Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Missing Ingredient

Something most of you may not know is that my first real boyfriend was from North Palm Beach. Now, we were only 14, but on weekends we left our respective cities to become barefoot country kids on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. His parents made and sold fishing tackle from a traveling vehicle. My folks loved fishing and I still have their cottage in Lakeport, walking distance from Brighton Reservation. 

Well, we learned a lot about real life back in those days when there were few enough gators that you could still swim in fresh water and when junior high kids could take off alone with a small boat and an outboard motor without worry. Life was simple.

In fact, one of our neighbors was a man who lived alone and grew his own vegetables.

The year he finally got too old to do it himself, he wanted to dig his tomato garden but it was very hard work. His only son, Robert, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.

Dear Robert,

I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato gardenthis year. I am getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.

If you were here, my troubles would be over. I know you would dig the garden for me. 

Love, Papa

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

Dear Papa, I'd do anything for you Papa, except dig up that garden. That's where I  buried the bodies.

Love, Robert

At 4am the next morning, the FBI and county sheriff arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. The same day the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Papa, Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.

Love, Robert.

Sometimes, being a Unitarian Universalist means being alone. Most of us who identify as part of this faith understand the experience.  We've practiced the elevator speech - how to explain who we are in 50 words or less -- and we have pretty slick ways to avoid dealing with intrusive questions ...

"Of course I'm saved, I'm a Universalist. I believe everyone is saved."

If we've been around the denomination long enough and we want people to know who we are, we may wear jewelry to signify our faith, often symbols representing the flaming chalice like we lit earlier in the service. All of these things, for those of you who are visitors today, become recognizable touchstones for folks who find their strength in our faith community. Our Christian heritage comes from a heretical belief in the oneness of God, on the Unitarian side, and from a Universalist trust that all souls will eventually be reconciled with and loved by God.

As the 20th Century Universalists and Unitarians moved to extend that concept to inclusion of all of those who love alike, rather than think alike, and a merger of the two denominations into our current association, we adopted the symbol of the flame in the chalice. Both common in many religions, together they can be representative of religious freedom, of many faiths individually, and collectively, and of Unitarian Universalism.

So, today, many of us wear various versions of the flaming chalice, just as Christians wear the cross and Jews wear the Star of David.

Especially in parts of the world like this, the South -- yes, Florida is the South -- the flaming chalice serves as a sign of recognition much like the symbol of the fish did for the early Christians. During the times when Christianity existed mainly as a Jewish cult, forced underground out of fear, believers could recognize one another by drawing the sign of the fish in the sand. The earliest churches uncovered by archeologists evidence the sign of the fish as well.

No one has the impression that the chalice holds any magic power. It is simply shared. It's meaning can be as simple as letting us know we are not alone in the world. So when we who feel so connected inside the church find ourselves at sea in an unfriendly religious context, we might be on the lookout for the sign of the chalice.

This especially matters when we find ourselves in danger and end up in the hospital or in an emergency situation. Today, when we are suddenly thrust into an institution, whether it is academic or medical or, heaven forbid, correctional, the only person there who comes to us with compassion strictly for support -- not to take blood or to give assignments or for any other functional purpose - is the chaplain.

Professional chaplains have training so they can minister to people of all faiths and of no faith. That's what clinical pastoral education is all about. In theory, every chaplain can come to any person regardless of their theological beliefs with at least a minimal understanding of different religions and a maximum of respect for diversity of belief. That's the point of training chaplains to work in community, and that includes with first responders like firefighters or law enforcement as well as with disaster relief teams.

But the truth is that even within our own faith, we who identify as Unitarian Universalists are a rather complicated people.

We ask a lot of the typical chaplain if we expect them to really know us.  And because our structure has no official support for community ministers after they earn denominational credentials, unlike parish pastors or religious educators, it is rare to encounter one in the wild.

When it happens, it's worth mentioning. As a staff chaplain for a secular college, it was my job to serve all of the  academic community, not to identify myself as part of a particular denomination or religion. So while I could wear the campus ministry shirt, I was not allowed to show anything depicting a particular denomination.

It was important. There were mainstream Protestant families who thanked me for my presence. There were evangelical Christian parents who needed my reassurance that their child would be safe and supported while studying and living on campus in a liberal arts college among young adults with far different values. There were Jewish parents looking for a collegiate atmosphere that offered at least the hope of a potential match with another good Jewish student in a supportive community when sending their offspring away from the city.

One year I even lined up a way for Muslim students to observe Ramadan during the week of orientation, complete with signs on campus pointing the direction toward Mecca for daily prayers. The parents of international students sent me e-mails of thanks.

But occasionally I would spot a student or parent wearing a chalice. Then I could speak about our mutual faith. And what a surprise that would be!

On one occasion, a family came to the office to meet someone because they were concerned about their son, who had been home schooled all his life in a small town in New England, but had chosen to come to this Florida school for his first formal education experience. It was a tenuous time for that young adult, who had various personal issues, and they were rather unsure about the whole conversation when they realized they were speaking with the chaplain. After all, they said, they weren't very religious.

But, yes, the student's grandparents were in the area. And, yes, the grandparents did have a religious community. They were Unitarian Universalists.

Well, that's when everything changed. Fear and insecurity changed to recognition and familiarity. You mean the institutional chaplain could actually be a Unitarian Universalist?

It's true. I had been the first of our denomination ever hired into that position since the college's existence. And to get the job I had to initially prove my membership as Unitarian Universalist Christian clergy with a rather impressive letter from UU Christian director, the Rev. Ron Robinson, explaining our place in Protestant history.

That was a battle unto itself.  But to its credit, the ecumenical board of Sarasota Campus Ministry stood up to other denominational naysayers and insisted that one Christian was as good as any other. They didn't demand a Trinitarian or a creed. It was a loving, professional ministry that they wanted. So when this young adult UU came seeking support and found the chaplain, for once the chaplain was actually a UU as well. And that made all the difference.

It shouldn't have to be that way. But sometimes it is. Our faith tries to be a welcoming one. We celebrate that our members hold diverse theological positions and spiritual practices. That's part of what makes our religious base almost an ideal one from which to serve as a chaplain, if you're a minister.

When other chaplains are struggling with interfaith ministry, most of us are the leaders among our peers in how to serve those of differing beliefs,  especially with those of no affiliation.

Working as a chaplain in the hospice house, I found that my colleagues would happily defer to me if the patient was an atheist or a pagan or something far from the Christian norm. But I also found that the more I worked with the greater community, the easier it became for me to recite scripture and the Lord's Prayer with those who needed to hear it. I became a better person of faith as I learned to minister without prejudice.  The more I could let go of my own needs and allow myself to give in the manner that the patient or the student or the community needed, the better a chaplain I became.

At the Unitarian Universalist seminary I attended, Starr King School for the Ministry, in restoring its historic library we discovered the motto established by its founders was this quote from Jesus:

Non ministrare sed ministrare he said in Matthew 10:28 and Mark 10:45 at the completion of his mission. The Latin words mean, I come not to be ministered unto, but to minister.  It is a fine example to follow.

In recent years we have come to think of our congregations as consumer-driven. How can we grow by creating a commodity that draws church customers? Let's be the 7 -day-a-week church. Let's build a gym and tell people what they get for their pledges -- what's it worth to you to belong here?

But, honestly, that's not the concept of faith.

And the consumer model isn't working. Today, we are losing members, just like the other Protestants. So copying them hasn't worked at all.

Maybe it's time to quit worrying about what we can get for our pledge dollars and start thinking about how we can find joy in giving, because it really is more rewarding to give than to receive. People really do thrive more in community than in a little oasis of isolation.

Consumers go shopping on Sundays.

A United Methodist colleague asked me to write a chapter in this book that I brought today, in case you are interested in all the many ways chaplains serve in the world. Because there are many clergy who feel called to work outside the parish.

What is difficult about serving outside the parish in our denomination is that we have so few ways of connecting to Unitarian Universalism when our structure rests solely upon congregations. Without a whole world vision, without participation in the entire interdependent web of which we are a part, there can be no community ministry, and our faith community can easily slip into invisibility.

Did you know there was once a Shaker community in Florida?  It's true.

In 1896 more than 7,000 acres were purchased in Osceola County to set up a Shaker community. But by 1915 the Olive Branch community had completely dissolved. Their furniture may still be around, but their faith died. They were too insular.

They weren't the only ones. In 1894 Cyrus Reed Teed brought followers to Estero, Florida, to build New Jerusalem for his faith, Koreshan Unity, which included the belief that the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere. The colony began fading after Teed's death in 1908 and in 1961 the last four members deeded the land to the state.

Now, I'm not saying that's going to be the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Not at all.

But I am saying that if we want to be the kind of people who "Stand on the Side of Love" and make a difference in the world, we need to do more than just get arrested in protest. Don't get me wrong -- I love a good protest line like the best of them. But somebody needs to be there to serve the folks when they are serving time in jail. That's what chaplains do.

You know, we started out in this country with a rather famous chaplain. The Rev. William Emerson, pastor of First Parish in Concord, MA, and grandfather of the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, on April 19, 1775, took to the streets with the American troops in his black minister's frocks as they defended the city against the British. Leaving his pulpit with the words, "Let us stand our ground; if we die, let us die here;" Emerson left with the army as a chaplain for Fort Ticonderoga and later died at age 33 of camp fever.

Today, community ministry is the missing ingredient. You don't have to be clergy to do it, but it helps to have clergy doing it. It helps when we can be recognized.

Now, I don't know your church well, but when I look at your web page I see lots of individual social justice projects going on, which is great! But what I don't see is a coordinated team effort toward any one goal.

When people in the community see this congregation, do they say that's the folks to lead us to a new vision, or do they say there's a bunch of liberals who have a finger in everything but accomplish little as a group?

You have to tell me. I don't know the answer.

I can tell you I get the message that anti-racism isn't very important to you as a congregation because you're just waiting for someone to care enough to take on the cause, and it looks from the outside like people accept jobs when they have a passion for a particular issue.

The truth is that there's nothing wrong with that. That's what lay people do.

But as a faith community, as a religious leader -- which we Unitarian Universalists have to be if we expect to see the change we say we want to see in the world -- then we need more than that.

And the people who are dedicated to this kind of leadership don't just sit in pews on Sundays. They get called to the ministry.

We call them community ministers.


Many of these Community ministers are ordained, and they affiliate with congregations. Some lay ministries also work with congregations to accomplish specific goals. Only you know what is right for your church.

But, please, pay attention. It matters to all of us. It matters to the world. It especially matters to Florida.




Let's be a team to make a difference in the world.

We come not to be ministered to, but to minister.

The Missing Ingredient: Growing Our Faith With Community Ministry, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Dee Graham at 1stUUPB, Jan 26, 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Home Economics

“Here we are home.”

These words from our opening words this morning invite us to begin thinking about what exactly home means to each of us and if this religious community measures up to our notion of home.  I turn to author Sharon Parks who describes home as “where we find ourselves living” when grappling with such questions. Parks doesn’t refer to the place where we find ourselves living as our physical address, the actual physical structure that stores our material possessions such as a house or an apartment, or a specific town or region. The home she refers to are the places and moments when we truly feel alive and inspired; when we are encouraged and sustained to become who we are meant to be as individuals and as a community; a place where we are living our faith, values, and conscience.

I suspect we all want some of these same things from feeling at home: safety, security, sanctuary. We can all agree that love, fulfillment, and family would be high on our list. We sometimes get sidetracked when deciding if this church, this community, meets our expectations of what a home should be. We find ourselves concerned with questions about the temperature of the sanctuary, if the style of music and sermon reaches us each and every time, if the color scheme on our website is perfect, if each activity offered is one we would enjoy, if the placement of pamphlets in the narthex is just right, how bulletin board assignments are made, and on and on. These are important considerations in managing our home but do we really come to church, this home, to have these questions answered?

Christian pastor Dan Burrell tells us that all of this “seems to miss the key points. What is most important?”  He says we should consider the vital questions such as “What does this church use for its standard of truth? What is the basis for its faith? Will I be spiritually fed at this church? Does this church have an area in which I could be a blessing or encouragement?”  He asks “Do we really go to church for activities and events, convenience and comfort, to have our egos stroked and our desires met? Do we never consider that the church might need us? What part should each of us play in the health, growth, and ministry of the church? Where could my spiritual gifts be best put to use?”  How do these questions lead us to assert that this place where we are living is our home?

When the place where we are living offers a free faith and traditions that encourage spiritual and personal growth regardless of our beliefs we know we are home.
When the place where we are living encourages us to speak out against injustice towards our fellow human beings and our planet we know we are home.
When the place where we are living allows us to raise compassionate, responsible, and loving children we know we are home. 
When the place where we are living provides us with and values the opportunity to help rebuild the life of a stranger we know we are home.  When the place where we are living feeds the hungry, ministers to the outsider and the shut in we know we are home.
When the place where we are living has a seat at the table and an ear for the voice of the gay man, the lesbian, the straight person, the person of color, the able bodied the impaired, a child, an elder, the poor, the privileged, the single, the married, the partnered, we know we are home. When the people where we are living comfort us by our bedside while we recover, prioritize our needs over their own, and hold our hand while we struggle emotionally we know we are home.
When the people where we are living stretch out their arms and offer congratulations, sympathy, empathy, and love we know we are home.

When we gather in this place to celebrate a birth, mourn a death, live in laughter and sorrow we know we are home. When this place touches our soul not only with liturgy, but with voices and instrument, we know we are home.

We ARE home. This community is where we truly find ourselves living, as it has for those who have come before us. If we understand that this Congregation needs us it isn’t going anywhere. This Congregation will continue to gather long after we are gone. But will this Congregation continue to dwell together in peace, seek truth in love, and to help one another?

Simply gathering isn’t enough. To truly live here we need to practice good household economics. In Dorothy Bass’ book Practicing Our Faith we learn that “for most "economics" suggests investment, trade, taxes, profit, loss, and the cultivation of wealth. Economics is rooted in the Greek word oikos, meaning household, and signifies the management of a household -- arranging what is necessary for well-being. Good household economics is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household.”

Now comes the hard part. How do we agree on what is necessary for the well-being of our household? Perhaps we don’t need to be concerned about achieving consensus and answering this question. Surely it’s enough to know that all of our ideas and gifts will be gladly received and considered. I have a Unitarian Universalist joke that may illustrate my point. “How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?” And here is the punch line: “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. We explore a number or light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to spiritual luminescence.”

This joke tells us about ourselves. Though we may each arrive with different lists of what is needed for us to truly live in this household, each list will be heard. Karen Armstrong, the brilliant writer and lecturer about world religions puts it this way: “Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.” As Unitarian Universalists we insist that each of us have the opportunity to develop our own beliefs, spiritual practices and ideas of what the household economics of this community will be.

Celebration Sunday is the perfect time to share what you believe will make this community whole.  It’s an opportunity to commit your time, treasure, and talent; an opportunity to come forward and name the ways in which you will support our household in maintaining a loving ministry, making sure the voice of our liberal religious movement moves beyond these walls and makes a difference in the lives of people locally and globally, and ensuring our children have a place to explore religious truth, meaning and experience.

Our religious community is one in which we practice life changing forms of giving. I know there are of a lot of amazing congregations, but aren’t some of the most inspiring people you know, right here beside you? Just for a second, think of someone in this room who did something that helped you, or changed you, or guided you, or inspired you. If you don’t yet know people here, invite any face from anywhere, to come to mind. There are a thousand reasons you come to church, and I bet most of them have names. If you think of it in coffee hour, find that person you just thought of, or call them up later, and tell them how they bring you meaning and joy.

We have an opportunity to invest in this Congregation. The opportunity to ensure that the diversity, the advocacy, the religious witness, our stewardship, and the care of one another remain living.

We come here, our home, to grow our souls. If that’s not how you’d express it exactly, we can say we come here to find our vision and our passion and to figure out over and over who we are called to be. We come here to heal, to play, to serve, to get our hands dirty our conscience examined and our minds invested. We come here to practice being our neighbor’s friend. We come here to be certain we’ve asked ourselves recently: What is a life well lived?

I leave you with the words of Michael Schuler:

If you are proud of this church, become its advocate.
If you are concerned for it future, share its message.
If its values resonate deep within you,
give it a measure of your devotion.
This church cannot survive without your faith, your confidence,
your enthusiasm, your generosity.
Its destiny, the larger hope, rests in your hands.

Here, we are home.  You are home.

May it be so

Home Economics, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Jan 19, 2014.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

After the Lights

Many of you have been following my Facebook page over the last couple of days.  For those of you who haven’t or aren’t sure what Facebook is, you should know that I spent the last week in New York at my home near Canada. Some advice: There is no reason to visit this place in winter that is literally over 100 degrees colder than our beautiful home here in Florida. I spent nearly 26 hours trying to get home and as you can see I was successful. I started my journey at 7:30am on Friday morning and touched down on Florida soil late Saturday afternoon. You might expect today’s sermon to describe my adventure. But not today. I assure you, you will hear of it again!

In mid-December, Harlan Lampert, the Chief Operation Officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a poem on his Facebook page. A poem that I’ve been sitting with since.

In our culture there is a buildup to the holiday season. Once we reach the holidays it seems we have peaked and choose not to gradually let ourselves down on the other side. A task I believe that is worthy of our time and attention. You see after the lights are taken down, literally or figuratively, the work that this past season inspires continues.

This brings me to the poem which may help us consider our course of direction for our new year. I am sure you have heard this poem written by educator, theologian and civil rights activist, and minister Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star is in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
   to find the lost,
   to heal the broken,
   to feed the hungry,
   to release the prisoner,
   to rebuild the nations,
   to bring peace among brothers,
   and to make music in the heart.

I always wonder what my first message of each year should and will be. This year I was helped by the service last week, Improvisation, led by Howie Stone. A rich service leading us into the New Year.

The Rev. Jackie Potter helps us understand our work this time of year by breaking down Thurman’s poem and making it relevant to our lives today. She writes, “But Thurman’s poem suggests some work for us to do, a calling which seems to happen naturally when our hearts have been refreshed and reborn in beginning a new year together.”

Regardless of our theology the holiday season that has just passed asked us to consider the paradox of the birth of Jesus, but also that Christians await his return. Waiting doesn’t need to be for us. Gandhi tells us, “we are the one that we are waiting for. I am the one and you.” We are the ones who must open our hearts, reach down and call on that still small voice within each of us which is waiting there. “We are the light which can shine in the darkness” says Potter. Thurman’s poem tells us that the angel's song is over, the shepherds are back on the hills, and the kings are home. He tells us of the work which we are called to do and I wonder if any of this work has meaning or significance to you.

We are to find the lost. Where do we look for the lost? You needn’t go far. They are living under bridges, sleeping on benches and are being turned away from shelter right here in our own community. They are lost, have no home, no security. I am grateful for the organizations that serve them, which we need to support. Our Congregation is a supporting congregation of the organization Family Promise, which provides housing and support to families that are homeless. We are seeking to end homelessness here in Palm Beach County. An awesome undertaking!

What about us? Are we lost? Many of us live with a sense of loneliness, separation and despair brought about, in part, by our highly mobile society. Most of us don't live in one community long enough to develop histories with nearby families, and don't have lots of family around to function as a support and guide. Author Ann Simpkinson, reminds us that in days gone by, when we were rooted in a community which told us who we are, we were not lost. She writes "But times have changed; now we are forced to carve out our own roles as well as develop a set of values, a life purpose, construct an independent personality and a sense of personal worth."  We can lose our way in the busy world and at times feel fraught and lost. “This is a calling for each of us,” says Potter. “We need to slow down and take the time to find ourselves, know who we are, connect with our deepest authentic self, ask for guidance and then listen intently. The heart speaks softly.”

We are to heal the broken. We all know people suffering from broken lives, someone who has been torn open by anxieties brought on by a crisis, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, substance abuse, divorce or depression. I am grateful that over the next two weeks we will launch our lay pastoral care program right here in our Congregation. I will work closely with 4-5 members of our Congregation to better meet the day-to-day needs of our Congregation. This will bring us closer and allow us to help one another. A true calling. This is an opportunity for us to volunteer to be the person who cares, who takes food, provides time to be present and listen.

The listening presence of a friend can be healing. We can all be healers.
We must feed the hungry. Food is necessary for survival. There are people in our own country, in our own community, that are hungry or starving. Most of us have enough to eat and enough to share, which we do. We have a feeding program feeding migrant workers and their families, and we collect food for El Sol. There is another kind of sustenance which we need as well as food. We may have enough to eat, but we may not have enough loving emotional sustenance. It’s important to attend to these needs and practice self-care and nourish ourselves. Pay attention and make time for these things.

We are to release the prisoner. We know there are many people incarcerated who we cannot release. We ourselves are not in institutions of confinement, but again we need to check in with our inner selves. We may be living in prisons of our own making, identifying with roles to which we have adapted, which define us and perhaps confine us. We are much more than our roles and than how we describe ourselves. Potter tells us “The truth is that at any moment these identities can be threatened or taken away and we're left helpless, angry and lost. It's clear that the things the world gives us can never give us lasting security or freedom.”

However, we do support the incarcerated. We will soon host an art show showcasing art created by those incarcerated and did you know that our sexton Albert provides ministry to those in prison several weekends each year? A true inspiration.

Deeper than this lies the prisoner of spirit that we must release to make our world whole. Call it God, spirit, the divine, morality. Call it Unitarian Universalism. It always loves, is accepting, and is peace and gladness. When we are able to lift our thinking out of our own little ego desires and live in this loving realm of the heart, then we will be free and have real security.

We are to rebuild the nations. The world is not as just, not as loving, not as whole as we would like it, or as we know it could be. Our world has become a global village and we live on a small planet. We must learn that we're one humanity and one earth in order to survive. Right now the nations of the world seem to be in terrible turmoil and it can be overwhelming to think what we might do to help. I am just one small person. What could I do, we might ask. I guess being informed is one thing. We have some real activists among us. They are aware of how our taxes pay more for war than for feeding the hungry, how our clothes are made using children. They have a passion for peace and regularly work for that quality to be the reality in our world, beginning with ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr. writes: "When will the dark night end? When we look into our neighbor's face and see it as our own." This is difficult for us to do, but it is a spiritual truth that what we do to the other one, we do to ourselves.

We are to bring peace among brothers. Potter tells us “If we can move from our egos up into our hearts, This is where we are able to experience our humility and vulnerability as a human being and realize that we are all working hard to navigate this earthly existence. We can drop our fear and competition and our hearts can open with love and compassion for our fellow travelers.”  Especially those stranded in airports!!

Jeffrey Miller, an American born lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, asks “if we were able to go inside right now and awaken our sleeping Buddha what would we find?” Tibetan Buddhism says that at the heart of you, I, and every single person there is an inner radiance that reflects our essential nature. They refer to this as inner light, innate luminosity. That's what we would find inside. Jesus said it like this. "You are the Light of the World.” When we get in touch with this light it will guide us to be the compassionate people our faith calls us to be, which the world so profoundly needs.

Thurman gives us an immense calling, for the need is great. It is our work after the lights. Where do we start? How do we decide where we should serve, what we can do? Thurman writes another important poem:

Don't ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.
Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.

What is it that makes you come alive? What is calling you? We are blessed to be a part of this community.

“May you be at peace, may your heart remain open, may you awaken to the light of your own true being, may you be healed and may you be a source of healing to all others.” (Metta prayer of loving kindness)

May it be so.

After the Lights, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Jan 5, 2014.

Innkeeper, A Christmas Eve homily

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem;  To be taxed with Mary his wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Tonight, we are asked to reflect on the story of Christmas, as transmitted through the centuries in scripture and in popular culture. Tonight, we don’t need to debate its historical validity — it is true enough as a story with power in our culture to shape the way we look at the world.  So let’s imagine the scene — Mary and Joseph, head to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, for the Emperor’s census.  Mary is late in her pregnancy, possibly even in labor. Along with all of Joseph’s distant relatives, they seek shelter for their stay — and since there are so many people who have come back to Bethlehem to be counted, the normal guest rooms are all full. “Sorry,” they hear again and again, “I’ve got no more room in my house for another guest.” And yet one of their relatives, rather than turning them away, remembers that he has some room downstairs, in the small alcove next to the stable, where the animals have been brought inside for the winter.

“It’s all I have,” perhaps he says to them, “but you can stay there if you want.”

Having nowhere else to go, and knowing that the animals’ straw would be a softer bed than the ground, Joseph and Mary take shelter where they can. And lucky, too, for it is here in this less-than-ideal accommodation, that Mary gives birth. It is in this downstairs room, a manger filled with hay substituting for a crib, that the baby Jesus makes his appearance in the world.  For many over the intervening centuries, the story of Mary and Joseph’s desperate search for shelter on a cold Bethlehem night has been understood to be important to the story of Christmas. To some, the important part was that Jesus needed to be rejected by the norms of society so that he could stand outside of them.

Thomas Merton writes that “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it -- because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it -- his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”

For others, though, the story takes on a slightly different meaning. Judith Hoch-Wray asks us to think about this story another way. “Perhaps,” she writes, “’no room in the inn’ was not a rejection of the Christ child, but a gracious accommodation in the best circumstances the family could provide.”

Tonight, let us think about this story in starkly human terms. Joseph and Mary arrived after a long walk from Nazareth in Galilee, tired, cold and in need of a place to stay. Though the conventional rooms weren’t available someone — unnamed in the Scriptures, but is assumed to be the innkeeper -- offered what space he had to them.  Are we prepared to make that same offer? Are we prepared to share our room — whatever we might have — with our relatives who are in need? 

Are we prepared to offer even our stable to those who might come wandering in the night, cold and hungry?  Are we prepared to be the nameless relative with a full house who couldn’t let his distant cousins, weary and pregnant, spend the night outside?

Morton also writes, “My great-grandfather, it is said, opened his home on Christmas Eve. In the story my grandmother tells, he invited people in to eat with his family. Not hundreds — or even dozens — of homeless folks, mind you, but one or two every year, people in the neighborhood without family or food, without someone to spend the holiday with. People who had been turned away from other places because there was no room for them. Without regard to race or ethnicity, they were invited to partake in the feast set forth by my great-grandmother. This story, as it is told in my family, has great power. As a child, I learned from this story to be generous with whatever I had. I learned that there will always be enough. The lessons society teaches us about fear and mistrust of those whom we do not know are wrong. Christmas is found in the welcoming of the stranger into one’s home.”

The need for shelter is a fundamental human need. None of us ever knows for sure when we might be uprooted and cast on the mercy of others. But how do we overcome our fear in order to welcome and shelter a stranger? The Christian practice of hospitality is the practice of providing a space to take in a stranger. It also encompasses the skills of welcoming friends and family to our tables, to claim the joy of homecoming. Our Unitarian Universalist ministry is very much about breaking down society’s barriers that separate people, and to teach that there always needs to be room for one more — at the table as much as at the inn.

So tonight, I’d like the Christmas story to be a story of unexpected hospitality. A story of the grace of generosity meeting the needs of two folks far from home, and allowing a baby to come into the world whose life would change everything. Tonight, I ask you how you can be present to those in this world for whom there is no room. How we, as a community, can be an innkeeper and  present for those who need a soft place to lay their weary heads. There must be room enough for all. And we can make it so.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Blessed be

Innkeeper, a sermon delivered on Dec 24, 2013 by the Rev. CJ McGregor and Max Thoman at 1stUUPB

Tis the Season

This is a true story.

Many years ago I participated in Black Friday shopping. I had only been once before and this was the last time I would participate. I remember braving the cold and leaving my house about midnight. I arrived at a local department store and waited in line with hundreds of others looking forward to the doors opening and making a mad dash to pick up what I didn’t need.

You should never shop on this day without a plan. And so I crafted a plan that would have me weaving in and out of aisles only picking up the specific items I had planned for. This was not an evening to browse. It was in aisle eleven when the incident happened. Despite the weaving, the pushing, the haggling, the madness, I did stop to browse as an item had caught my eye.  Then it happened. Out of nowhere I was struck by a fast moving shopping carriage. The carriage struck me in the ankles and I fell harder and faster than desert rain.

I lay there, not seriously injured. I lay there thinking about what had just happened. I looked up to eye the operator of the offending carriage. To my surprise I found a grandmother looking down at me. She had beautiful white hair placed in a way that it was obvious a lot of time was given to its care and style. She wore a bright red sweater with a velvet ribbon tied at the neck.  She was the storybook version of a grandmother at Christmas. 

Our eyes locked and she yelled “Move it!”

As I rolled to the side to let her pass she muttered, and I believe she even cursed. I’ve spent a lot of time recalling this incident and thinking a lot about that perpetrator. What could she have been thinking? What drove her to wield a shopping carriage as a weapon? What was happening in her life that brought her to such a state? What happened to Christmas? I learned a few things that evening. You won’t find the magic and spirit of this season in aisle 11 of a department store on Black Friday and that this magical season can bring out our shadow selves and that this season can bring us to sparkling places but to dark places as well.  Tis the season for the paradox of joy and disappointment.

My uncle married a woman named Mary. As a child Mary was one of my favorite relatives. She was bold, irreverent, challenging, and you never had to guess what was on her mind. I found her to be comical but perhaps she simply appealed to my dry and dark sense of humor. My grandmother loathed Mary. My grandmother had never met anyone that challenged her as the matriarch of the family. I’ve never known anyone in my grandmother’s 85 years to challenge her in that way since. My grandmother said that Mary cheated at cards and had poor manners.

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to talk about people when they’re in the room. But Mary did. Mary had one other interesting practice. Each year when Christmas rolled around she would announce that she was going to put up her Christmas tree. Naturally as a little one I was excited and eager to trim the tree. The next thing I knew Mary walked down the stairs from her upstairs walk in closet carrying a fully decorated artificial tree. She placed it in the corner of the room and dusted her hands and said “perfect.” Mary kept a fully decorated tree in her closet year round that made an annual appearance because she couldn’t be bothered with all the nonsense of decorating.

Mary had lost her ability to see and feel the wonder and magic of the season years before then. You see when Christmas was near, Mary began to think of her parents she had lost on December 24th  years ago. She was in pain. She also allowed feelings of inadequacy to overcome her because she felt she couldn’t have or do all that many others had this time of year. She became anxious about what the expectations of Christmas should be and must be. So she threw the whole lot away and didn’t bother. It was easier that way.

Seasonal images and stories have filled our minds since grade school days with countdowns till recess and dreams of sugar plum fairies and families with kind words, delicious food and festivities. Such visions have been installed, mostly subconsciously and consistently reinforced by media messages and consumerism. Our holidays are sitting ducks for expectations to sneak out of our unconscious minds and reek havoc with our current reality. The higher and more detailed the expectations, the steeper the potential disappointments. The season also has a knack for bringing us closer to our emotional pain.

Ask yourself about your ideal holiday and you will experience -- and can almost compute –- your risk for anxiety and disappointment. Would you prefer that your entire family be together rather than separated along the lines of in laws, divorce constraints or undeniable geography? Would you prefer to pick and choose your relatives and how they would ideally behave? Are there perfectionistic “shoulds” shouting their suggestions for your dinner designs and relentless demands decorating your internal conversations? Do these days serve as a reminder of things lost and past hurts? The power of greed and the race to being good enough tries to steal the ingredients that strengthen the magic of Christmas.

I remember being a kid, being so excited when it came closer to Christmas and being almost unable to wait until Christmas morning. Now I barely remember how soon Christmas is and those feelings I used to get, I have to try and find now, when they used to be natural. Where do those feelings go? Do we lose that childlike excitement and glee as we grow older? What was it I was looking forward to? Is it easier to welcome Santa Claus and believe in the “magic” of the season? Do we grow up and lose that?

What exactly is the magic of the season? Is it the belief in a magical man who can bring you whatever you want? Or is it simply the belief in magic? The belief that what you can’t see is possible, that if you dream it and do good then you can achieve or get things that you want. As we grow up in the world, we often see those who really struggle and try, at times still fail. We see families that lose everything. We see homelessness, we see heartbreak, we see sadness. We see how little “magic” there really is, so why not at least try to hold on to a little of that during the holiday season?

I won’t leave you in that dark hole I brought you into. Your best shot against being overtaken by holiday disappointment — the shadow side of holiday joy, is to take stock of what you expect, what you wish, what you need and what you desire. Tis the season for discernment. If we can shine a light on what we are expecting of ourselves and others, we can modify and lighten up the unwanted cloud of depression that can often get in the way of holiday joy.

Keep it as simple as possible and focus largely on the heart of the matter. When in doubt, remember that grace and gratitude are mindsets that increase  contentment for our holiday season. And needless to say, the less stress we accumulate during this season, the less of an exhausted (physically and financially) backlash you’ll experience in January!

Which by the way is the small group ministry topic for January. There's an old American Shaker hymn, "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," which reminds us that simplicity brings freedom and delight. In the end, the hymn tells us, through simplicity we discover love; through simplicity we find ourselves in just the right place. The heart may grow cold but we have the ability to restore its warmth and the wholeness of the season.

There are those who find it in faith and the belief in a higher being. There are those who find it in nothing like that at all. There are those who simply think that we live this life and that is it. No matter what you believe, we all need to believe in magic sometimes. We need to believe in dreams. We need to believe in the possibility that good things can happen. We don’t need to keep it only to the holiday season, but if we can somehow hold  onto what we felt when we were younger and hold on to that feeling all year around, then maybe we will be headed in the right direction.

Speaking of the right direction, some of us celebrated the winter solstice yesterday evening sometimes called the longest night because it is, after all, the longest night of the year. The celebration commemorates the night this year with the most darkness and to celebrate the coming of the light. In that spirit, I invite you to listen to a “Blessing for the Longest Night” written by the artist Jan Richardson. This blessing is written in the hope that being authentic and honest about our experiences of this season can be part of what leads us — sometimes without us knowing how or why in advance — to a different time, a different place, and a different space in on our journey through this life. And perhaps the pagan practice of choosing to celebrate the “coming of the light” precisely on the darkest day of the year can point us toward the hope that on the other side of even the darkest night, dawn will come.

I offer you this blessing:

All throughout these months as the shadows have lengthened, this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, preparing for this night. It has practiced walking in the dark, traveling with its eyes closed, feeling its way by memory, by touch, by the pull of the moon even as it wanes. So believe me when I tell you this blessing will reach you even if you have not light enough to read it; it will find you even though you cannot see it coming. You will know the moment of its arriving by your release of the breath you have held so long; a loosening of the clenching in your hands, of the clutch around your heart; a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you. This blessing does not mean to take the night away but it knows its hidden roads, knows the resting spots along the path, knows what it means to travel in the company of a friend. So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.
Tis the season to discover that no matter where in the darkness you find yourself this season, walk in any direction and you will be moving toward the dawn. I leave you with the words of Donna Morrison Reed:
Fill your heart like a vessel with the Christmas spirit. Take the time to let your vision clear and your concern deepen. Allow your heart to overflow with all the authentic gifts that this season has to offer. The blessings and the wealth of Christmas can overflow from each of our hearts, if we take the time to fill our hearts first. We are a world of materially rich men and rich women who are spiritually impoverished by our very wealth. The signs of that impoverishment are all around us. They push and shove to get our attention, especially at this time of year. But let us stop the rush and allow the spirit of the season to enter our being. Let us clear our vision and deepen our concern. Let it move us away from an isolating concern for self to a relationship of love and care and wonder and joy with all of life around us.
May it be so.

Tis the Season, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor, presented at 1stUUPB, Dec 22, 2013.