1/29/17- Hunting the White Whale: Melville, Religion, and the Sea

Sermon 1/25/17 Hunting the White Whale: Mellville, Religion, and the Sea

The first time I read Moby-Dick I was in 8th grade at Holy Family-Holy Name school. If just about any other kid in the country made that claim, we’d think…Wow! That’s pretty heavy stuff for a kid. But not here in New Bedford. If you are born here, these days you’ll probably have a onesie with a whales or harpoons on it, and your hipster parents will surely have bought you the Mody-Dick pop-up book. Every grammar school kid, at some point, visits the Whaling Museum and walks the decks of the Pequod, visits the Seaman’s Bethel and gets to stand where Fr. Mapple stood for his famous sermon. By the time your 11 or 12 you’ve probably seen every version of the movie twice, and you know it’ll be required reading sometime in junior high or high school, because the story of Moby-Dick begins here, in the Whaling City. We have taken ownership of this great American novel. We understand it, we feel it in our blood and bones, we smell it in the salty air. Melville writes,
“…New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?
Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” (6.5-6)
So, too was this church harpooned and dragged up hither. We give visitors to our church this little booklet called, The Church that Whaling Built, detailing our connection to the sea. And as Unitarians, we have a connection to Melville, who, after a life-long struggle with religion, finally joined All Soul’s Church in New York City in the latter part of his life. “Some literary critics see religion in Moby Dick as a struggle between Melville’s personal adoption of Unitarianism, and the Calvinism of his mother. Born in the Bronx in 1819, his father died when he was 12, so Melville didn’t go to college, in fact, he didn’t even finish high school. But he had a great love of books and taught himself through reading and experience.
His mother Maria Gansevoort was descended from the earliest Dutch settlers of NY, and his Father Allan Melvill from Scots-Irish. Both of Melville’s grandfathers fought in the American Revolution, and his paternal grandfather participated in the Boston Tea Party (the original one). Melville was not celebrated in his lifetime, earning little from his books and poems.”1 And Moby-Dick, which has been touted as the greatest American novel ever written, was particularly poorly received when first released in 1851; it didn’t gain real popularity until the 1920’s. The rejection was largely due to the fact that “the novel shows equal respect for a wide variety of religious traditions and, at the same time, not-so-gently mocks the foolishness of religious extremism.
In this novel, tribal pagans and New England Christians seem pretty similar—and frequently the pagans seem more ethical than some of the Christians around them. In contrast to both this complexly egalitarian attitude toward religiosity and the heavy satire that accompanies some of the religious commentary, the novel also uses a great deal of Biblical symbolism, especially in the names and allegorical roles of characters.”2 But I want to get away from all the reading I did about Melville and Moby Dick and religion and focus on where all my thinking about it took me.
Melville, who died in the Bronx in 1891, would have never imagined that the people of New Bedford, 166 years after Moby Dick was published, would spend a whole weekend celebrating his novel of the sea, that we would make it part of our culture here, and would read it cover to cover together once a year. This sermon was supposed to be preached a few weeks ago, when a bunch of Melville scholars were in town, so I felt under some pressure to be scholastic in my approach to Melville. I read waaaay too many books and papers in preparing for this sermon…I took in so much information that I could barely figure out where to begin and struggled with the first version. You can’t imagine my relief when the snow just kept coming and we had to cancel the service…because at 9:30 I was only about 2 and a half pages into hunting the White Whale and I was throwing harpoons into a dark sea.
If there’s one large lesson I learned as an artist, it’s that the things you create can be pretty easily painted over, if only you can find the resolve to let go of it, and begin again. I’ve whiled away hours of my life standing in front of paintings I knew were going nowhere and mustering up the courage to pick up a turpentine soaked rag and wipe it all away, paint a different background, and start something new, something that works for me. I hope every one of you, at some point, amid many other successes, got to a point with some project or idea or relationship, that just fizzled out, or that you grew beyond, or that you figured out just wasn’t you. This is how we humans learn, right?…from what we get wrong more than what we get right, and the courage to try again.
So, ya, Monday night, after reading through what I had written already, I slashed and burned most of what I would have talked about on Jan. 8, reset my course, and turned the wheel hard to port…back here to New Bedford, where the sea surrounds us. And my theory is that Melville, the God of Metaphor, found something in the ocean, in its power and vastness, that brought him closer to understanding the Divine more than any sermon or ingrained dogma could ever deliver. And if you’ve spent enough time on the ocean you know…there’s a quality that is at once intangible and so very tangible, like something right on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite get to but you now is there.
What is it about going to sea? I hope none of us here forget that this city was built on the backs of generations of hard-working whalemen and fishermen. It’s a risky job, and there’s a price for the wealth that we receive from the ocean. Because there be MONSTERS! The ocean is a powerful, fickle, unforgiving element. It is also full of mystery and wonder. But there is something else…
In the opening paragraph from Moby Dick, what we might consider the ‘Gospel according to Melville’ on the question of what draws men to sea, Ishmael sketches a dark, watery answer that creates a theme of desperation, at once prosaic and poetic. It flows throughout the book and makes it timeless and, at points, terribly real.
“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
There is anger there, and frustration, and the sense of an instinct to flee, to run from the pressures of living on land. But there’s also an instinct to chase something, maybe even something seemingly indomitable, and unknowable. And if you think of it in those terms, the last line of that first paragraph can be understood a little easier.
“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
We all, in one way or another, chase our white whale, don’t we? We have all had a damp, drizzly November in our soul. And when we feel locked by the land and its problems, we take quietly to our ships…we resort to whatever keeps us afloat. And I think that what Melville experienced when he went to sea and traveled, gifted him something transcendent, if confusing, to hold onto, like Ishmael clinging to the coffin, somehow saved but still just floating alone. And it couldn’t be put into words, not in a straightforward way, because I don’t think God talks to us in a straightforward way, so Melville concocted this luscious metaphorical narrative of how he wrestled with his own white whale, how he hunted it, and how, in the end, there were both aspects of being saved, and being pulled under by the vast ocean. Maybe he even felt like a heretic, or a pagan, that the ocean gave him answers he couldn’t find anywhere else.
My struggle and doubt about this sermon was, I realized, quintessentially Melvillian. His writing was full of questioning, anguished doubt, and explorations of “good and evil.” It’s no wonder that, after struggling with doubt about his beliefs, he ended up a Unitarian. We specialize in doubt and revel in questioning.
His friend, Nathaniel Hawthorn, says of Melville, (Quoted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘Why Read Moby Dick?’ which I recommend)… “He had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated. But still he does not rest in that anticipation, and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before that — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential. He had a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”
I don’t think it much matters what you believe. I do think that having a high and noble nature, and wandering to-and-fro, and being persistent in our doubt and our search for the good and the right and the transcendent, is what saves us in the end. The journey of the spiritual seeker isn’t a smooth and obvious path to walk, it’s more like a whaling voyage, full of danger, rough seas, monsters from the deep, and the endless, awesome mysteries of the ocean. I’m pretty sure that if Melville was here, he might just say, “Amen.”

1. “Melville Biography,” in; “Herman Melville,” (3/16/10); “Herman Melville,” Encyclopedia of World Biography 10, 472-476; and “The Life and Works of Herman Melville,” in
Kring, Walter Donald, Herman Melville’s Religious Journey, 1997

1/22/17-The Cost of Poverty

Sermon 1/22/17 The Cost of Poverty
Fifty-three years ago Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” and it was a war that desperately needed to be waged at the time. In the late 50’s, when we started to track such numbers, the poverty rate was at 22.4 percent. When LBJ took office it was at 19 percent, still a large percentage, and his State of the Union address to Congress, which I read from earlier, resulted in the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. This created programs like Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Assistance, and the Community Action Program. The Food Stamp Act was created in 1965, and remains a program that literally saves the lives of families every day. From the time the Economic Opportunity Act was passed the poverty rate steadily declined from 17.3 percent to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, when it started to rise again after Richard Nixon abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity, though many of the programs were placed under other departments.
The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983, when Ronald Reagan famously said, “We fought a war against poverty, and poverty won.” In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet it is back up to over 15 percent now.
Still, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 50 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.
But there’s no denying the problem persists and income inequality shapes our country and our world in myriad ways. Last week, Oxfam released its 2016 report on wealthy inequality and it said that the 8 richest people in the world, six of which are Americans, have a combined worth of 426 billion US dollars. By contrast, the combined fortunes of 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest inhabitants adds up to a measly $409 billion.
Oxfam Great Britain CEO Mark Goldring said, “This year’s snapshot of inequality is clearer, more accurate and more shocking than ever before,”

“It is beyond grotesque that a group of men who could easily fit in a single golf buggy own more than the poorest half of humanity.” I think that might be an understatement.
Oxfam also pointed to a link between the vast gap between rich and poor and growing discontent with mainstream politics around the world.
“From Brexit to the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a worrying rise in racism and the widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics, there are increasing signs that more and more people in rich countries are no longer willing to tolerate the status quo,” it said in the report titled “An economy for the 99 per cent.”
To figure out just how we got here I had to look back. I read an op-ed in the NYT from 2012, titled ‘Poverty In America: Why Can’t We End It?’ by Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University. And when I read this article I understood clearly how Trump won the presidency. Edelman asks why, when we’ve accomplished so much, we have not achieved more in the war on poverty. He said, “An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.
The first thing needed if we’re to get people out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages…This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.”
He goes on to talk about how the demise of welfare created an awful gap for single mothers especially, how race and gender play an enormous part in determining poverty’s continuing course, the dismantling of unions and collective bargaining, and how deregulation and tax loopholes help the rich and powerful stay that way. And he says near the end of the article, and don’t forget this is 2012, “We should not kid ourselves. It isn’t certain that things will stay as good as they are now. The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else. Money breeds power and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious circle.
A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed.”
Now, it might on the face seem like the people who depend on assistance programs would do much better voting for the liberals who want to fund them, and that Trump’s ideas are the exact opposite of that. But think for a moment how Trump’s campaign played to exactly what Edelman is talking about even if the facts don’t support the rhetoric. We Americans are often like magpies, happily distracted by shiny things, and it didn’t seem to matter what Trump did outside the realm of the civility we come to expect from people who hold positions of authority in our country, as long as he persistently played to the self-interests of a large swath of Americans, and just kept repeating JOBS JOBS JOBS and how awful everything is and how great it could be, he would win that percentile he needed.
Because, as we have learned over and over, people who are frustrated don’t just want hope. As someone who often counsels people in need, and as someone who is going through a difficult time myself, I know that all the “Hang in there!” kitten posters, all the reassurance that “You’re tough, you can get through this,” and “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” don’t go nearly as far when you’re really hurting as having someone just listen and validate your viewpoint. You don’t want to hear, “It will all be OK,” you want someone to say, “Well that totally sucks! You must be out of your mind right now. You wanna go, like, break some glass, get a beer, or scream into the ocean?”
Trump’s campaign allowed a large swath of people who were very frustrated with government to metaphorically break some glass, get a beer, and shout into the ocean. He validated their frustrations, he told them exactly what they wanted to hear. But I wonder now how, after promising to drain the swamp, and convincing some people he was just a regular guy, he will get away with filling important positions in his cabinet with the swampiest millionaires and billionaires he could find. Let me repeat that quote from Edelman, “As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed.” Public opinion is a fickle mistress, so we’ll just have to see. But I digress.
Well, not really…this actually leads me right back to income inequality, and poverty. I sure hope we see more jobs, but more low-wage jobs aren’t going to help the lower or middle classes. Low wages benefit the rich. You wanna make a deal? How about making a deal that includes everyone who works full time should be able to afford to live on their wages. Now that’s a deal I’d like to see.
Because, let’s think about this, church… what is the cost of poverty? How many of the issues that we argue about, and pour trillions of dollars into, might be alleviated if the vicious circle of poverty was broken and gross economic inequality became a thing of the past? What kind of country would we be, what kind of world, if everyone’s inalienable rights included enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a living wage for their labors, free health care, and a good education? Let’s not think about how much that would cost, let’s thjnk about how much money we could save. Poverty creates some of our society’s worst, most expensive problems: hunger, crime, violence, homelessness, mental and physical illnesses. How much money do you think we’d save by making sure everyone had an opportunity to succeed?
And how about the immigration problem…has it never crossed anyone’s mind that people who have jobs, safety, and opportunities in their own countries would rather stay there? Forget about building a wall, build a better economy in Mexico, help their people fight corruption and drug cartels, so they can be happy right where they live.
How much revenue could be generated from a strong workforce, not to mention closing those tax loopholes for the rich, shaped like the eye of a needle…you know, the one it’s easier to put a camel through than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, this might all sound like liberal, idealist claptrap, and granted, I watch too much Star Trek to not believe there can someday be a world where everyone has what they need.
But I also remember asking my dad when I was probably 11 or 12, before I understood anything about liberal and conservative and only knew what was right and wrong, why it was so unfair…why so many people suffered while a few prospered ostentatiously. Why, when our country is so rich, we have so many who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And my pragmatic father, I will never forget, said, “baby, no one ever said life was fair.”
And OK, I get that. There’s nothing fair about it quite a lot of the time. But, if you have a sense of right and wrong, of what’s fair and unfair, and if justice and equality matters to you, the fact that life isn’t fair should make you strive all the more for fairness. No one ever said it was going to be easy, either. Another of my father’s favorite things to say was, “It’s only a sin if you know better.” To me that means the sin is in doing nothing, in accepting injustice and poverty and violence. Because we do know what would make our world better, and it is pretty simple, it just happens to cost the rich a lot of money, and they’ve got the power. It’s the same in every country, even if some governments are more democratic and magnanimous toward the welfare of their people than others. Keeping people poor equals keeping people powerless. Those at the top keep climbing and most of us are lucky to get our hands on the ladder at all. This has to change. I can’t see it happening under the current administration, but God knows I hope I’m wrong.
As Unitarians, we draw from many sources for our wisdom, and justice and fairness for all is certainly a theme that runs through Thoreau and Emerson as much as the teachings of Jesus. And as Unitarians, we will fight, with Thoreau’s ideas about preserving our environment and Civil Disobedience, and, like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and caring for the outcast, sick, and poor. The only sin we know is in doing nothing when something must be done. Resistance is NOT futile, and I’d rather be poor in my pocketbook than poor in spirit. May we all find the richness of spirit to stand on the side of love. Amen and SMIB

Christmas Eve 2016

OOS Christmas Eve 2016
Welcome- Good evening everyone and Merry Christmas! I’m Karen Andersen, minister to this congregation, and I welcome you to the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. We are a congregation of spiritual seekers who come together to support each other on our paths with love and compassion. We value diversity here, and everyone is welcome in this sanctuary.
There is child care available in the green room tonight if you need it, and we’d be glad if you’d join us for coffee and conversation after the service in the parish hall, right through that door there. Now, if you would please put your electronic devices into worship mode, we will begin by lighting our chalice, the symbol of our Unitarian heritage.
Chalice Lighting – Karen
Just as those who looked to a star
So too do we look to this flame
That even in the darkest nights of our souls
Hope for peace and joy burns bright. (Rev. Sarah Richards)

Opening Reading: By Mary Wellemeyer
(Laurie Waclawik)
Like those shepherds who were on the hillsides
with their flocks,
like those wise ones in their observatories
with their telescopes and astronomical charts,
we find our daily work interrupted by these holidays.

Like them, we can’t keep on working,
we have to listen to singing angels,
we have to deal with the call of that special star.
The little town of Bethlehem is thronged
with people who have come to be taxed,
crowding streets and shops,
and we have to find our way to an unknown place
where a wonderful new beginning awaits.

What precious new beginning are you seeking this night?
For what do you push through crowds?
What have the angels told you?
What is the call of the star?

Carol: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
#617- Luke 2:1-19
Cora Perice

The Moment of Magic By Victoria E Safford (Read by Sherry Hamel)
Now is the moment of magic,
when the whole, round earth turns again toward the sun,

and here’s a blessing:
the days will be longer and brighter now,
even before the winter settles in to chill us.

Now is the moment of magic,
when people beaten down and broken,
with nothing left but misery and candles and their own clear voices,
kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,

and here’s a blessing:
the dark universe is suddenly illuminated by the lights of the menorah,
suddenly ablaze with the lights of the kinara,
and the whole world is glad and loud with winter singing.

Now is the moment of magic,
when an eastern star beckons the ignorant toward an unknown goal,

and here’s a blessing:
they find nothing in the end but an ordinary baby,
born at midnight, born in poverty, and the baby’s cry, like bells ringing,
makes people wonder as they wander through their lives,
what human love might really look like,
sound like,
feel like.

Now is the moment of magic,

and here’s a blessing:
we already possess all the gifts we need;
we’ve already received our presents:
ears to hear music,
eyes to behold lights,
hands to build true peace on earth
and to hold each other tight in love

Centering Music:

#618- In This Night (read by Ron White)

RR: #664- Give Us The Spirit of The Child
Yasmin Flefleh Vincent

Carol- It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

Prayer: Christmas Meditation by Christine C. Robinson
Karen Andersen
Let us join our hearts and minds together in the spirit of meditation and prayer.
May these moments of quiet lead us to the heart of the season, which is peace.
May we breathe deeply of peace in this quiet place, relax into its warmth,
know we are safe here, and let us open our hearts to the evening’s story.
Like the wandering couple, may we find that our greatest trials issue forth
from our greatest joys.
Like the harried innkeeper, may we find ways to be of help to others.
Like the lumbering beasts, may we be silent witnesses to the unfathomable glory of life.
Like the shepherds on the hill, may we know that we need never be afraid.
Like the journeying wise, may we always have the courage to follow our stars.
Like the angels, may we cry peace to a troubled world.
Holy one, to these prayers for our own transformation we add our prayers for
all of those who suffer and grieve this evening. May they find comfort. And we
add our prayers for all those involved in war; may they be safe. And may this
season of peace and goodwill nudge our world towards its ideals, for then will
Christmas truly dawn.

Moment of Silence

Music for Meditation-

Homily- Christmas Comes-Karen Andersen
I want to read you something that struck me as timely and perfect for this year’s Christmas Eve homily.
Christmas Comes Whether You’re Ready or Not
By Cynthia Frado
I am always in a bit of a shock when December 1st arrives on the calendar. I always feel like there should be at least another week beyond Thanksgiving before I can even contemplate the next holiday. I think, however, that beyond the incredible demands of the season, the hardest part to reconcile is that the heart is not always in sync with angels, presents, babes in a manger and the ho, ho, ho that is Christmas. Sometimes it feels like you just go through the motions because that’s what is expected. Sometimes I wish Christmas would take a vacation and return mid-winter…next year.
Yet, there is something compelling about the fact that Christmas comes, no matter what. The celebration of the birth of Jesus comes, no matter the season of your heart. The Prince of Peace, the baby that would bring a message of universal equality, compassion, forgiveness, and love is reborn again and again and again, no matter our state-of-mind or being…indeed, in spite of it. Perhaps that is the real miracle of the season, that hope and possibility cannot be denied.
As I contemplate the state of the world at this moment in time, I cannot think of anything more needed than a reminder of our potential to bring peace and healing and possibility into our lives. We don’t always feel it or see it or think it is there. But then there comes Christmas, even when we aren’t ready to receive it. A reminder that no matter what season of the heart that we are in, no matter what struggles or grief are consuming us, Christmas will not let us forget the light that was born in us…even on the darkest night of our souls.
So, even if you can’t deal with all the razzle, dazzle, and expense of this holiday, at the very least open the Inn door and prepare the manger of your heart for the gentle but powerful message that is seeking to be reborn in you. Never forget that you are a child of the Universe, and where there is life, there is light and love and hope waiting to be reborn, again and again and again. So turn on some twinkling lights, pour yourself a glass of eggnog (or not), and wait for that angel chorus to announce your heart’s rebirth.”
I really like that. Because this year I’ve been hyper-aware of the two sides of Christmas. The Yuletide season brings joy and hope and light to a large swath of humanity at this time of year. But I’ve also come to understand how this season can be so lonely for some people, such a kick in the stomach when you’re down. The pressure of Christmas: to spend money, to be Merry, to light your lights, is stressful, let’s face it. And I have also realized this season that if you have the money to buy gifts for others, and light lights, and have reason to be Merry, you should be so grateful for that.
Let us not forget the spiritual gifts we get from this season, the lessons we learn from this time of darkness into light: No matter how bleak the world seems, somewhere there is a child being born, there is a family fighting for freedom, there is a miracle waiting to happen. And you can’t put miracles on your own timeclock, you have to let them unfold as they will, and trust in the process, and hope.
I think one of the most compelling parts of “the greatest story ever told” is that it features a couple who are struggling, who are forced to stay in a manger because no one would take them in, and despite their difficulties…their child must be inevitably be born. And when he is, when that hope for peace enters the world under a guiding star, nothing else matters. Not where they are or who they are, only this new life and the potential that it holds. Where there is life there is hope, and that hope inevitably brings joy to the world.
So ask yourselves, as Laurie asked of us in the opening words,
“What precious new beginning are you seeking this night?
For what do you push through crowds?
What have the angels told you?
What is the call of the star?” ( Mary Wellemeyer…Laurie read)
So…Where is your star leading you? Where does your own light lead you, and how can you share your light where it’s needed? Tonight think about the gifts you have to give, not the ones that you have to shop for, but the ones that are already inside you. May we all give of our light freely and joyfully this year. Amen

Offertory Words- we will now take an offering to put toward the good works of this church, and we are grateful for your kind donations.

Offertory music-

Candle Lighting: After the offertory, everyone will come to the front, get a candle, and proceed to make a circle around the sanctuary (please let those who might have trouble standing get a good spot near a pew entrance). All lights will be extinguished except the chalice. Yasmin and Karen will light candles from the chalice and hand off in both directions, and the flame is passed from person to person. Silent Night will be sung, I will say the closing words, the doors will be thrown open, and we’ll extinguish our candles as the lights come up and sing from within the sanctuary, facing the open doors to send out Joy our into the world where it belongs.
Candle Lighting- by Lisa Rubin
Karen Andersen
Let us be still in the darkness of our sacred space,
And listen to the quiet around us.
For even in the quiet, there is the gentle being with others.
(begin lighting candles…Yas & I will each light a candle from the chalice and light the person next to us, so the flame is passed in both directions.)
Let us feel the warmth of our community,
Knowing we are not alone.
For in the quiet shadow is the glow of life within all.

Let us know in the darkness the gift each candle bears,
A small flame, a diminutive light –
Yet the wondrous gift to kindle another’s glow.

Let us be in awe at this moment as we each take up the flame
And the light envelopes this room,
As hope for peace and goodwill fill this night.
So may it be.

Carol- Silent Night

Closing Words #615- The Work of Christmas-Howard Thurman
When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star 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 nations,
To bring peace among the brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Carol- Joy To the World
(The front doors will be opened and the congregation will turn to sing in that direction.)

12/11/16- Samuel West and Religious Freedom in America

Sermon 12.11.16
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? I think the fact that this is the First Amendment to the US Constitution that our country laid down in the beginning is significant, and it says a lot about what our Founding Fathers were really going through as they struggled to give birth to this republic where “We the People” were intended to rule.
There are so many parts of the First Amendment, which I tend to wrap around myself like a comforting blanket that I could elaborate on right now and granted, would be timely to tackle. But this has been a tough month of political craziness and I decided that I needed to preach something a little off the beaten path this week and delve into history instead of getting belligerent about current events; and the history, religious and otherwise, of our country and our church fascinates me for its richness. We are so lucky to have this long memory as a congregation, and we go back to when our country was struggling with issues of personal freedom and liberty and trying to write it all down into some cohesive compromise.
For nearly two and a half centuries, America has been weaving together and pulling apart matters of “rellijon and pollyticks.” The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof…” If measurable religious freedom had been the intent of the Founding Fathers, from our current standpoint, that end might be viewed as accomplished. America today is home to more Hindus than Unitarians, more Muslims than Congregationalists, and more Buddhists than Jews. (I happen to think that’s great, as much as I want our denomination to grow).
But the original intent of religious freedom in America was much narrower than most people understand and it was due to religious dissent that we are able to enjoy religious freedom as we know it. The road to this level religious freedom has been tortuous. To speak of the “Founding Fathers” as if they were a singular, cohesive machine is misleading. They made a revolutionary compromise that took great leaps in the direction of separating religion and government on a national level, but the myriad men who had a hand in shaping the Constitution and Bill of Rights had profound disagreements with one another on many core principles as well as outright arguments on an abundance of particulars.
There is a general impression in America that the original British Colonies were a bastion of religious freedom. That notion is far from correct. Though the Pilgrims were separatists who were escaping persecution in England, most of the settlers were Puritans who came here to establish a particular denomination, almost all of which, in the beginning, were Protestant. They sought to purify the Church of England and modify it, and they especially wanted to combat the spread of the perceived “evil” Catholicism of the French and Spanish at the time.
The First Parish Church in Plymouth was established in 1620, the congregation having been formed in Scrooby, England in 1609. It is currently the oldest church congregation in continuous operation in the U.S. and they had already separated from the Church of England when they arrived in Plymouth.
Further north, in Boston and Salem, under the direction of the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1620’s and 30’s, large numbers of English sons and daughters arrived seeking not religious liberty for all but “a liberty that would permit them to build up a true church of God, a true church of the New Testament, a true Church of England.” (Gaustad 1962, p. 13)
That church was shortly thereafter called “Congregational” to set its government apart specifically from the Episcopal Church of England: they wished to be ruled by a body of believers, not by bishops.
By 1640 there were 29 Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts Bay Colony. These Puritans were, of course, concerned with converting the heathen Indians in the area and the list of churches as Congregationalism grows reads like a map of where the tribes resided, as they still do in many locations: Martha’s Vineyard-1642, Sandwich-1658, Natick-1660, Middleboro-1665, Mashpee-1670. The first Bible printed in America (the only one in the 17th century) was John Eliot’s translation of the scripture into a phonetic approximation of the Algonquin language. (E. S. Gaustad 1962) Cotton Mather, a prominent Protestant minister, said, “The Indians on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket might justly bear the denomination of Christians” (E. a. Gaustad 2002) and placed the number of converts there at 3,000. (Chaney 1976)
Early in the Massachusetts experiment, dissenters arose to challenge the Puritan vision of a holy society. One of the first dissenters, Roger Williams (1603-1683), was himself a Puritan minister but with a very different plan for society. He argued that God had not divinely sanctioned the colony and the civil authorities of Massachusetts had no authority to involve themselves in matters of faith. According to Williams, the church was a voluntary association of God’s elect and any state involvement in the worship of God was contrary to the divine will and led to the defilement of the church. Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts in 1635 and founded Rhode Island, the first colony with no established church and the first society in America to grant liberty of conscience to all of its inhabitants.
But Williams was just the first in a long line of increasing persecutions to follow and few had such a happy ending as his did. In 1651 a party of Anabaptists reached Massachusetts. The doctrines they advocated raised a storm of opposition in the colony; they were arrested, tried, fined, and one of them severely flogged, and a law was passed banishing from the colony anyone who should oppose the dogma of infant baptism.
The Puritan goal of creating a kingdom of God on earth by purging the church of heretics did not succeed. In the 1630’s, 70 to 80 percent of taxpayers belonged to a church. By the 1670’s half that many did. In Salem, only about 30 percent belonged to a congregation in 1690. (Metzger 1774) Congregational leadership faltered as European immigration brought to the region Baptists, Presbyterians, French Protestants, Scots-Irish and Welsh. In 1684 King Charles II decided that he no longer wanted the commonwealth to exclude Anglicans or Catholics and rescinded the charter, decreeing that Anglicans should be allowed to worship in Massachusetts colony. (E. a. Gaustad 2002)
North of Boston, in what is now Danvers, a more serious level of persecution was happening, motivated by fear and hysteria. The Salem Witch Trials did not last long, but the level of righteousness and religious fervor that drove the leaders of Salem Village to execute some of its townspeople remains frightening. It reminds us how thin the line can be between state-funded religion and religious tyranny.
The Puritans were anything but supporters of religious freedom, rather they believed that their very souls were at stake in the fight against invasive evils. They came to this land carrying deep-rooted superstitions and fears and though they may have claimed to be against the Church of England for its prohibition of their right to practice according to their own conscience, they were enthusiastic about ensuring that others were denied the same right. Even as this eventually began to change and tolerance for other denominations started to take hold, there was one detail the Congregationalists in Massachusetts would not let go of: the small matter of taxes. I will return to the bane of taxes shortly. First I want to jump ahead a few persecution-filled decades and land at The Great Awakening, which historian William McLoughlin called, “America’s first identity crisis.”
There were several waves that made up the whole of the Great Awakening and the first happened from about 1735 to 1765. This was characterized by large revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. These revivals became a mass movement in the fall of 1739 when George Whitefield arrived from England, where he had developed a following after writing about his conversion experiences and his journey from “depravity to salvation.” Whitefield was a powerful and hypnotic speaker. He also utilized all the latest media innovations, tapping into the burgeoning network of newspapers that had sprung up, particularly The Pennsylvania Gazette, owned by Ben Franklin. Franklin, always ready to help rock the boat, gave Whitefield saturation coverage as the “Itinerant Minister” made his way through the colonies, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people.
Pilgrimage to these revivals created what Catherine Albanese called “sacred communities,” which were outside and beyond the local church, “through the act of leaving one’s home and engaging in a complex series of rituals designed to empower the individual through direct contact with God.” (Albanese 2001, p.32) The Great Awakening divided many churches into “New Lights” who embraced the evangelical spirit, and “Old Lights” who were more traditional. These revivals softened the boundaries between denominations. By sharing this communal spiritual experience and finding that their differences were not as many as their connections, the road to conversion was fairly easy. Whitefield was Evangelical Protestant and conversions were made through revivals for Protestants, but Baptists and Presbyterians also used similarly styled revivals to spread their particular word and practices.
Part of the hatred of the Church of England stemmed from the belief that it too closely resembled Catholicism. When Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774, it took the enlightened position that the Catholic Church could remain the official church of Quebec. This terrified the colonists, who saw it as a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the Catholics to expand into the colonies. Here, many historians claim, the flame of rebellion was lit, fueled by piles and piles of American newspapers. But the accelerant that turned the fire into a real blaze returns us to Massachusetts and the topic of those pesky taxes.
So, even as “New Light” denominations like the Quakers and Baptists spread in Massachusetts and became semi-tolerated, they were nonetheless forced to pay taxes for the support of the “Old Light” Congregationalist ministers. But there were others who were in the middle of those two labels, literally and spiritually: religious liberals. In 1761, a Harvard educated, 31-year-old Rev. Dr. Samuel West would be settled as the fourth minister “of that part of Dartmouth which now makes the city of New Bedford and town of Fair Haven.” (Morison 1849)
A formidable preacher, West made no formal preparation before speaking. He rejected the emotional appeals of the New Lights, preferring to make his points simply and rationally. He was invited to give the prestigious Election Day sermon in Boston in 1776. In that sermon he proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. He offered an extensive and detailed Biblical theological justification for the rebellion, and a learned and vigorous argument for democracy and independence. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed,” West proclaimed, “has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.”
Our church documents are housed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s research library. Little survives from West’s ministry, aside from his official call to ministry at Dartmouth and one letter. But there was a short biography of West, written in 1870 by Rev. William James Potter. After further research I also discovered that much of what Potter was recounting goes back to West’s first biographer, the Rev. John H. Morison, who wrote a biographical letter in 1849.
Despite the fact that taxes were required to be paid for his support, it seems that Samuel West was fairly destitute for much of his ministerial life. Potter notes that his salary “of sixty-six pounds, thirteen shillings, and sixpence” (Potter 1870) mostly went unpaid. In 1779 his circumstances were “so deplorable as to demand immediate relief,” (Potter 1870) and a committee was appointed by the precinct to procure firewood and corn for his family. In 1788 he accounts the society as owing him seven hundred and sixty-nine pounds, twelve shillings, and eleven pence, and “urges the payment of it”. (Potter 1870)
These accounts provoke the question: if everyone was required to pay taxes and people were even being arrested for not paying their church taxes, why did “Pater West,” as he was often referred to, remain unpaid for so long? When he refers to the “congregation” being unable to raise the money, does that mean the church members or the “official” congregation, which means everyone in the town? I asked Fred Gifun about that. His answer was: “That’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. The coffee-hour version is…everyone was supposed to pay the tax and if you were actually a member of the Congregational Church you really, really should pay the tax…but the fact was that many people had severely limited resources and simply couldn’t pay the taxes.”
In 1787 the second precinct of Dartmouth became the Precinct of New Bedford, which was incorporated as a separate town. Not long thereafter, the New Bedford congregation was also drawn into two precincts, “with a line running East and West about half way between the village of Fair Haven and the meeting house at the head of the river,” (Potter 1870) both of which West was responsible for. Despite these difficulties, he continued to do his job, though Potter says, “there were events at this time which far more deeply enjoyed his thoughts. He was earnestly engaged in all the great questions that came up between the colonies and the mother country. He did not wait to see which way popular opinion might turn.” (Potter 1870)
The events West was dwelling so deeply on are those preceding the American Revolution. In 1774, the town of Dartmouth voted to support the colonies in the fight for independence from British rule. After the battle of Bunker Hill, West volunteered as a chaplain. “During his several months service he helped decipher a treasonous letter from a military physician, Dr. Benjamin Church, to a British admiral in Newport. This letter revealed American casualties, troop strength, and shipments of gun powder. Legend has it that when the British Army invaded Dartmouth, they burned down West’s parsonage in retaliation.”
Samuel West was an ardent patriot. He had no tolerance for those who were hesitant or on the fence about freedom. His passion for both religious and political self-determination was evident, and he surely shaped the congregation we have become.
Ask a high school U.S. History student what the American Revolution was about and most would give you this one catch-phrase answer: “no taxation without representation”. However, John Adams, friend and former classmate of West’s, believed that religion was one of the major causes of the Revolution. “Not only did it help trigger the Revolution, it did so in ways with profound implications for the later fights over separation of church and state. The colonists became convinced that political liberty and religious liberty were intertwined. To earn one, they would need to win the other.” (Waldman 2008) And so it would be
In 1774, eighteen Baptists were jailed in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes to support the Congregational church. A year before that, the Boston Tea Party took place. It would become increasingly difficult for patriots to attack the evils of the Anglican establishment, then turn around and defend the maintenance of an official state church over the loud objections of religious minorities like the Baptists. One local Baptist from Middleborough Massachusetts, Isaac Backus, became a hero of American religious liberty in the Commonwealth and in the nation. In a letter to the Baptist churches in MA, Backus wrote: “Liberty of conscience, the great and most important article of liberty, is evidently not allowed as it ought to be in this country, not even by the very men who are now making loud complaints of the encroachments upon their own liberties (by Parliament).” (McLoughlin 1968)
Now, I could go on for a long time about James Madison here, because he was the one who pushed hardest for our first amendment rights as we know them, but suffice it to say that freedom of religion, speech and the press were of paramount importance to him. He would accept the Senate’s language on sixteen different amendments in order to ensure the passage of the first. Thus, on September 24, 1789, the First Amendment was born. The Bill of Rights would take another two years to be ratified, but it was worth the wait. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the foundation of what it means to be American and have shaped our society beyond measure.
What we must not forget is that divining the “intent” of the Founders regarding the First Amendment is impossible; there were too many opposing viewpoints. It was a classic political compromise that was designed to have different meanings to different people and though Madison had strong views about separating church and state on the local level, the First Amendment did not. The Bill of Rights was intended to restrict government power, not expand it.
The Founders were men of multitudinous opinion and when given the chance to sort it all out, they essentially disagreed on nearly every point. But that is exactly how democracy happens, isn’t it? We are free to wrestle with these questions, to have an opinion…that’s the whole point.
“Madison had it right. Were he alive today, he would conclude, with awesome pride, that we are the most religiously vibrant nation on earth not despite separation of church and state-and religious freedom-but because of it.” I think it’s important to remember that now.
We, the People, are better for the dissent and disagreement. Asking questions and wrestling with answers is more progressive, for our Selves and our country and our world, than blind faith. Having the freedom to practice whatever spirituality or religion moves you is precious – many fought for this right and fight for it still. It should not be taken for granted.

11/27/16- Facing Our Fears, Finding Our Power

Sermon 11/27/16- Facing our Fears, Finding our Power: FIGHT!
We opened last week’s sermon with a collective sigh and tried to pull ourselves together, rallying around the strength we find in this community and giving thanks for the many blessings we have. And that was good. But this week…what do we do? Start out with a collective scream, with a side of foot stomping and punching of pew cushions? If you feel you must…go ahead. Get it out. I’m still angry and disappointed too. I may be making a big assumption here…that we’re all angry and disappointed, and if you’re not, I apologize, but I know that my congregation, generally, is hurting and afraid, along with a lot of other people in our community. And no matter who you voted for, there’s a change in the air in our country that can’t be denied, and we have to address it, so here goes…
OK…first…it’s important to name our fears and face some facts. We have a president-elect whose candidacy tapped into the very real vein of racial intolerance and gender bias that has existed here in our country since we founded it and built its wealth on the backs of slave labor. Despite all the progress we have made over the last 8 years of President Obama’s presidency, or maybe because of it, we find ourselves here…where if I were a black man, or transgender, or Hispanic or Latina, or a refugee who is looking for a safe place to live, or an immigrant who has overstayed their green card, I would be fearful indeed. So, I’m not going to pull any punches here. There’s stuff to be afraid of. Over 700 hate crimes have been reported in this country since the election and the mainstreaming of white nationalism is deplorable. But I’m not going to get all doom and gloom on you here…neither am I going to take anything lying down.
If this insane election has taught us nothing else, it has showed us that racial intolerance, fear about immigrants, and an inherent bias against women in power, has been brewing just underneath the barrier of “political correctness” for a long time, as it always has in this country for one batch of immigrants after another, for one race after another that looks or acts differently.
But the fears on both sides are real…I don’t want to discount the real feelings that lots of people have in our country because our worldview changed so radically over the last 60 years or so. What we consider progress is considered losing our way as Americans by some. Did you think 20 years ago that same sex couples would be able to marry in every state in this Union, or that the internet would bring globalization to the level it has? I didn’t. And for me, and probably you, these are good things. But for a lot of other people, social change is not so easy. We are in our little MA bubble of liberalism here, after all.
We do have to acknowledge that. People want change…but they want the change that they most want to see, on both sides, and at their own pace…we want change now, and others want it to slow down because it can be a lot to process. And as much as lots of votes might have been by people who thought that the president-elect would somehow save our economy and bring back jobs, and he pandered to that element enough to swing this election, I haven’t seen that part playing out so much…it’s the racially charged rhetoric that scares me. It’s the anger…once again, on both sides that scares me. And while our side gets hysterical and looks at property in Nova Scotia, the other side…when Obama was elected, their hysteria manifested in arming themselves to the teeth and digging their heels in to weather the storm.
I am NOT advocating violence or preparing for violence by buying a gun, far from it. I am making a point about how our bipartisan country thinks. And that we have to arm ourselves in other ways to weather this storm; rolling over and giving up and being cynical about everything means that injustice wins. If you really care about our country, you’ll take this as a call to action and a test of character.
We are Unitarians. We fight for the underdog. We care deeply about social justice issues. I read an editorial in the Washington Post last week that said liberals have gotten hysterical about this because we care so much about social justice and we insist we are right about our views. OK, that’s fair. Our principles are what we are passionate about. We do get hysterical and despondent when our candidate loses like this. But saying that you’re going to leave the country is antithetical to our beliefs…no…we don’t leave the country…we stay and we fight for our principles. This is what we do.
But, Karen…What does that even mean? What do we actually DO? Remember my opening words from the beloved hero of Republicans, Ronald Reagan? “When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.” The first thing we can do is make our voices heard in any and every way we can. We can still go with the smooth transition of power if we must; that’s what’s happened and we have to face it, but it’s no reason to tuck tails and let anyone get away with anything. I’d like to turn the whole “If you see something, say something” on its head. If you see something…like someone making rude comments about immigrants, blacks, gays, women…opinions that are being mainstreamed as we speak, you find your power and you speak up. And save the hysteria for our conversations after church…keep your emotions in check and speak instead with fortitude and conviction, that you won’t stand for race-bashing, or immigrant-bashing, or women-bashing. We don’t have to be argumentative to be passionate.
If it’s a family member or a friend, I suggest trying the Big Mommy Guilt tactic I used on my kids. Instead of yelling and screaming, look hurt, sigh, say, “I’m so disappointed. I thought…well…I thought you respected all of these laws we’ve discussed together and agreed to, but, well, I guess you don’t. That’s unfortunate. I hope we can communicate with love and respect in the future” Cuz I’ll tell you right now that the problems you might have with family who have different views than you do aren’t going to end. Best to keep the relationship intact and talk about…I dunno, recipes, or your garden, or all the things you used to talk about before this rift tore our country in half. It’s easier to get belligerent with family and friends and I caution against it…because emotions are very high right now and high emotions change, but your family doesn’t.
But in more practical terms, if you’re sitting at the bar and someone says something about “those immigrants taking all the jobs,” or “those Syrian terrorists we’re just letting into the country unchecked,” or “those criminals who deserve whatever they get,” or “those black boys in hoodies with guns,” or “those women trying to tell us what to do”…Well, go ahead and say, “What a load of crap. I don’t believe that at all.” Don’t follow that up with “You’re so stupid!.” It only feeds the beast of hate and division. Follow up with, “Why do powerful women scare you? Or why do you think that immigrants are a threat? Or why do you assume that black men are thugs?” These are honest questions, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an honest answer. And if you listen to it and consider it, while sticking to your principles, maybe a real conversation can happen.
Choose your battles is what I’m saying. If your battle is with someone you actually like outside of their politics, try your damnedest to make that a conversation that counts instead of cutting us off from each other. On the larger scale…don’t let this administration to come get away with anything. Let your voice be heard and fight for what you know is right. America is not a place where we register people based on their religion, and I still have enough faith in our Constitution to believe that the voice of the people counts. Please don’t forget that Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote in this country by over 2 million votes so far…more people believed that we are indeed stronger together. Our voices might be quieted for a time out of grief and frustration, but don’t forget that a president who doesn’t have the votes of the actual people does not have anything close to a mandate to make sweeping changes on behalf of his minority. He’s supposed to rule fairly for everyone, so let’s make sure that it happens to the best of our ability. We don’t lie down and let the progress we’ve seen get backtracked to what is essentially, “Make America Hate Again.” I don’t know about you, but I won’t stand for it. I will never keep quiet and just let injustice go unchecked. I’m a liberal. This only makes me want to double down and fight injustice wherever I find it. Remember that we are the voice of the voiceless…we will never back down from the compassion and inclusion that our faith asks of us, and the principles that we live by. I’m really hoping that one consequence of this election is that women and minorities will start running for office in greater numbers than ever, and use their voices to represent us in local and national government.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” That means that it’s our character that counts right now. Are we going to be whiney or are we going to be wise? Are we going to react or are we going to respond? Reacting is easy. Unitarians have never chosen the easy path. We push back when those who don’t have the strength to push can’t. I suggest we face what we have before us with dignity and reason, and we fight for what’s right, no matter what.

11/20/16- Thanksgiving: Grab Your Bootstraps, Count Your Blessings

Sermon 11/20/16 – Grab Your Bootstraps, Count Your Blessings
I think it’s appropriate to begin this sermon with a collective sigh. *sigh.* OK, now we’ve got that over with….Election day has come and gone, and we’ve had almost 2 weeks to process the outcome, which, for many of us, is terrifying. If that’s not how you feel, great, please help us all to try and understand what you understand. I’ll tell you up front that it’s fine to still be really angry, disappointed, confused, and anxious and I know that’s not going to subside any time soon. And god knows there’s plenty to be anxious about. But we’re going to talk about that next week, because this is too important not to. This week, however, we’re going to rally our spirits, count our blessings, and find comfort in this beloved community, because this is the time of giving thanks for the good things that are in our lives.
Last Wednesday, the night after the election, I opened this sanctuary from 6 to 8 pm for anyone who wanted or needed to find others to commiserate with. Ten people showed up from this congregation, though a few were there for a Ministerial Committee meeting that I hijacked in order to make it happen. Because I knew that I didn’t want to be alone, that I wanted to have people to talk to, not on facebook, but face to face, where we could see and feel each other’s pain and hear each other’s fears and frustrations, and give each other the comfort that we weren’t alone in the chaos of our emotions. The ministry committee actually did have our meeting, with everyone else there to add their voices to what we could do as a congregation to make a difference in our community. And setting aside our frustrations for a few minutes in order to think about what we could actually DO, certainly made me feel better, and I hope it made everyone else who was there feel a little better.
I know I wouldn’t have felt so good if I had stayed alone in my own misery, and that’s too often what so many of us do. I’ll tell you honestly, I had to force myself to come here and open the doors, because this hit me pretty hard, but minister is a verb, and that means we do something, anything, we can to help each other. That’s why all of us are here. And for the way we minister to each other, I give thanks. Thank you all for taking care of me as much as I try to care for you. I’m truly grateful for the love and support we share here.
OK…so that’s blessing #1…We have each other (whiteboard?)
(We are Unitarians, after all…this is how we process…)
What else do we have? This election has shown us that the issues our country is dealing with can no longer be put off…there’s an awful lot to think about right now: immigration, LGBTQ issues, women’s issues, racial issues, religious issues…and please don’t forget climate change. Unitarians love this kind of challenge…when the gauntlet of oppression is thrown down, we rise to the occasion, and we’ve been doing that for centuries. We are here to empower the disenfranchised, to insist that justice for all is realized in our communities, and to promote peace and civility in our world. This is what we do…our principles and conscience guide us and we fight for what we know is right. So, if my beautiful assistant will assist me… Let’s call Blessing #2- We fight for what’s right.
And how about this for a blessing…it’s very hard to turn the clock back on big changes in our society. The progress our nation has made toward justice for all may be very hard to undo. There are about half a million same sex couple who are married in the U.S. right now. Do you think those legal unions can be erased by anyone? I don’t think so. Nothing harder than changing paperwork that’s already been processed, right? Do you really think that Roe v. Wade can be overturned at this point? I sincerely doubt it, but at this point I guess anything can actually happen, which is where so much of our anxiety comes from, of course. But change is inevitable, and the longer that time has to do its work, the harder it is to go back to what has already changed and reverse what is already in motion. I’d love to make myself a great figure skater again. It isn’t going to happen. It’s too late. I can still go skating, but I have to accept that my Olympic dreams are probably not going to pan out at this point. We can’t turn back the clock. No matter what happens, there’s no avoiding that the angry white guy is going to be the minority in this country by 2045. That’s not an opinion, it’s biology and math. And the truth of that math makes a lot of people in this country scared. I understand that this election is partially the blowback of that fact…change isn’t just coming, it’s here. So, let’s call Blessing #3- It’s hard to change the changes, and everything changes again.
Another asset we have, collectively, is our creativity and resilience. When we were sitting around the table last Wednesday I admitted to saying that at one point I had thrown up my hands and said, “I’m done with politics!” But as you know I’m a political junky and I know that that was a statement filled with frustration and bluster. I knew when I said it that I didn’t mean it. Because I believe that the only way change keeps happening for the better is because we keep fighting for our principles. I will not concede to tyranny and hate, to bigotry or fear, I will not avoid the fight for freedom and peace and justice, I will, and I hope you all will, undertake to do the hardest work joyfully and with a renewed purpose, because it’s too important not to.
Blessing #4: We are resilient!
And how about this…our kids…old and young…we know what kind of people they are and what we’ve taught them about respect and tolerance, about equality and justice, about bullying and about compassion. You know the values that you’ve instilled into your children and you know what kind of people they are, or what kind of people and parents they’re likely going to be, and that alone should give us hope. Many of our kids were brought up or are being brought up in a world that’s smaller than it’s ever been, because technology lets us reach out to virtually everyone on the planet…we can see each other, hear each other, help each other, understand each other better than ever. And if we use the technology to spread love and not hate, it makes a difference. I believe the younger generations, mine included, are going to insist on a better world. I believe we have the power to do just about anything we set our minds to…if we get off our collective duffs and do it. We’ll talk more about that next week. Let’s call Blessing #5- Our kids will be smarter than us.
So, what else are we thankful for? What are you thankful for? Raise your hand if you have something to be thankful for….
When we think about it we have lots to be thankful for. Because love still trumps hate, always. Isn’t that Jesus’s message right there in a nutshell? Wasn’t that the opus of his struggle; that he so loved the world that he would sacrifice himself to spread his message of peace and love? “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, that you do unto me.” Can I get an amen? Let’s hold tight to that message of compassion and tolerance in this time of division, and hope that it resonates throughout our world. Let’s be here for each other, and let’s do the work that our conscience demands of us, and keep fighting for truth and justice for all.
So, today, before we feast together and share in fellowship, let’s say a prayer of Thanksgiving now, since it’s hard to do it when we’re all in the parish hall.
Great Mystery, Source of All, We give thanks today for the bounty we are about to receive, for all the rough hands who planted, tended, and harvested the crops we eat, and the beasts who gave their lives to sustain us. We are glad to be together, to be with one another in this safe and supportive place; may we be ever grateful for this beloved community. We pray for all of those who go hungry today and those who are alone, here in our own communities and everywhere; may they find sustenance and comfort.
We pray for those who are refugees, be it from another country or from their own sense of connectedness to the world in general, may they find safety and sanctuary. We pray for those who have hate in their hearts, may they receive enough love in their lives to create compassion and empathy. We pray for strength and level-headedness in a time of great anxiety; may we work for peace through peaceful means, while never giving up the fight for truth and justice. And may we all take the time to recognize the many blessings we have, and be grateful. Amen, and SMIB.

10/23/16: Wonder Women

Sermon: I Am Not Your Punching Bag: Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence
You may be wondering why the minister is wearing a Wonder Woman shirt today. I have several reasons. First, Friday was Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday, and the same day, the United Nations made the controversial decision to appoint Wonder Woman as Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of Women and Girls. Many UN staff members and others protested this over concerns that her sexy outfit is not “culturally encompassing or sensitive.” I can see their point, this is an organization that serves many cultures who might find her outfit offensive. But the biggest complaint was that they should have found a real life heroic woman who would be able to champion the rights of all women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for empowerment. I understand and respect the case they are making.
But I’m also kind of tickled that Wonder Woman was given this honor. I know what an effect Wonder Woman had on this little girl. I was born in 1970, just as feminism was really beginning to change things culturally in America, in mostly small ways. If you look at the names on the underside of the footstools in your pews, which were made over the course of the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, you’ll see one obvious change. Many of the early footstools were made by ladies who signed them, for instance, “Mrs. Kenneth Peirce,” and by the 70’s, the makers had claimed their individuality and named themselves; “Maggie Peirce made this stool.”
When I was young, I didn’t know a lot of empowered women. The most powerful women I knew, in fact, were the nuns who were my teachers. And even there I saw how the parish priest was held in a position of higher esteem and seemed to have ultimate control. The real warrior females of my early life were either biblical or fictional. I loved the story of Joan of Arc leading her men with little but her faith and fortitude. I was told that my middle name, Deborah, was that of a great leader of the Israelites in a time and place when it was very unusual for a woman to have that role. I heard stories from my grandmother of the great Irish warrior woman Boudicca. I thought Pipi Longstockings was exactly the kind of go-getter that I wanted to be. And I was lucky enough to be a young lady with access to a television to watch Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. She didn’t report to anyone, like Charlie’s Angels. She was an equal to the other male superheroes. She had an invisible plane, awesome fighting skills, a golden lasso that made people tell the truth, and wristbands that could deflect bullets. She represented truth, justice, and equality. (I would not recommend dressing up like her and yelling her catchphrase, “By the power if Isis!” in an airport.)
I loved my female heroes, but the real world was different. I had more than a few friends whose fathers beat their mothers and I once heard my friend’s mom say those very words, “I am not your punching bag,” to her husband. Most of the women I knew stayed at home to raise the kids, clean the house, make the meals, do the laundry. And if a woman worked outside the house, it was seen somehow as a failing on the man’s part to provide for his family. Since I was a kid, women have come a long way in establishing themselves as strong individuals, but we still have to explain to our daughters why men are mostly still paid more than women for equal work. And why it’s accepted that a candidate for president can joke about his sexual assaults on women, and generally get away with shaming and degrading us.
This is national domestic violence awareness month, and let me say now that domestic violence isn’t something that just happens to women. Here’s a few statistics:
• On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
•1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
•1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
•1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
•On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
And imagine how many more people are victims of psychological or emotional abuse that raise ugly bruises on the inside but people don’t see.
But here’s another statistic:
•1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.
That statistic only represents the reported instances of rape and it’s believed that the numbers are closer to 1 in 3 for women. And how about sexual assault or harassment in its myriad forms? Let’s see, I’ll do this the easy way. Is there any woman in this room right now who hasn’t heard a man make lewd comments about you or other women…who hasn’t been touched or kissed against your will, had a guy flash their genitals to you, been groped by a stranger in a public place, or been intimidated, objectified, degraded, or harassed for being a woman? Anyone? No? I know I’ve had all of those experiences, many on more than one occasion. I know these things also happen to men, and I’m not here to denigrate men or their experiences today, or take away from the abuses that they suffer too. But I’d like to prop up the ladies today, because, let’s face it, we are the ones who have it a little tougher in the realm of domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender inequality.
“Rape culture” is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970’s. It was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence. Rape culture is certainly alive and kicking today and we just saw this blaming the victim play out for millions to see in our presidential debate, and in endless news reports. And just yesterday I saw an article in which the Republican candidate for president said that he was going to sue every woman who claims he sexually assaulted them, in the manner that he himself described and we all heard. Is it any wonder that women and girls rarely report this kind of behavior? I’d like to say it’s surreal, but unfortunately it’s all too real.
How many of you that were sexually assaulted or harassed reported it to anyone aside from a friend or maybe your mom? Our stories of domestic violence or sexual assault can be tough to tell, and tough to hear. But we have to tell them. It’s important to let other women know that they aren’t alone, to let young girls understand the danger, and to let the world know that this stuff happens all the time. We rarely report these things when they happen because we’re afraid, or we think won’t be believed, because we’re ashamed or somehow to blame, because we’re embarrassed or humiliated, because we don’t think anything will be done about it anyhow and it’s easier not to talk about it. Well I’m going to talk about it today.
When I was young, my dad used to volunteer on the weekends at the Sacred Heart monastery in Wareham and often the whole family would go and stay for the weekend in the guest cottage or at the beach house. We ran and played all over the grounds and through the main building where the brothers and priests lived. I loved to go exploring in the main building, it seemed like it went on forever and there were so many cool spaces, like the little sanctuary where they held services on Sunday. When I was about 9 or 10, one of the priests found me walking alone in the long, sunny foyer at the front of the building. I had been walking slowly, enjoying the warmth coming through the big windows and he made a comment about what a glorious day it was. Then he reached down to give me a hug. I thought nothing of it at first. And then he kissed me. On the mouth, with his tongue, and put his hand on my backside. At first I had no idea what to do or what the heck was happening, but I quickly disengaged myself. I remember mumbling, “sorry Father,” before I ran out the door and into the woods, where I walked the Stations of the Cross that were placed at intervals along the trail.
I was confused and embarrassed and I felt like I had done something wrong. This was an adult I knew and liked and he was a friend of my dad’s, and he was a priest. I was a good enough young Catholic at the time to believe that priests were god’s representatives on earth, so…it had to be me who did something wrong. I never told anyone. I made an effort to avoid him and to avoid being alone anywhere after that, but similar unwanted affections happened on a few other occasions over the course of about two more years.
It wasn’t more than ten years ago that I was at my sister’s house and we were talking about the weekends we used to spend there. And she told me that he had been doing the same thing to her at the same time. So if I was between 9 and 11 when this happened, my sister was between 5 and 7 years old. I never even considered that what happened to me might be happening to her too. And I can’t help but wonder if I might have prevented her violations by saying something to someone at the time. That’s why I wanted to share that particular story with you today; because speaking up, and taking a stand when you experience something like that, even if it’s years later, could help some other girl or boy, or woman or man, avoid being assaulted or molested. It takes a lot more courage that I had at 10, and I don’t blame myself for what happened to my sister, and it was a time when these kinds of stories generally went untold. But that’s changed. The time has come.
The great feminist Gloria Steinem said, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” What we have to unlearn is that just because your bigger or stronger, physically or emotionally, doesn’t mean you get to abuse others unchecked. We’re taking a stand. What we have to unlearn is that women don’t deserve to be treated as lesser beings, or held to different standards, than men. We’re taking a stand. What we have to unlearn is thinking that it’s somehow our fault, and not the fault of the aggressor. We’re taking a stand. We’ve got thousands of years of gender inequality to unlearn, so it’s slow going, but be on notice: we’re taking a stand.
Let us no longer be women who wonder; wonder if he’s going to come home drunk and beat us or our kids, or wonder if we’re worthy to be loved and respected, or wonder if anyone will believe us or sue us, or wonder if the guy sitting next to you on the plane is going to grab you and get away with it. We’re taking a stand. Here, now, today, immediately. We will no longer be women who wonder, no! Let us unleash our inner Wonder Woman, and use our awesome skills to fight for justice for the abused, the shamed, the violated, the intimidated.
Our church has long been a supportive environment for women who have been victimized by violence or sexual assault and harassment, and we’ve had a lot of powerful, free-thinking wonder women in this congregation over the years. And I’ll wrap up this sermon by telling those of you who don’t know about one Wonder Woman in particular we are still glad to have as part of this church. Tryne Costa has long been a tireless advocate for social justice in our community. Fred Gifun’s book about our church says that Tryne, “engaged in family violence mediation, and offered workshops in conflict management and active parenting. Other women of the church joined in early discussions with community activists intent on helping victims of violence and domestic abuse in the region. After meeting regularly in a basement office of the church for over two years, the group of church and community leaders founded the New Bedford Women’s Center in 1973.”
So, the Women’s Center, who will be having their annual Domestic Violence vigil here on Tuesday night, started right here, in our church. It’s always a moving experience, and many women and men will get up and tell their stories of overcoming abuse by someone who was supposed to love them. Come if you can, because hearing their stories and telling our own, difficult as it can be, brings these issues into the light, and the darkness is dispelled. Join us Tuesday at 7 if you can, and take a stand.

10/16/16- Us & Them: How Our Morals Bind and Blind Us

Sermon 10/16/16- Us and Them: How our Morals Bind Us and Blind Us
So much of the language we use to describe our country, to define what makes us great, is the language of concord and harmony; “We the people,” “one nation…indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Our name itself, The United States of America, implies that its citizens are in accord. But since long before we became the United States, and agreed to gather around some common ideas about freedom and democracy as they are written in our Constitution, we struggled with beliefs and ideas that divided us, mostly based on our religion and political and social issues. It seems like the more things change the more they stay the same, though, and many of those same things still divide us today.
How can there be “justice for all” when everyone’s sense of justice is different? Is that even possible? The short answer is, No. We have a keen sense of what we find to be just and unjust according to our own moral compass and experience. The old chestnut that says, “You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time,” is, in my experience, True with a capital T. But I think there are ways to be more respectful, patient, and understanding of those on opposite sides of our own beliefs, even if, in the end, you still disagree most heartily.
And to get us closer to some understanding, I need to tell you about a field called moral psychology. Moral psychology, essentially, is about how we come to conclusions about what is right and wrong. It’s similar to ethics studies, but it’s more like ethical field work. What moral psychologists want to know is why something feels right or wrong to us, and what influences how we think about moral ideas like justice and injustice. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote a book in 2012 that should be required reading for all Congressmen, Senators, presidential candidates, and any other elected official, as well as being great reading for anyone who wants to know “why can’t we all just get along?” It’s called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” and I want to lay out some of his ideas today about what makes us all so righteous about our beliefs and what we might do to change how we approach the other side of an argument with someone whose beliefs are very different from your own.
Haidt lays out his theory about our moral foundations with three principles. The first principle is: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. The metaphor he uses to illustrate this is that “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The bottom line is that the elephants rule, and here’s why. Our brains look at everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to our selves thousands of times a day. The brain tags things very quickly as good or bad and motivates us toward an immediate action or reaction. The elephant is intuition and it’s mighty powerful, and prefers things that are familiar and easy. So partially, because of our quick-on-their-toes elephants, we all develop minds that are righteous about a whole lot of things.
The rider, or our thinking and reasoning process, is a relatively new development by evolutionary standards, rooted in language, and doesn’t make decisions as quickly as our instincts do. Haidt says, “The thinking system is not equipped to lead-it simply doesn’t have the power to make things happen-but it can be a useful advisor…The rider is an attentive servant, always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move. If the elephant leans even slightly to the left, as though preparing to take a step, the rider looks left and starts preparing to assist the elephant on its imminent leftward journey, and loses interest in everything off to the right.” (p.66)
As UU’s, we like to think of our rider as having a little more control than that; we appreciate reason, even revere it. The good news is that, although the elephant is powerful, it is not an absolute dictator. When David Hume said that reason is the slave of the passions, his metaphor went too far. A slave is never supposed to question his master, but most of us can think of times when we’ve had to revise our first judgement of a person or a situation, or talked our elephant into ordering the grilled chicken Caesar salad instead of the buffalo chicken mac and cheese. (My elephant and rider are just about even on who wins that argument.) Haidt says it’s more like a lawyer serving a client; the rider might still refuse to go along despite all the elephant’s foot stomping.
So how do we get the elephant to listen to reason? The best way to change our minds on moral issues, it has been shown after years and years of grueling research, and this may surprise you… the best way to change our minds and open them to reason, is by interacting with people who have different views from us. OK, this is not a Eureka moment…and our riders are telling us right now that what I said makes absolutely perfect sense. But really, we are absolutely terrible at seeking out evidence that challenges our beliefs. Luckily, other people do us that favor, just as we are extremely resourceful when it comes to finding errors in other people’s beliefs or reasoning. When discussions are hostile, the odds of changing hearts and minds are slim. Haidt says, “The elephant leans away from its opponent and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges, but if there is any affection or desire to please the other person, the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find truth in the other person’s arguments.” (p.80) This is how reason triggers new intuitions.
So the elephant is the emotion and the rider is the reason, that’s the basic idea of Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology, instinct comes first, reasoning is literally an afterthought. The bottom line that I took away from this, which I will call Karen’s first commandment of cooperation, is: Go into the world and talk to strangers, but not quite as much as you listen to them. We all could use a good dose of shut the heck up, keep calm, and listen, sometimes, just as we all need a good dose of feeling like someone is really listening to us sometimes, especially when we disagree.
Haidt’s second principle is more involved, but really important to understand when we trying to reach across the proverbial aisle, especially in the realm of politics and especially for us righteous liberals. It says: “There’s more to morality than fairness.” We used to tend to think that human behavior was hard-wired or innate, but since the 70’s we’ve made some leaps in changing that perception. Neuroscientist Gary Marcus says that, “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises…’Built in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience.’” I love that concept. I wonder if someone could use it as a legal defense, “you see your honor, I wasn’t irresponsible, I was merely organized in advance of my experience.” Surely the judge would be kind enough to help you organize some new experiences.
Haidt created a list, initially, of five moral foundations to specify how our righteous minds are “organized in advance of experience,” and he tries to explain how that first draft gets revised to create the different moralities we find across cultures and across political spectrums.
These foundations are:
• Harm/Care
• Fairness/Cheating
• Loyalty/Betrayal
• Authority/Subversion
• Sanctity/Degredation
So, what Haidt shows in his research is how the two ends of the political spectrum rely on different foundations in different ways. And he’s found that Liberals rely primarily on the Care and Fairness foundations, whereas Conservatives tend to use all five of these foundations in order to get people’s elephants to lean in one direction or another. You can see this unfold if you observe different media sources objectively. Do your own experiment. Get a checklist together of all these foundations and watch an hour of FOX news and then watch an hour of MSNBC news. You’ll find that Republicans don’t just try and cause fear, as Democrats claim, they trigger the full range of intuitions described by these Moral Foundations. In politics, they have pretty much cornered the market on values like loyalty, authority, and sanctity (in a religious sense at least). Liberals largely reject these considerations. We tend toward personal autonomy rather than group loyalty, questioning authority rather than following blindly, and often, a downright disdain for what we consider outmoded ideas about sanctity, unless they apply to our own issues, of course.
Republicans, it has to be admitted, speak more directly to the elephant, and their basic social unit is the family or small group; groups where order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued. Why do rural working-class Americans generally vote Republican when it tends to be Democrats who fight for worker’s rights? They are voting for their moral interests.
Haidt and his colleagues in this research found that they had to add one more foundation after all was said and done. That’s Libery/oppression, and it’s more of a social evolution, especially in Western cultures, though we have seen this playing out in other parts of worlds as well. It makes people “notice and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together to resist and overthrow bullies and tyrants. This works on the left with egalitarian and antiauthoritarian ideals and on the right with the don’t-tread-on-me anti-government anger of libertarians and some conservatives. But it all comes down to who’s got a bigger bag of peanuts for the elephants.
This brings me to Karen’s second commandment of cooperation: Stop assuming and saying that the opposition is simply stupid. In our righteous minds, that’s really the basest, easiest watering-hole for our elephants to find and there’s no rider involved there. If you really care about cooperation, you’ll start from the assumption that the elephant rules; people’s beliefs are genuinely important to them and they can’t just be dismissed as stupid, and let the riders begin conversations with a gesture of respect or even affection for each other’s elephants. This isn’t easy, I know…
Haidt’s third principle is that morality binds and blinds. He says, “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
The portrait that Jonathan Haidt paints of human nature in the book up to this point is kind of cynical. He essentially argues that “we care more about looking good than truly being good.” (Or in the language of our current political cycle, we’d rather be great than be good.) He says, “We lie, we cheat, we cut ethical corners quite often when we think we can get away with it, and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post-hoc reasoning so well that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue.”
But in the last part of his book he shows us why that portrait is incomplete. Yes, it’s true that we can be selfish and our moral, political and religious behavior can be thinly veiled ways of pursuing self-interest. But we are also groupish. We love to join teams and clubs and churches, and we take on group identity, working together enthusiastically toward common goals. And we can bump that groupishness up to the next level, which can break down even the autonomy of the groups we join. How important was your autonomy when you watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, for instance? How important did anyone feel watching first responders rush toward the danger? And then, how many people, all over the country, despite all the craziness of their own lives, jumped in their cars and rushed toward the danger, too, the only questions on their mind being, “how can I help?” and, ”what can I do?”
Haidt says, “We humans have a dual nature- we are selfish primates who long to be something larger and nobler than ourselves…It’s almost as if there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.”
We can flip the switch when we are in awe of Nature, when we dance ecstatically or chant or sing in a group, or participate in a drum circle, when we meditate or take substances to alter our minds, or when we come to church. And we become even more groupish when we have a common tragedy, like 9/11, and occasionally common joys, like an Olympic win.
We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our reasoning, which makes it hard, but not impossible, to connect with those whose moral matrices developed differently from our own and the bottom line is this: if we don’t play together we won’t work together and we certainly can’t begin to understand enough about each other to know where our similarities lie or why we believe what we believe.
Morality binds and blinds on both sides, we all get sucked into our tribal communities and our own sacred values and then share our arguments about why we are right the other is wrong. So, here’s my third and final commandment of cooperation: Don’t forget that you are just as righteous as the next guy and we all create tiny monopolies over what we call Truth and what think of as Justice. The next time you’re sitting next to someone who has different values than yours, don’t jump right into moral arguments. Talk first about your kids, or your dogs, or what tv shows or music you like. Create a little trust, find a bit of safe common ground, and what might have been heated arguments may become discussions that could make each other’s elephants tango rather tangle, and make our righteous minds a little more reasonable.
Now, I will end with a disclaimer, because our current political melee can no longer be put into the comfortable terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as if there were only two predictable sides to anything anymore. This election has brought all the old hates and fears to the surface, and we’re seeing the dark underbelly of generations of racial resentment, sexist power-plays, and economic elitism come into the light of day, and that ugliness and anger exists on both sides. Emotions are extremely high. This makes it much harder to talk to people whose beliefs are contrary to ours. I admit to being just as flummoxed and frustrated as you probably are right now and it seems like everything is on the line in this election. So, you’re all invited, after some coffee and refreshments, to join me at 12:30 in the Green Room (or maybe in the yard since it’s so lovely outside) for a lively and respectful discussion about our fears and anxieties, as well as how our own righteousness binds and blinds us to the concerns of others.

10/2/16- Rosh Hoshanna: Raise A Noise!

Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 10/2/16
The “New Year” is a movable thing, even in our culture. What we consider the New Year on the calendar begins January 1st, but schools begin their new year in September, as does our church. In the Jewish tradition, they also have different versions of a new year, but Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of their calendar year (year 5777, if you’d like to know). The name Rosh Hashanah, however, does not mean “the new year,” nor “the beginning of the year,” but “the head of the year,” the time when all things, our feelings, our fortunes, and our fate comes to a head and are invigorated with new life.
The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah, literally, “day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets. As you heard in the readings, two of the largest themes are God the King, and Judgement. In synagogue, they will read Genesis 21, the story of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac, their son, with whom God tested Abaram’s faith. I’d love to tell you all about the holiday, but it’s very intricate, with so many aspects that I’ll have to keep to the essence of it for our purposes.
Rosh Hashanah begins a ten day period of examining the life that one has lived over the course of the past year, and articulating hopes and prayers for the year ahead. After the ten days is over, Jews will celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rabbi Irving Greenburg beautifully pronounced the difference between these two holidays when he said, “Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgment.”
I thought about that for a while after I read it. Rosh Hashanah, judgment with mercy, is when we take stock of ourselves, and the judgment is our own. After some reflection, surely all of us will come up with a few instances we can think of when we could have and should have done better, when we missed something important, didn’t do something that, looking back on it, would have really made a difference. And for those things, if we have a conscience and are properly self-reflective, we are sorry.
And Yom Kippur, “mercy with judgment,” well, that’s when we bring all that sorry and put it at the feet of the Universe and say, “have mercy,” before God, Goddess, the Great Spirit, or the Karma of the Universe that will judge what was in our hearts when we went astray from our path.

As Unitarians with diverse beliefs, not too many of us hold with the concept of “sin,” or having to be forgiven by some supreme being for those we commit. (Of course if you were raised Catholic like me you might always have it in the back of your head that you need to confess all the sins you still feel guilty for.) If we don’t believe that the Bible, or the Torah or the Koran, is the end-all and be-all guide to how we live our lives, then “sin” becomes a murky thing. What we do know, as humans and Unitarians, is the concept of right and wrong. We don’t need anyone to tell us that it is right to be compassionate, or not to kill or steal. Any maybe some of our perceptions of right and wrong differ, but that doesn’t really matter here. Because Rosh Hashanah is about looking back at our actions over the course of the last year, with our own conscience looking over our shoulder…and in our hearts we know what we’ve done or haven’t done that we regret, and wish we could change.
This is a good time for a new year, and our seasons support this change. It makes more sense to me, that we should go into the new year just after the world has given birth to a harvest, and humans are preparing for winter. Isn’t this the perfect time to gather all your courage, take stock of both your accomplishments and your failures, and wipe the slate clean to begin again, to get it all out into the light, while it remains, and let it go? It feels right to self-reflect, and make resolutions now, to gird yourself with renewed strength, before the dark descends, and our strength is tested in the cold.
No one likes to admit they’re wrong or that they’ve done harm, at least in public. But Rosh Hashanah isn’t about admitting anything in public, it’s about the private struggle we have within ourselves to make things right. That can be making it right with God, making it right with the Universe or just making it right within our own conscience, I think it’s much the same thing. The work to make it right is what counts. And the Jews are really good at this…their liturgical year is almost a series of rites of passage that take place every year, that guides their soul through the seasons. Marking the changes within themselves and the world around them, binds them together with deep faith and trust, which transcends the mundane world and works directly with the Divine.
And the blowing of shofar is something that is supposed to be transcendent, a tool that lets all the expressions of regret, joy, longing, loss, and renewal be released into the world. Lubavitcher Rebbe says, “We each have times when there is more than we can say, when words cannot communicate the feelings that we have in our heart.” That’s why we blow the shofar today, to say what we can’t possibly say.
Rebbe goes on to say, “Everyone feels special about the High Holidays – “Days of Awe.” The feelings that we experience are our souls’ natural response to the heightened spiritual climate of the times.
The Torah commands us to give expression to the upsurge of these feelings, to call out from the depths of our soul, tapping the essential spark of G‑d that lies at the heart of our beings. Unspoken, above thought, this call resounds in the piercing sound of the shofar.
“Wake you sleepy ones,” ancient Sephardic philosopher Maimonides tells us the shofar is saying. “You who slumber… and forget the truth in the vanities of time. Look to your souls.”
The simple, artless call of the shofar reflects the inner outcry of a Jew’s deepest spiritual potentials. The shofar’s call is not an intellectual statement. Like feelings that are so powerful they cannot be expressed in words, the shofar communicates a message too intense to verbalize. Within the depths of our hearts lies an unlimited spiritual potential; the very core of our being is our Divine soul, an “actual part of G‑d from above.” This potential cannot be grasped in conscious thought, for it is unlimited and unbounded as is G‑d Himself.”
I love this imagery…using the shofar to send all those powerful feelings out into the universe…too intense to verbalize. I think we can relate to that. And I think there are plenty of times when intellectual statements just don’t give us what we need, spiritually, especially in a denomination like ours who likes to call reason and intellect to the table as much as mystery and/or divinity. But it’s the same reason we love to hear Randy play, and we sit here through the postlude; we are drawn to that which soothes our soul, but words do no justice to. That’s when we feel the real effects of the growth of our being, I think: in the sound of trumpets, in the music, in the quiet…but rarely in the intellectualizing.
Judaism is one of our “sources” as Unitarians, but I want to make it clear that we are not trying here today to culturally appropriate anything or diminish their beliefs in any way by our quite possibly clumsy interpretations of one of their deeply spiritual High Holy Days. I think that their long history and traditions have a lot to offer us as Unitarians; for reflection and inspiration, but also for the symbolism and rituals that mark life’s passages in their liturgical year.
As a Pagan, (and Pagans are notorious cultural appropriators), many of the rituals of Judaism fit right in with the personal rituals of change that we perform, and they can be powerful tools for soul work. So I want to respectfully appropriate two of the best elements of Rosh Hashanah: the shofar, and another practice called Tashlich.
So, I hope you’ve started thinking about all your “sins” because I’d like us all to take part in a double ritual; one that takes place together, and one that we do alone, loosely according to Jewish tradition, but with our own flair. At the end of this sermon I will ask for a moment of silence for you to gather your thoughts, just a beginning, concerning what you might have done in the past year that weighs on your soul. Even beginning this work can be beyond words, so after a moment of reflection, Neil will sound the shofar three times. And I while he blows the shofar, I’d like you to think about all of the past regrets and mistakes being blown away by the mercy of a universe that, for some reason, seems to want us to succeed and to be a force of good in our world.
And then, when you go home… Tashlich. think harder, think about what has shaped who you are, what kind of person you want to be, and how you might accomplish that in some small measure over the year to come. This is traditionally done on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, so if you want to make this part of your spiritual practice today, that’s great, but if you want to take a few days, I think that’s ok too. So you take a piece of bread (and I just happen to have a challah bread up here, which I have blessed) and put it in your pocket or hold it in your hand while you think about the past, your regrets, and what you wish you could change. And you put all your guilt about it in the bread, ask for mercy from the universe, and toss the bread in “living waters,” which can be an ocean, river, or stream…anywhere water moves and renews itself.
This seems like a simple and perfect way to symbolically clean our slate for the year to come, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to boost the symbolism for myself by pulling over on Fish Island on my way home, walking to the just the right spot on the bridge, and tossing my bread into the water so the current pulls it under the bridge. Maybe I’ll bring my own horn to blast a good one into the harbor for all the things I can’t verbalize. You can call such rituals silly, or superstitious, but I’ve found that intention, and action, even if it’s only symbolic, brings us one step closer to our goals, and feels like progress. It’s soul work, and it works when you work it, however that may be.
On this Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, may we find the strength to be honest with ourselves, face our fears and failures, make amends in our hearts, think about what we can do to be better people in the year to come, and cast off our guilt into the flowing waters, that they may be carried away, leaving us renewed and invigorated as we enter the new year.
We will end with a moment of silent contemplation, then Neil will do us the honor of blowing the shofar.

Sermon 9/18/16- Politics, Principles, and the Pulpit

Sermon 9/18/16 Politics, Principles & the Pulpit

Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, who was famous for his scathing commentary on do-nothing officials and the media of his time, once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” I wonder how old Sam would react to our current combustible political climate and the media circus that gave birth to it, feeds it, and encourages it to grow. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and thanks to the internet, everyone’s opinions are out there. Journalists are supposed to report facts, that’s what I was taught anyhow. But facts and opinions too often melt into one big media nightmare, and “journalism” has become a rather loose term, no longer dependent on facts, and anyone with a blog and a bone to pick can call themselves a journalist.

I admit to being a political junky. Like any addict, it’s the first thing I do in the morning- check my newsfeed on my phone-and I have to get a fix every few hours, to make sure I don’t miss anything. I don’t watch television, thank goodness, because I might never get anything done, but I do read news from a slew of sources, follow a bunch of blogs, and I usually have public radio playing in the background. Because our media has been sort of split down the middle, liberal sources versus conservative sources, I’m sure that there are many people out there who was say I was totally uninformed, despite all the information that I devour. I might say the same about them.

It all comes down to our sources, right? Our sources, the ones we choose to expose ourselves to, are the ideas that shape our opinions about current events, and even about history. And the Truth that we glean from our multitude of sources doesn’t always have that clean line around it that makes us believe what is being reported. Several years ago late night talk show host Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness,” which is a truth that isn’t necessarily based on facts, but, instead, feels true, which is good enough for most people.

This election cycle has been chock full of “truthiness;” in fact, the bar of truth has been lowered right to the floor to the point where whatever nonsense comes out of either candidate’s mouth is being reported as if it were a fact. Frankly, it’s maddening. The whole thing. It makes me crazy. Nonetheless I find it very hard to look away. About a month ago I started to think about how this election might be effecting all of you, and it struck me that I had some responsibility to give you some spiritual comfort here, a respite from the anxiety of wondering which direction our country is going. But I also realized that pretending for an hour once a week that none of the craziness is happening, not facing the issues and the anxiety, doesn’t do you any favors either. A balance must be struck, and I’m hoping we can do this work together.

The theme I want to focus on this year is “Issues and Ethics,” or, in UU-speak it might be better to say “Problems and Principles.” Once a month I’m going to tackle an issue, and I’d like your input on what issues concern you the most. We’ll look at how it affects us in the service, and then we’ll have a discussion after church, at 12:30 in the Green Room, starting today for any of you who’d like to hang around and talk about politics and the pulpit. I want to create a safe and supportive place, where no one will give you headaches for your opinions, and I’m hoping we can have some good, meaty, reasonable conversations about the issues we all face. I think this is a healthy thing to do.

But these first couple of months here hold a special kind of anxiety about our upcoming election. There’s been lots of discussion in the news lately about politics and the pulpit, and that’s what I want to address here specifically. Lots of people think that there’s no room in the pulpit for politics. And when it comes to endorsing candidates from the pulpit, I think they’re absolutely right. Our laws prohibit it, in fact. But politics is a big, broad term and it encompasses all these issues we’re concerned with. The early Quakers on this landscape who rebelled against violence, slavery, and religious persecution, were certainly taking a political viewpoint on the issues of their time. The social justice causes we support now, and have supported for generations as a liberal church, are also political. There’s no avoiding it. But we, like our Quaker friends, react to the issues of the day according to our principles, based on spiritual sources, and common ethical guideposts.

So how do we approach this? First, let me give you the facts, not “truthiness” on what the law says about churches and how political they can be, legally. And this might surprise you. Guess who put the idea out there that churches had to keep politics completely out of the pulpit? It was us. Liberals, I mean (and I may be making some large assumptions about y’all, but you’re probably pretty liberal if you’re here right now). Remember Newt Gingrich and the rise of the religious right, and “family values?” Churches started to have a lot more power in the political realm, white evangelical churches especially. And liberals cried foul on how political some churches were becoming and the influence they were having on elections. We’re supposed to have separation of church and state, right?

Well, yes…and no.  By not taxing churches, the government is prevented from directly interfering with how those churches operate. By the same token, those churches are also prevented from directly interfering with how the government operates…they can’t endorse any political candidates, they can’t campaign on behalf of any candidates, and they can’t attack any political candidate such that they effectively endorse that person’s opponent. So, I can’t get up here and tell you who I think you should vote for or not vote for. As a minister, however, there is nothing to prevent me from endorsing, or even campaigning for, any candidate I like personally, and making it known outside of the church. Being a pastor, congregation member, or a church doesn’t negate our First Amendment rights.

What churches can do politically is pretty broad. We can invite political candidates to speak as long as we don’t explicitly endorse them and they aren’t endorsing other candidates. We recently had Elizabeth Warren here, and we filled this sanctuary to capacity. It was wonderful. But in my first phone call with her staff I asked many questions to make quite sure that this would not be a stump speech for the Democratic candidate. She assured me that Senator Warren wanted to talk about income inequality, and that’s something that our principles support, so we were on safe ground.

Churches can hold voter registrations, hand out material about election questions, hold political debates, as long as both sides are represented, even give money to lobbyists, though it can’t exceed 5% of the budget. They can speak out about a wide variety of political and moral issues, including very controversial matters like abortion and euthanasia, war and peace, poverty and civil rights.

Commentary on such issues can appear in church bulletins or newsletters, in purchased advertisements, in news conferences, in sermons, and wherever else the church or church leaders would like their message to be transmitted. What matters is that such comments are limited to the issues and not where specific candidates and politicians stand on those issues.

It’s a very fine line of course, because we’re not idiots. We are well aware of which candidates support the issues that we’re concerned with as Unitarians, so…aren’t we indirectly supporting a candidate when we talk about LGBT rights, or social justice, or Black Lives Matter? No. Our UU principles inform our values, and discussing issues that have an effect on our lives, physically, intellectually, and spiritually, is exactly why we’re here. We’re supposed to reflect on what moves us. We’re supposed to be passionate about our beliefs. We’re supposed to wrestle with our conscience. That’s what all churches do and it doesn’t have to be an election year for those things to matter.

Now, considering how much we hear about politics in the pulpit and claims about churches going overboard, you would think that churches lose their non-profit status all the time, right? Well, there have been some watchdog groups formed over the past few years to try and monitor political speech in churches, but apparently the IRS has a very small staff for auditing and investigating claims, and a church losing its 501c3 status is pretty rare. In 2014, over 1600 pastors made election speeches and sent tapes of them to the IRS more or less daring them to do something about it.  The IRS response was underwhelming at best and sparked a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was withdrawn after the IRS somehow convinced them that it would do something about it.  Little has happened, however. It’s kind of surprising, one would think the IRS would want to milk the sacred cash cow if and when it could, it’s a pretty privileged status that saves us a lot of money. But between a lack of IRS staff, a First Amendment that gives us a rather broad freedom of speech and religion, and a political climate where taking away a church’s tax status might cause cries of “religious persecution,” I can see why the headlines don’t read “Another Political Church Made to Pay Taxes.”

So, this year, we’ll tackle some issues, tell stories that move us, and discuss our passions and our concerns, as always, and we’ll keep the candidates out of this sanctuary. But there will be no avoiding the bombardment of presidential politics for the next 50 days. As we count those days down, I know my own election anxieties will grow, as I’m sure yours will. I know sometimes you’ll want to scream (I recommend going to West Island or a similar beach and finding a lonely spot where your screams can be absorbed and no one will call the police). We know how frustrated the candidates and the media will make us and how relationships will be affected because of who supports whom. But this is our sanctuary, a welcoming place for all people and all opinions, and god knows we have some strong opinions.

Remember that we are in a safe place of beloved community here, where we can talk about issues reasonably, without screaming at each other. And I hope that we can have some meaty, thoughtful discussions this year, and challenge each other’s thinking without judgment, falling back on agreeing to disagree instead of the vitriol many of us are exposed to on social media.

There’s high emotions flowing everywhere in our country. And on Sundays, lots of us come to church for peace. I think that peace and passion can sit comfortably side by side, as you sit side by side now. The peace comes from facing our deepest concerns together, listening to each other, singing together, and feeling like we’re part of a community that cares.