Friday, February 28, 2014
In 2008 a congregation was gathered, like we are here this morning, in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The children were up in the front putting on a performance of the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, in the middle of their service, a man in the back of the room took a shotgun out of a guitar case and began shooting into the congregation. One of the ushers, in an effort to protect people, jumped in front of the shooter and was killed. A visitor from a neighboring congregation was also fatally wounded, and several more people were seriously injured before the man was wrestled to the floor and held down until the police could get there. It was a terrifying experience for everyone in that community. And it was a hate crime. The man who wielded the gun targeted that church for its progressive views. He had walked into the building that Sunday morning intent on killing “liberals,” whom he blamed in a four-page manifesto for the country’s ills and his inability to hold onto a job. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Tennessee Valley UU was embraced by the surrounding community.
Neighboring churches came forward and offered the traumatized congregation their love and support. People from the somewhat more conservative Presbyterian Church next door announced that they would be serving lunch every day for a week to members of the UU congregation so that they could be together in their confusion and grief. Children from the Knoxville elementary schools folded origami paper cranes with messages of peace. The paper birds were strung together in long streamers which were suspended from the rafters forming a beautiful display of colored paper around the sanctuary. Cards and flowers came pouring in from UU’s around the country.
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was inspired by the 2008 shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, which was targeted because they are welcoming to LGBTQ people and have a liberal stance on many issues. The Knoxville community responded with an outpouring of love that inspired the leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to launch our campaign in 2009, with the goal of harnessing love’s power to challenging exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign elevates compassionate religious voices to influence public attitudes and public policy. Through community activism, social networking, and media outreach, people across the nation are equipped to counter fear and make love real in the world.
The holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel prize winning Elie Wiesel tells us “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away. It is so much easier to avoid interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbors are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
Wiesel writes “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.” For me indifference is not unlike saying that you are colorblind. I constantly find myself challenging statements like: “I’m color blind” or “I don’t even notice if people are black, have a disability, are impoverished, gay” and on and on. If you are not noticing these things you are denying someone parts of their identity that should be noticed and celebrated. These are the very things that enrich our experiences and communities. I wonder if we are afraid to take notice. We’ve been taught that spotting difference means we are being exclusive and at risk for being racist or oppressive. It is only when we do not desire to learn more about and honor our differences that we are at risk. We are at risk of ignoring injustice and hate, and so because of our blindness we are at risk of becoming indifferent.
A theme that winds through Wiesel’s writing is that of the need to overcome indifference. Wiesel believes the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. He says, and I really like this idea, that we humans are defined by what troubles us, and that the response of a moral society, or of a moral person is getting involved with what troubles us. He reminds us that indifference means, “makes no difference” and that to remain silent, knowing that people are suffering and to have it “make no difference” is the greatest sin of all. Rather than be indifferent, Wiesel says “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Wiesel responded to the tragedy of 9-11 by speaking out against fanaticism. The fanatic is one who is so committed to a cause or belief that they do not care about others and they don’t want to think about another perspective. To the fanatic, everything is curse or blessing, friend or foe, nothing in between. Tolerance is seen as weakness, and there are no doubts and no dialogue. How can we fight fanaticism? Wiesel asks. How can we bring killers back to the fold? Wiesel doesn’t know, but he believes we must at least fight indifference to evils when they occur. We fight indifference through education and we diminish it through compassion. Education — knowing what is going on, listening to victims and believing them. What are their memories? What are their stories? How have they seen their lives? What is their view? And we diminish indifference through compassion — presence and assistance for victims. Education and compassion, sounds like our SAC and Adult programs to me.
Wiesel also writes much about the need to protest. He says in his Nobel Prize (December 11, 1986) acceptance speech: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, we can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers. None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims. Humankind needs peace more than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction. A destruction only we can provoke, only we can prevent. Humankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to creation, it is our gift to each other.”
I love that line “there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” To “protest” is to bring forward our testimony. What does this mean for us? It means that we need to act out our religion, to witness, to give testament to our values. At a minimum in this democracy we must testify in three ways: we must vote — not letting the times and cynicism discourage us; we must write our legislators and congresspeople; and we must join and support organizations whose values we support, supporting them with our name and with our money. Beyond these minimums we can do more, depending upon our courage, our health and our other responsibilities. We can join demonstrations and marches, we can take leadership positions in human rights organizations, and we can travel to those places where humanitarian actions and assistance is needed.
In all these acts, faith is central — faith that our protest, when combined with the protests of others, can make a difference, can nudge this world closer to more love and more justice, and more compassion. Our protests can be responding and criticizing what we see as crimes against human dignity, or our protests can be in the form of acts to promote what we value. Our choices tell us some interesting things about ourselves.
Though Wiesel was condemned for not demonstrating the courage to speak out about Palestine while under rule of Israelis and their soldiers, his writings still are good lessons for me, and his flaw -- if we agree it is a flaw -- makes me identify with him all the more as a human being. How many times have I not spoken the truth, for fear of a consequence coming back to me, for fear of offending someone? How about you? Wiesel is not perfect, And his challenge is still valid that we should not be indifferent; there should never be a time when we fail to protest.
Let us heed the words of poet Judy Kraft “Imagine it and listen and you will hear a nightsong” and build resilience just as the morning glories. Listen to the words of the choir singing the Unitarian Universalist theme song if you will: The promise of the Spirit: Faith, hope and love abide. And so every soul is blessed and made whole; The truth in our hearts is our guide. We are standing on the side of love, Hands joined together as hearts beat as one. Emboldened by faith we dare to proclaim We are standing on the side of love. Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound. Corrupted by fear, unwilling to hear, Denying the beauty we've found. We are standing on the side of love. A bright new day is dawning when love will not divide. Reflections of grace in every embrace, fulfilling the vision divine. We are standing on the side of love. We are standing on the side of love.
For truly we must remember that peace is not a gift of the gods, but a gift we give each other.
May it be so.
Standing on the Side of Love, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Feb 23, 2014.
Friday, February 21, 2014
...I do not need God, or the Messiah, do not need reincarnation or the immortality of the soul, nor some cosmic continuity of consciousness outside of a body, in order to believe that we live on. We live on in the effects of our actions that touch other people, in our words, and in our works. We live on in our children and those who remember us, but tiny bits of us continue on and on even without memory, as long as human culture continues, as long as people live by the examples set by others, as long as having been loved helps us to love....
Excerpt from Do We Live On? by David Ashford as spoken by the Rev. CJ McGregor, Dec 8, 2013 at 1stUUPB.
Text of the Ashford essay can be found at thisibelieve.org. See http://thisibelieve.org/essay/59768/
Friday, February 14, 2014
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. -- Pope Francis
I have never been one to stay within the bounds of my own faith. It is important to see how congregations worldwide work, what their leaders do, and the effect the leadership has on the community around it. A good reason to increase my attendance at Newstalk on Sunday mornings. Our Unitarian ancestor Francis David tells us “We need not think alike to love alike.”
Time magazine has named Pope Francis Time’s Man of the Year. He is called The People’s Pope. He has gone beyond Time magazine and has been featured on the cover of the GLBT magazine the Advocate and most recently Rolling Stone magazine. Jimmy Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Pope Francis have become the Rolling Stone holy trinity. Jon Stuart hails him based on his economic principles, many Unitarian Universalists blog positively about him, and even one article in the satirical blog The Apocryphal Press stated that Pope Francis was actually applying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister because “he is a very undisciplined person.” The likelihood of that happening is slim. Just as slim as Fox news firing Meghan Kelly. Some have been on the lookout for a rabble-rouser as Pope. They’ve been watching for a real zealot capable of spearheading a restoration of uncompromising, conservative Catholicism.
Pope Francis seems to be a different kind of Pope. During his first year in office, he reached out to all religions, meeting with leaders from the Orthodox Church, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and also Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. He even extended the olive branch toward atheists and agnostics. He made headlines worldwide after he appeared to cede ground on a defining battlefield of our time. “Who am I to judge them?” he said about homosexuals. These are issues that previous popes, especially Benedict XVI, had generally taken conservative stances on. By contrast, Francis seems gentle, liberal and inclusive. This is undoubtedly a movement and one that I’m calling Popeularity.
Of course this Pope has not changed his viewpoints on many of the issues core to UU social justice work, like marriage equality, and equal rights for women in priesthood and health issues, but his focus on works and justice cannot be ignored. This pope has moved from the Vatican into a hostel, traded in his Mercedes-Benz for a Ford Focus, and pointed out that trickle down economics breeds inequality. He has set an example for religious leaders all over the world, and those who seek truth and justice.
Francis has shocked Vatican officials by urging Catholics to stop focusing on the sins of homosexuality and contraception, and instead to take up issues of social justice, in particular helping the poor. He has issued direct criticisms of capitalism and urged greater tolerance. The Pope just might like to be a UU as he’s never felt at home in a rigid, dogmatic system. UU’s are much more in line with his ethical vision. And we do a really super coffee hour.
What can we learn from Francis? He has a lot of time left to make big mistakes and he even expects that he will, but can we learn from a man who is very adamant that he is not perfect? And will our differences of opinion over core issues stop us from growing because of his example? We are no stranger to social justice work and we teach acceptance and work to empower the disenfranchised, and support human rights. But the question I have for us is this. As a Congregation, as a tradition, as a movement, are we bruised, hurting and dirty due to our work towards justice, or are we just clinging on for security?
If we leave with just one thing this morning it is abundance. Francis tells us “The final measure of abundance is not what we have. The final measure of abundance is the openness of our hearts.” Thus, the work of achieving abundance begins with the opening of our hearts. I knew nothing of the pope before he became Pope Francis. And, according to him, I probably wouldn’t have liked him. I probably wouldn’t have been inspired by him had I known who he was before becoming pope I am inspired by his enduring patience, his humility, his ability to suspend judgment and create a kinder more loving church. How do we cultivate big hearts open?
Embrace uncertainty. Be willing to doubt. Pope Francis said, “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good…. It is not good If one has the answers to all the questions. That is, if I am absolutely convinced of the truth and the correctness of my position, then my heart is a reversed funnel, letting others in only in dribs and drabs; letting in only those who agree with me. If I embrace uncertainty and am willing to doubt myself, then I make space for others in my life. I make space for my own growth. That is abundance.
Value people more than rules. Pope Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.” That is, if I insist on following rules before getting to know people, before building relationships, before meeting peoples’ immediate needs, before healing wounds; if I insist on the higher value of my truths, my principles, my doctrines, my faith, my power, my world-view, and thereby fail to encounter the person right in front of me, then my heart is a reversed funnel. I lock out multitudes. If I put people first and not worry about the rules, that is abundance.
Accompany people, whoever they are. Pope Francis said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’”
Perhaps the greatest gift we have to give, yet which in the midst of scarcity is so profoundly difficult to give, is our presence, our ability to accompany people who need accompaniment, our companionship. If I cannot dedicate at least a portion of my life to accompanying others, then my heart is a reversed funnel. But if I can go when called, if I can literally be there for others and welcome their accompaniment when I need it, that is abundance.
If we are building something sustainable to secure and promote peace, nonviolence, justice, fairness, equality, compassion, reason, liberty, freedom, healing and love — fearless, generous, unlimited, undying love; we are living with big hearts open. Then we are living with abundance. This is the message of the movement I’m calling Popeularity.
Let us continue to stretch ourselves to be the accepting and compassionate people we are. Let us recognize our allies, those who walk with us for justice and compassion and not theology. We need not think alike to love alike.
May it be so
Popeularity, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Feb 9, 2014.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
I want to begin by telling you a true story, called the story of the Big fish and the Small Fish. It happened in one of the lakes in Zimbabwe, Africa. There were small fish which were very tasty, and which the Africans loved. However, when the British came to Zimbabwe, they did not like this small fish, so they imported bigger fish from England, and placed these also in the Lake. And of course, after a while, the bigger fish ate up all the small fish. However, within 3 or 4 months, all the big fish died. Why did this happen?
The small fish were eating the algae, but when the small fish were swallowed up by the big fish, there was no one to eat the algae, so the algae grew and multiplied and absorbed all the oxygen -- and hence there was no oxygen for the big fish. So, even the big fish died and thus no more fish in the lake. The point of this story is: that we need to pay attention to how we deal with nature, or else there can be serious consequences.
The gospel of Matthew has a similar parable -- of a land owner who rents out his vineyard to tenants to look after his vineyards. But the tenants are irresponsible. They use it for their own purposes. So when the servants of the landowner come to collect, there was no produce. The tenants beat up the servants, first one, then a second, then a third. Now here is the big question is: what is the land owner going to do? Should he punish these tenants or would we rather say that these tenants brought destruction upon themselves.
This parable applies to us. The earth in which we live is the vineyard. We are the tenants. God is the landowner. God has placed us on this earth to take care of it, cultivate it, look after it. But instead, we have polluted the air and increased the ozone levels, we have contaminated the rivers, the water and the oceans. We have mined the mountains, decimated the forests and cut down the trees. And as a result our health is now being affected.
When I was teaching there was a time when I suffered from respiratory problems. Every morning when I woke up, there would be phlegm in my throat and it would take me a whole half hour to clear my throat before I could speak clearly. So I went to the doctor. He told me “There is only one solution! You must leave the area and go somewhere else.” I told him “How can I? I work here; besides there is a whole bunch of others who have the same problem!” “Well,” said the doctor, “there is a chemical factory here which is spewing out poisonous gases and this is affecting your lungs!” So, it took us 12 years, numerous signatures and a long-drawn out court case before the chemical factory was forced to leave. However there is now scarred tissue in my lungs, which I have to live with for the rest of my life.
In Pahokee, we had something similar. A few years ago, the front page of the Palm Beach Post carried the picture of a small infant, Carlitos by name, who was born without arms and legs. His mother was a farm worker and her pregnancy was affected by the pesticides used by Agro Industries. As a result the baby was born with birth defects, without any limbs.
But all over the world, there is a rising incidence of cancer, an increase in respiratory diseases, a growth in Lyme Disease, e coli bacteria, dengue fever, and allergic reactions, and a whole host of illnesses of which we have not yet fathomed a cure.
What does all this mean for us? It means that ecological consciousness, nature, the environment must be an essential part of our spirituality. Put simply, if you want to be spiritual, you must have an ecological consciousness.
Formerly, we thought that if the world was destroyed, like in the Second World War, God would set all things right. We were naively optimistic! Then we lost our optimism. We became aware that with one single button being pressed, the atom bomb could annihilate the entire world.
Today the situation is far worse, Today this pressing of the button can be done slowly and gradually -- through the destruction of the environment -- without our even being conscious or aware that we are pressing the button.
Forgive the analogy, but if have ever cooked lobster you know that if you throw the lobster in boiling water, it will jump out. However if you lower the lobster in lukewarm water and slowly bring it to a boil…. It will allow itself to be cooked totally unaware of its death.
Does this fact -- that we are pressing the button on the slow and gradual destruction of our world -- does this fact have an impact on our spirituality ? Yes, I believe it does. Spirituality today cannot but be sensitive to the ecological crisis in our times, spirituality today cannot but be thought of in terms of an eco-spirituality.
WHAT IS AN ECO-SPIRITUALITY?
1. First of all, it implies an ENTIRE NEW UNDERSTANDING OF GOD. We normally think of God as the author of Life, but an eco-spirituality demands an understanding of God as LIFE itself, L-I-F-E as that which animates and vivifies all living things, plant, animal and human. God is the web of Life. This is not pantheistic (as some might think) but pan-en-theistic!!
The gospel of Luke has an intriguing passage where a man with a paralyzed hand comes to the temple on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11). The Pharisees are all waiting to see if Jesus is going to cure him or not. Jesus asks them: "Which is more important to promote life or to destroy it?" And when they cannot answer Jesus goes ahead and performs the miracle on the Sabbath.
The point that Jesus is making is that the Sabbath can be broken if a higher principle is involved. The higher principle here is the promotion of life. Jesus said: "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly!"
Hence, an eco-spirituality will include WORKING for anything and everything that promotes a better and fuller life.
In his 2005 book Jared Diamond tells us that civilizations have collapsed because they failed to take care of the environment… and he cites the Chinese, the Roman, the Greek and the Mayan civilizations. An eco-spirituality that focuses on LIFE makes us very sad that that we in industrialized countries produce six times the amount of greenhouse gases that non industrialized countries produce.
2. Secondly, an eco-spirituality includes an understanding that we are part of nature; not above it, not exploiting it, but caring for it, being concerned for it. For several centuries we have interpreted Genesis 1:28 incorrectly. We humans were not created to subdue and dominate the earth; in fact the second story of Creation in Genesis tells us clearly that God created us to be stewards of the earth, taking care of it and cultivating it like trustees.
Jesus, constantly used symbols taken from nature. He spoke of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the ocean, the fig tree, the soil, the mustard seed, the corn in the fields, etc.
An eco-spirituality then would include meditation or prayer that encompasses a greater enjoyment of nature, such as watching a beautiful sunset, or a meditative walk in the woods, etc.
The realization that we are part of nature can be a very humbling experience. In his book, the 'Enchanted Darkness", Lancelot Pereira tells us that human history has been recorded on this planet only since the last 5,000 years. And this is only a fraction of the duration that human life has been in existence on this planet, which is about 40 or 50,000 years ago (the arrival of homo sapiens sapiens). And these 50,000 years are only a tiny fraction of the time life itself has existed on this planet, which is a couple of billion years. And this planet is only one among the millions of entities that make up the Milky Way and the Milky Way itself is only one of the million galaxies that populate our universe. So a little reflection that we are a fraction of the universe, a very tiny, tiny part of nature can be very revealing and very humbling..
More importantly, if we are part of nature and we need to collaborate with nature, we need to question the model we have of progress. What kind of development is this, which wants progress, growth, luxury and modernity at any cost -- or rather at the cost of nature, plant and human life, especially of peoples in other countries. We want cheaper goods, so we produce them in countries where environmental laws are less strict.
The problem is that once we destroy nature we have no way of repairing the damage. If I hurt you, I can ask you for forgiveness. But if I have wasted water, how do I ask the water for forgiveness? If I have polluted the air or destroyed the soil, how can I remedy that damage? If I have littered the streets with garbage, germs will be released and like a ripple effect go on spreading far and wide.
The movie 'Jurassic Park' has a very clear ethical message running through: that if you tamper with nature, if you manipulate life -- life and nature have their own way of getting back to you; there will be a boomerang effect that we human beings cannot control.
3. Thirdly, an eco-spirituality includes an understanding of our bodies... a sensitivity to sickness, a concern for our own health and the health of others...
Jesus took away illness whenever he saw it, whether it be the lame, the crippled, the blind, the deaf, those afflicted with leprosy, paralysis or the dropsy. An essential part of spirituality is compassion and this includes sensitivity to sickness, to pain, and to pollution. An eco-spirituality is not only conscious of recycling but aware at all times of one’s carbon foot print…
Eco Spiritualists sometimes speak of the world as God's body, but their only purpose in using such categories is to make us more concerned about our bodies, about our spiritual and mental health -- and not just ours but the spiritual and mental health of future generations.
I'd like to end with a short poem, written by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, one who was very much in tune with nature. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase his verses from the original Italian:
Be praised O Lord for brother wind and for the clean air.
By which you sustain all creatures from the ant to the bear
Be praised O Lord for our Mother Earth
Who sustains, nourishes and gently gives birth
To fruits and leaves and colorful flowers and seeds
Be Praised O Lord our Creator who cares for all our needs.
Text of sermon by John D’Mello Ph.D., Parochial Vicar, St. Patrick Catholic Church, N. Palm Beach, FL, delivered at 1stUUPB, Feb 2, 2014.