationalized Sunday Assembly with bold headlines about an atheist mega-church. (I will be the first person to tell you that a couple hundred people on a Sunday morning does not a mega-church make.)

But while the reporting was overblown, discussions of the Sunday Assembly movement among Unitarian Universalists were fascinating. Were they our allies? Were they our competition? Were they a threat? Were they our future? Other Unitarian Universalists asked, insecurely, why they’d never heard of us. Why don’t all these people just attend their local UU church? The truth, and a sad truth it is at that, is that exclusively atheist and humanist gatherings have not fared well in recent times. Whether Sunday Assembly has any staying power will remain to be seen, but it is definitely fighting against the current.

In this past year we met a brand new hero of faith and freedom and said goodbye to one of the last century’s greatest leaders of liberation. In 2012, fifteen year old Malala Yousafzai was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan. She had resisted and openly defied the Taliban by pursuing an education. Despite being shot in the head and neck and spending several weeks unconscious following emergency brain surgery, she made a splendid recovery and is using her fame to advocate for education for all girls and to showcase her faith in a way that is impressive beyond words. This past summer she spoke before the United Nations, appeared on the Jon Stewart show, and finished as a runner-up for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Her advocacy for women’s education is impressive, but even more amazing is her poise and the faithful way in which she lives. During her speech at the United Nations last summer, she said,

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”

As we look back at 2013 we also said farewell to the last of the twentieth century’s great liberators, Nelson Mandela, who died at the beginning of this month. Reuters listed his death as one of the top ten religion stories of the past year, writing that Mandela was hailed as a “modern-day Moses who led his people out of racial captivity.” Unlike Gandhi and unlike King, Mandela actually became the official leader of his country. It is one thing to be the prophet, the loyal opposition, the outsider pressuring those in charge to be better than they are. It is another thing entirely to be the leader of the whole country, to be the one charged with trying to hold the whole country together, to have to work constructively with the same politicians who had ruled during the apartheid regime, and to have to balance so many competing interests. Which is really an amazing accomplishment, isn’t it? In January I plan to deliver a full sermon about the life of Nelson Mandela, but now we might say that the loss of one the world’s most inspiring leaders was both one of the biggest news stories and biggest religion stories of this passing year.

There is no doubt about the biggest religion story from 2013. Without a doubt it’s the Pope. Last February, Pope Benedict resigned, the first Pope to resign in 600 years. It will surprise no one when I say that I wasn’t a big fan of Pope Benedict. I am a religious liberal, after all. But even if I could set aside my biases, it didn’t seem to me like very many people liked Josef Ratzinger all that much. There was the business of his having been a member of the Hitler Youth. There was his job as thought police of the Catholic Church, censuring and punishing those who wavered from church doctrine. And, there was the fact that he didn’t know how to smile.

In March, the college of cardinals selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Pope. He was the first Jesuit Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first Pope in 900 years from outside Europe. There could be no greater contrast between Benedict and Francis. Pope Francis is informal, personable, and conspicuous in his humility. Plus, he seems like a joyful person. He smiles a lot. “I like a Pope who takes a stand against sourpusses.”

While Catholic doctrine has not changed, what the Pope emphasizes has changed. He gives his attention to things like economic justice, poverty, charity, and interfaith dialogue instead of things like sex, sexuality, and doctrinal orthodoxy.

As religious liberals, how should we regard Pope Francis? One response, I suppose, is to be cynical. Well, it seems the Vatican has finally hired a competent publicist. Another response is to maintain a stance of criticism. Look at all the things that are still the same. Women are still barred from the priesthood. The church is still exclusionary of gays and lesbians. Their teachings about sexuality are still harmful. And yet, I think it is also fair to point out all the ways Pope Francis is a step in the right direction for the Catholic Church. And, I think it is fair to be cautiously optimistic that more and greater changes may be in store over the coming years. I think mixed but optimistic feelings are in order.

The other thing I want to say about the new Pope is that I think he provides us with an important lesson about very large institutions. There are something like 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. And, the Pope is clearly, by definition, the most recognizable and influential and powerful person within the Catholic Church. But there are limits, of course, to his power and reach. I want you to take a moment to imagine various Catholic organizations in our metro area. Think of our neighbors, Holy Trinity, across the railroad tracks. Think of the Catholic schools in our metro area. Think of Avila or Rockhurst University. Think of Catholic charities or the Catholic run medical institutions. In what ways are any of these institutions different now than they were a year ago when Pope Benedict was the guy in charge? This is not criticism of any of our local institutions. All I’m saying is that none of these local institutions changed the moment white smoke came out of chimney of the Sistine Chapel. At the same time, it is not entirely true to say that who the Pope is doesn’t matter at all. Saying that doesn’t make sense either. All I’m saying here really is that who the Pope is doesn’t necessarily determine what a local Catholic parish or institution is like.

This leads me to think of another institution where the national governing body does not necessarily determine the quality of the local group. Here I am actually thinking of the Boy Scouts of America. For more than a decade, the leaders of our larger denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, were in conflict with the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America. The conflict was over the exclusion of gay scouts and gay scout leaders, and also the exclusion of atheists. So, on the national level the UUA and the BSA were in conflict. And, that meant very little for scouts and Unitarians here in Kansas City. At the local level, parents in our congregation sent their boys through scouting if it was something they wanted them to do. I even officiated at Eagle Scout ceremonies in our church building for atheist scouts and nobody batted an eye. Clearly, some local troops were more open than others and parents had to search to find a troop that more closely aligned with their values.

I mention all this as a way to transition into the last religious news story from 2013 that I want to talk about. Just over a week ago, in Utah of all places, a court struck down the state’s ban on same sex marriage. As couples flooded the offices of county clerks all across the state to apply for marriage licenses, county employees willingly skipped their lunch breaks in order to process as many marriage licenses as possible. And there, at one of the county offices in Salt Lake City, were Boy Scouts delivering pizzas to those who were stuck in the long lines and to those behind the desks skipping their lunch in order to serve the people of their community. A local group that belongs to a homophobic national organization delivered pizzas in support of couples applying for marriage licenses in one of the most conservative states in the country. Only in America.

For me, one of the biggest news stories of the year was that eight new states – eight! – joined the ranks of states with equal marriage. 2013 saw marriage equality come to Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, and Illinois, with New Mexico, and Utah – of all places! – just slipping in before the end of the year. That brings the number of states up to eighteen. Maybe there’s hope for us here in Kansas after all.

Not every story about same sex marriage had such a happy end, however. Only days ago, in Pennsylvania, a Methodist minister named Frank Schaefer was defrocked for having officiated at his own son’s wedding to another man in Massachusetts. Reports say that he stood defiantly through his church trial, saying that if he had it to do over again, he’d do nothing differently, would keep breaking the rules of the church because the rules are wrong. Good for him. He’s on the right side of history. Meanwhile, the tide is turning in this country and turning faster and faster, still not fast enough, but faster and faster in the direction of marriage equality.

Around the world there are still wars fought and acts of violence committed in the name of religion. Rights are still denied and oppressions sustained in the name of religion. There are also, though, heroes of peace and liberation doing work in the name of faith. There are new institutions forming, the heads of old institutions changing, and local groups of people following their own sense of what is right in the name of their values and their faith. May it be in 2014. May this new year be a blessing to us. Amen.