Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Ableism
Ageism
Colonialism
Militarism
Materialism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part I – the Self

This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us. 

We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.

Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries.  So hear these words –

“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”

Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?

Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.

We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet?  Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.

We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.

And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.

Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.

But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?

(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)

Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.

As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right?  – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.

And I went ‘Hunh.’

Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.

And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.

So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.

For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.

But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.

We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.

Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.

All time is sacred time.

Can you see it that way?

Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.

Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.

Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.

When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.

We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.

I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.

One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.

The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.

It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.

Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.

We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.

Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it

So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.

Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.

Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.

Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true.  We hold them in tension.

What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:

creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.  You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.

But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

 

 

 

 

The Work of Creation: Judges 5: 3-7

We have a lot to do tonight.

That fits, right?

Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘

And we’re going to get it done.

That sound like any woman you know?

Plenty to do.

And it’s going to get done.

Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.

Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.

For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.

This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.

You know what I say about that?

I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.

For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.

But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.

So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.

But you know what we are going to do tonight?  We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.

Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.

We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.

Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.

We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.

It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.

This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.

Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.

While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.

Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.

Because the world so desperately needs it.

You get to decide what that looks like.

Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.

The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.

Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.

Women’s work, that is.

We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.

Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.

Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.

And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.

That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.

A mother in Israel?

We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.

Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?

It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.

For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.

Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.

What can you give birth to?

Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.

Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.

In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.

I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.

Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.

Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men –  gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom.  Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.

In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.

Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.

In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –

In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.

Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”

Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . .  [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”

Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.

So we have this day.

What do you rejoice in?

What must you grieve?

What you might you give birth to?  In ways traditional or something altogether new.

What will you do?

Amen.

 

Communion, Room 304

“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
stepped
from the harsh
light of the noisy
hallway to
her side.

Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
wheelchairs parked
on hard tile
against the doors
of dark
wooden
closets,
set as out
of the way
as they
could be.

“No ma’am
I’m from
the church.
I came
to visit.”

She smiled then
returned to
some distress
I could
not see.

Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
reassure.

We spoke of the
sleeping woman
in the
bed next to
her own.

“Maybe she’s
my sister.”

“Maybe
I want
something
to eat.”

“I brought
communion but
that might not
be enough?
We’ll see
I guess.”

I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
her mouth.

She chewed
silently for one
moment, then
another.

“How about we pray?”
I asked.

She touched
my hand.
“Your hands
are cold”
she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“So cold. Let me
warm them.”

She took
my hands
and cradled
them in
hers.

That
was
our
prayer.

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Stuck and Unstuck: A Lenten Reflection

A gracious, wide crape myrtle stands in our yard near the street.

During certain times of the year, leaves and seed pods from that lovely tree fall in just such a pattern as to block a few critical inches of our driveway. The drainage path to the curb gets clogged up.

And then I find myself pulling up during a rainstorm to step out of the car into ankle-deep water. I slosh across the driveway to that one corner and, in my already sodden shoes, kick the minuscule, problematic bundle of leaves, seed pods, and twigs out into the water flowing along the gutter.

As I make my way inside to shuck my wet shoes, the driveway begins to drain.

We could pull all sorts of lessons out this story, but there’s one that really interests me during Lent.

Every one of us gets stuck sometimes. Sometimes it’s a huge thing and we have to figure out an appropriate way to address that. At others, however, it’s something small.

Sometimes we get stuck on the small things.

They might mess with our capacity to show compassion and kindness in the world. They might keep us from seeing the pain of a neighbor. They might cause us to get mired in a muddle of self-condemnation. Or we might just feel stuck and not even know why.

This time in the Christian year allows us the opportunity to slow down and pay attention. Somewhere in that process of prayer and practice, we might notice what’s got us stuck.

Lent invites us to consider the small things that could make a big difference. Sometimes it’s exactly those small things in our lives that block us in our quest to follow Jesus.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

Beyond the Usual: On Lent and Black History Month

Easter comes early this year. As a consequence, so does Lent.

For that reason, Lent coincides to a substantial degree with Black History Month.

As a white person, I understand Black History Month as a time for me to listen and to learn. It’s a time to hear stories and bear witness.  There are notable figures, overlooked by conventional history books, who have contributed to science and art, to politics and philosophy, to education and to faith. These accomplishments matter to black people and they matter to the rest of us, often far more than we know. They enrich the whole of human existence.

By the end of February, if I’m paying attention, I will know more of the triumphs and joys as well as the sufferings and sorrows of the history of African Americans in this country. It takes intentional effort to see beyond my own whiteness and the lens that comes with it. It takes looking beyond the history I’ve been taught and beyond the white experience that is used as the default in education and popular media.

The call of Lent and the call of Black History Month have a lot in common.

Lent is a season for listening and for learning. It’s a time to hear the stories of others, especially others who are different from us – and most especially a time to listen to the voices of people that our society places at the margins. It’s a time to try to understand the lens that we use to see the world.

Lent offers us the opportunity to repent not only of our individual sins but of our collective cultural sins. We can open our hearts to the triumphs and joys and the sorrows and sufferings of others. We are called to stop long enough and listen closely enough to hear the stories that get drowned out because they disturb or disrupt or threaten to upend our comforts.

Black History Month is a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

Lent is also a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

I pray we do so.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/?u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

For the Common Good sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11   

I spent some time on Friday following one of the heritage walks downtown in the Civil Rights district. If you’ve been downtown at all, you’ve probably passed and read some of those signs that mark significant events and places in Birmingham’s Civil Rights history. Though there are currently four separate march routes that spread across several blocks each, I’ve always read individual signs by happenstance, usually through my car window as I’m stopped at a red light.

I had never followed a whole path before. So Friday – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actual calendar birthday –  I decided to make the time to not only walk through Kelly Ingram Park, but also to trace the route that covers the Selective Shopping campaign, the economic resistance that led to peaceful protest and violent response.

Foot soldiers and firehoses. Pickets and police dogs. Even though we know the history – some of you lived through it – it never ceases to hold new lessons for us. It is a part of who we are and who we will become. It is a part of our context. Walking that whole path brings a vivid sense of our city’s history and of how that continues to shape our journey forward as we seek – or not – common ground and the common good.

This letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians is born of another specific context and it speaks into that context. It’s one of a series of letters – only 2 of which have been preserved – from Paul to a congregation that he had founded some years before. Much of the letter consists of his pastoral responses to their questions.

He’s giving them practical advice about being church together in that time and that place and with those people. Corinth in this era is a big, bustling Greek port city with a diverse population. The people of Corinth were trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the middle of a busy urban area and in the middle of the call of their daily lives. In the hearing of this passage you can probably already begin to imagine how it might apply it to the life of our times.

The conversations we have in this church are always in a specific context too. We are looking at the challenges of finding and getting used to a new pastor. We bring the busy-ness of the past week and the anticipation of the week ahead of us. We come with the awareness of endless political squabbling, bloodshed in both distant lands and here in our own city, water from the tap in Flint, Michigan that has been unsafe to drink for more a YEAR and HALF and somebody’s just now doing something about it. We’ve got the passing from this earthly life of some of our most loved cultural icons. And we come together this night on the eve of the day that asks us to remember the life and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s our context too. This is what we share, our common life.

Paul is trying to help the Corinthians deal with what’s going on in their shared life. The problems we confront today are both similar and different. As I read the passage from Paul and thought about this holiday weekend and all that’s going on in the world, I started thinking about these words of civil rights activist, scholar, friend and biographer of Martin Luther King, a man by the name of Vincent Harding.

Harding describes one of our problems in this way – and it’s a danger that is so concrete in this time in our country – he says “For you know and I know so many people who believe that the comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.”

Often we look at what we CAN’T do. Or if we look at what we can do, we think somehow it’s not good enough. It’s not important enough. WE are not enough. And when we get stuck in that place, we fail to see what we have to give. We get so wrapped up in our shortcomings and self-doubt that we don’t risk sharing our real and needed gifts with one another.

If we can’t be and do everything, we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s safer to do nothing. We might not take the risk of offering ourselves into a society that has been known to shred people body and soul. Or we think if we give of ourselves we’ll give it all up. There won’t be anything left. We don’t have faith that God is at work in the world and that the world can be transformed through God’s abundant love. We don’t have faith that God is at work in us and through us.

What this passage makes clear is that all of our gifts and talents are important – and are needed. Pick the metaphor that works for you: the puzzle comes together when we all put in our pieces; the painting takes its final form only when we each add our brushstrokes; the choir sounds right only when all of our voices join in. That’s a just a start on the metaphors.

But whichever image you hold in mind, Paul is telling us that the church and the world recognize and need our diverse gifts. That’s a joy. And that’s a responsibility. Paul does not – because Jesus does not – give us much space to stay out of everything. We might want to hide.

And to be clear, we’re all allowed a day on the couch or some time spent staring at the TV. If we don’t pace ourselves, it’s going to be hard to keep at it. But our world needs us. Our world needs people to bring the love of God into our common life, for the common good. Because our culture hides our fundamental interdependence from us. We need something beyond ourselves, but we don’t always see it that way.

Hear the words of Dr. King. At Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he preached, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

To create what King calls a person-oriented society, we have to honor and nurture the gifts of ALL people. We must see the beautiful diversity that God has put into this world – diversity among our humanity and among our ecosystems – as our treasure here on earth.

A people-oriented society affirms that there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit;

That there is a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One;

That there is a variety of outcomes, but the same God is working in all of them;

That to EACH PERSON is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Each person. Each. Person. For the common good. Even as we strive to find the courage to share our own gifts in this world, we must also look for the gifts in others.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in following the example of Jesus.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in the active witness of THIS church.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in making Jesus’ love manifest in a world where the dominant cultural narrative going on 50 YEARS after the death of Martin Luther King is STILL one of

commercialism,
racism,
sexism,
ableism,
heterosexism and homophobia, and
hatred of our neighbors disguised as so-called patriotism.

We all know there’s evil. A lot of it resides in our systems and structures, in the ways that they protect the powerful and sacrifice the powerless. And sadly it resides in people. Some people are so damaged by this world that all they can do is spread that pain around. It leeches out of them and separates them from their own humanity and from their capacity to bear witness to our shared humanity.

That, my friends, is what sin looks like. And we live in a world that profits off of sin and death and despair. But the Gospel response to that is not MORE SIN and MORE DEATH and MORE DESPAIR.

The Gospel response to that is life and connection and the use of our own gifts and valuing of the gifts of others. We strive toward a world where no one is an outcast, no one is stranger, right? In the name of Jesus Christ, we seek to heal the wounds of sin, the pain of separation, the damage that we human beings do to one another and to the earth.

We are called in our diversity to make compassion and justice a reality, to create a world where we do not damage the hearts and minds, the souls and bodies, of one another. That is a world in which the love and example of Jesus Christ indeed reigns supreme.

There is work to be done – maybe more work than ever – and that work is the task given by the Gospels to us all. If we listen to Paul, however, we realize that we do not all have to do it the same way. We just have to pick up our God-given gifts and use them to make the love of God manifest in a world that so desperately needs it.

We are NOT working for what theologian Holly Hearon calls “the false peace of the status quo”. We are working together – we MUST work together – for a world where God’s justice and God’s love are made real for each and every soul and for all of Creation. That is the common good.

The world feeds us shallow commodified consumer-oriented relationships. It draws us to mute – or not so mute – idols that will lead us astray. It sparks in us not only the desire to judge one another, even over the most trivial things, but a sense that we are ENTITLED to judge one another, even over the most trivial things.

It teaches us that we NEVER have enough and yet lures us with the promise that that next purchase, that next THING we acquire will fulfill us, will make us content.

True contentment can only come from being

right with God,
right with ourselves, and
right with one another.

There’s no way we can achieve that all the time. But in relationship with God and with one another, we can make that our intention. It can be our compass point.

And when we do this right, we all carry one another all along the way.

We all use whatever gifts we bring, whether it’s the widow’s mite or Mary’s attention or Martha’s hospitality to contribute to the common good.

In this congregation there are healers and there are prophets. We have wisdom in discourse and the word of knowledge among the people here. Among the people here in this room right now. And we got a lot – a LOT – of faith.

In this place, there are community organizers and artists. There are people who build and people who teach and people who feed. There are caregivers and financial stewards. Some of you create safe spaces and others brave spaces. We need both.

In this place, there are people whose work contributes to the well-being of the vulnerable and often marginalized among us – children, the elderly, those with mental illness, the poor, the immigrant, LGBTQ people. There are people who show up and put their shoulders to whatever needs to be done wherever they are, day in and day out.

And it may be that some of y’all have miraculous powers. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Claim your God-given gifts with the humility and confidence that comes of knowing that you are a child of God. Then use them in ways that are small and ways that are large to make this world into a place that honors that of God that dwells within each person.

That is the common good.

We’re not all good at everything – and everything is not all about us, but this church has always been a place where the boundaries of community are porous. We don’t circle up and make a big deal about US and THEM.

The lines between us sitting up here as a church congregation and the world out there – that’s always a thin line here, one that allows us not only to see the pain – and the beauty of the world around us, but to use our gifts for the common good.

Let us do that work.

Amen.

Which Christmas? sermon: Colossians 3:12-17

It’s a pleasure to be here among you this morning and to be working with the words from this epistle.

Colossians is a complicated text in a number of ways, but the Scripture for this week, right here in the heart of Christmas, offers us some really useful words as we look to make sense of where we are in this moment.

And where exactly are we?

Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, that time of hope and expectation, is over.

Christmas the Consumer holiday is over. Now we’re into the After-Christmas sales. I’ve heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus enough times for at least another 11 months. Maybe for twice – or three times or ten times – that long.

Christmas the family holiday is over, for better and for worse. Some people are still fellow-shipping, still traveling, but a lot of folks have begun to make their way home or at least are making preparations to do so.

Christmas the long weekend this year is about over.

BUT

Christmas the Christian observance is still with us, right?

A child was born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the inn. According to the Christian calendar, this is the Christmas season. The good news is made manifest among us. Jesus is born into the world. That event happened on Christmas Day and because of that, as this Scripture holds before us, the Word of Christ, rich as it is, can dwell in us.

It’s a moment of opportunity, yet it’s all too easy in the busy-ness of the season to let this moment of opportunity slip by us.  The great poet WH Auden puts the risk to us this way:

Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

That’s the risk of the present moment.

Do we contain Christmas too much?
Do we make it into a single moment defined by our human standards of a holiday?
Do we make it about the presents that come in boxes instead of the presence of Jesus in our world?
Do we skip too quickly to the next thing?

We don’t have to. The Christian calendar gives us 12 days.  Christmas lasts until we mark the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Here in the United States we have often failed to pay attention to that. But in doing so we missed something important and I’m glad to reclaim it.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world in the form of a migrant baby.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as a helpless infant in a time of empire.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as an embodied rejection of our material concepts of power and privilege.

This is the good news, the Christmas Spirit, the mystery –  this improbable reality that the prince of peace was born in a stable.

It takes more than a morning crowded with wrapping paper and excitement and ham to figure out what that good news means for the essential question of how I am to live? And how are we to live together? We need some time – and we need it each year because the quiet steady voice of God is easily drowned out by the noise of our culture.

The 12 days of Christmas give us that chance, that opportunity to take this transformative moment and put it to work in us.

We’re on day 3. Can I interest anyone in some French hens? That’s where the song comes from, right?

Okay, maybe those are hard to come by in Birmingham, but we can still find gifts of this day and of the remaining days of Christmas. We can work on this question of how to live Christmas.

The period of Christmas takes us from 2015 into 2016. It binds the old calendar year with the new.

And how does it carry us forward?  What can help us to mark this ongoing Christmas season in our own lives, this sacred time?

The text today provides useful instruction. In a passage that precedes our text, we hear these words:

What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator.

For the month of December, we had our Christmas sweaters, didn’t we? Reindeer socks and Santa hats.  Maybe you go for the garish or maybe you have that one item that fits perfectly and feels so good. One look at it when you pull it out of storage reminds you of all the season has to offer, so that when you put it on, it fills you with delight.

But now that we’ve left those other Christmas’s behind, we start to pack those clothes away. The passage from Colossians we read today tells what we could wear for the rest of Christmas. Hear it again – clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together.

How’s that for a Christmas outfit? Think about wearing these things. You get out of the bed and – because of Jesus’s presence in this world and in your life, you put on heartfelt compassion. You put on kindness. You put on humility and gentleness and patience.

What if that were to be our uniform as Christians? Every single day. When you wear something it touches you all the time. You feel it. It goes with you all day long. It’s a part of your identity.  It’s a visible marker of who you are.

These days I have to get up each morning and figure out if it’s going to be 35 or 75 degrees on any given day. You know what I mean, right? And then I’ll get the right clothes out.

But no matter what the weather is outside, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whether you are going to the grocery store or to a book club meeting, if you’re going to work or to a wedding – you can clothe yourself in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and love. No matter what.

It’s important to say this – that doesn’t mean we let people run all over us. But it means:
if you speak truth to power, you do so from a place of love;
if you call out the meanness of the world, you do so with humility and kindness;
when you face the community-breaking miseries of institutional racism and structural poverty and ingrained homophobia and ableism, you confront them clothed in the wisdom and peace that comes from knowing Jesus in your life. We are called to instruct and admonish one another wisely.

If we keep working with that Scripture, we learn more. We hear the call to forgive and to dedicate ourselves to gratitude, the call to sing joyfully to God and to let peace reign in our hearts. This takes practice. This is active work and often difficult work.

But if we make it our practice, if we make it the work of this moment, if we use this time of Christmas to focus on these disciplines, we begin to live into the sacredness of time – not just at Christmas, but all the time.

Jesus Christ was born into a world of fear and poverty and great distance between the powerful and the powerless. Does that sound familiar? And furthermore we live in a world of feuds and fights, of death and destruction, of shootings and storms.

I don’t know about you, but on Christmas night I was wondering if somebody pulled up the wrong story. It wasn’t supposed to be the Ark story. This was supposed to be about Jesus, not Noah.  But we are not in control all the time, are we? That’s part of the stark reality of living as human beings.

There are so many things that are out of our control.
But how I treat someone else is in my control.
How we treat one another is in our control.
How we live our time as sacred time is in our control.

So which Christmas do we carry forward? We remember the joys – and the limitations – of the consumer Christmas. We treasure the moments of the holiday celebrations with friends and family and church family. And in these 12 days of Christmas – the heart of the Christian observance:

let us put aside our old selves and live new in Christ
let us clothe ourselves in heartfelt compassion and love
let us forgive
let us allow peace to reign in our hearts
let us dedicate ourselves to gratitude
let us permit the rich word of Christ to dwell in us
let us sing joyfully to God

and whatever we do as we go about our daily routines, let us remember that we are formed in the image of God – and so is everyone around us. Jesus was born among us. Let us each carry that good news into the new day.

 

Sample Interfaith Statements of Affirmation and Welcome

In preparation for a recent conference, I assembled some sample statements of affirmation and welcome from various faith groups around the country. While the conference focused on faith and LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion, most of these statements are much broader – and wisely so.

The challenge to us as people of faith and ethics is to create ways to ensure that all people – across all categories of difference – are not only welcomed in each of our communities, but included in its full life and leadership. An explicit statement to that effect, backed up by in-kind actions and behavior, makes a difference.

These statements offer some examples. I am always interested in collecting more, so feel to send others my way.

John Street Church (UMC), New York City –  Learning from 250 years of ministry, and following Jesus Christ today, John Street United Methodist Church invites into its fellowship all persons seeking to live in the Christian environment of the Church, and to receive its nurture and assistance throughout the course of their lives. This invitation is extended without regard to one’s economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political beliefs, ethnic origin, or the present state of their spiritual journey. We publicly affirm that we welcome all persons to participate fully in the worship, fellowship, educational, and service life of our church.

Open Table UCC, Mobile, AL   From its beginning, Open Table has been a radically welcoming faith community. Following the radical message of Jesus, we affirm the worth and dignity of every human being, and we extend extravagant welcome to all persons. We affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, and acknowledge the suffering they have endured in the context of the larger society. Not only do we welcome them into our congregation, but into the full life, leadership, and ministry of our congregation. As we grow in our understanding of God’s good gifts of human sexuality, gender, and relationships, we stand firm in the Biblical message that all people are created in God’s image and thus are loved and blessed equally by God.

Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, MA  –  We think of our community as a diverse shtetl, a modern incarnation of those vibrant Old World villages, towns and centers of learning which nurtured and evolved our Jewish heritage. Today, our shtetl is populated by an extraordinary mix of passionate people, including singles and those on single-life paths, alongside newly-married and longtime couples; college students; families with young children; single parents; elders; spiritual seekers; GLBT Jews; Jews by choice; and interfaith and multi-cultural families.  Our members come from a wide variety of spiritual- and life-paths. Some of us were raised in observant families. For others, TBZ is the first shul we have ever joined. Our weekly services are populated by former twice-a-year-Jews — men and women who, after b’nai mitzvah, attended services only on the High Holy Days. . . until they discovered Temple Beth Zion. Others among us had regularly attended synagogues, dutifully (if passively) following along in the prayer books, reading responsively and standing when asked, only to discover that something — anything; everything! — was missing. But at TBZ, as one of our members has noted, “I have found connection, authenticity, home. . . .”

The Abbey (Episcopal), Birmingham, AL – Who can come? And what should I wear? Anyone. Seriously, anyone and everyone. Kids, teenagers, young adults, adults. Everyone is welcome at The Abbey, regardless of race, ethnicity, faith tradition, class, age, political party, education, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Our service is a relaxed environment. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and invite anyone you think would be interested.

Zen Center of New York City –  In the Mountains & Rivers Order, we endeavor to foster a welcoming atmosphere free of prejudice that is open to all people sincerely interested in exploring and practicing the Buddhadharma. We are committed to co-creating a practice environment in which all individuals are recognized as possessing a fundamental dignity, and are therefore treated with respect without regard to their ethnicity, skin color, language, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, political views, or economic circumstances.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA –  From the pastor: I’m glad you’re here and hope to meet you in person. Since 1885, Gethsemane has welcomed people for worship, community time, service, and learning. All these years later, we remain a downtown church committed to connecting to our neighborhood. We are a progressive, GLBTQ-affirming congregation that welcomes all: people who have been to church (any church) their whole lives, as well as those who never have been or have been away for a while; people filled with doubts or questions and those whose faith and hope run deep; people longing to find a community of belonging and anyone who may simply be “passing by”… This is a place open to you wherever you are in your spiritual journey.

Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, AL –  Baptist Church of the Covenant was established in 1970 to be a racially inclusive congregation. Since that time, it has ordained women to the ministry and affirmed openness to sexual orientation and gender identity. As Christ accepts all who believe, we do likewise. All are welcomed.

Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Los Angeles, CA –  Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society was founded by Noah Levine, author of Dharma PunxAgainst the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery to make the teachings of the Buddha available to all who are interested. We wish to create and sustain communities of healthy, accountable, wise and compassionate people from every walk of life. We welcome people from all racial, economic, sexual, social, political and religious backgrounds and believe that the path of awakening is attainable by all and should be available to all. We strive to create a safe environment for all who come to practice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA – Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is made up of children and elders, families and singles, straight and gay people, lifelong Christians, interfaith couples, converts and seekers. We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’ Table.

St Junia United Methodist Church, Birmingham, AL – Becoming a diverse community:  Our goal is to become as diverse as the Kingdom itself. Since God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6), and since all people are made in the image of God, our desire is to become a community in which black, white, and Latino, gay and straight, old and young, rich and poor, male and female are welcome to the table and invited to use their diverse gifts for worship and ministry. We want to be a witness to Birmingham and to the world that the Good News is for all people.