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Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle
Paramus, NJ
Rev. Matt is a Unitarian Universalist minister and author.
Interests: Unitarian Universalism, church growth, congregational systems, pastoral counseling
Recent Activity
I doubt anyone is still reading this blog, but just in case... I'm discontinuing this blog and starting a new one at: http://www.godzonepreacher.com Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2013 at The Indefinite Article
Here's the link to my latest Patheos.com blogpost: <a href="http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2012/10/in-1492/"> http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2012/10/in-1492/</a> Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2012 at The Indefinite Article
This is a link to my latest blog post at Patheos.com http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2012/09/judge-not/ Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2012 at The Indefinite Article
Heres a link to my latest blog post at Patheos.com: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2012/07/every-jot-and-tittle/ Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2012 at The Indefinite Article
My response to Ross Douthat's op-ed piece: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2012/07/a-response-to-can-liberal-christianity-be-saved/ Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2012 at The Indefinite Article
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I'm always a little perplexed about human-made calendars (currently the dominant Gregorian) that bring us leap years, seven day weeks, months of different lengths, etc. that don't quite match the natural cycles of our immediate cosmos. Like so many human conventions, the Gregorian calendar was an attempt by the Catholic church to control celebrations of Easter. Of course, some cultures also use other calendars based on events of great importance in their particular histories. After all, If it only took God seven days to create the universe with time for rest, then just imagine what we could do in a week's time. All an attempt, in my humble opinion, to control the uncontrollable forces of the universe. What's wrong with the naturally occurring cosmic dance of 365-ish turns in the course of one major revolution around the sun (creating days, seasons, and years), with predictable pushes and pulls from the moon (creating daily tides and months)? It's quite elegant on its own. And so, I quietly celebrated the new year at the moment of the turn of the seasons from autumn to winter not quite two weeks ago, when the days (in the northern hemisphere) reached their nadir and began getting longer. As people the world over ring in the New Year during the curent turn of the earth on its lopsided axis, whether their days and nights are getting longer or shorter, Whether the tide is high or low, we would do well to think on what we can and cannot control in our lives. Perhaps this is why we make New Year's resolutions. Transitions, natural or synthetic, are good times for transformations. We can't transform the processes of the universe no matter the mask we throw on them. We can't even change others. We can only work on ourselves. As one of my mentors says, our task is to shift from "attempting the impossible--changing others--to the merely difficult--changing myself." (Margaret Marcuson). My next post will be about my resolutions for this year, which began about 9 revolutions ago. Blessings, Rev. Matt Continue reading
Posted Dec 31, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
I am providing posts for the UU Christian Fellowship Virtual Monastery in January. Here is a link to the first of six: http://www.uuchristian.org/M_VirtualMonastery.html Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
This article by my colleague, Peter Boullata says what I've been saying for years, but he says it better. We get our own needs met tenfold in service of others. If you don't believe that, you haven't served others. A must read for all Unitarian Universalists http://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/ Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle is now following Anoosha12
Nov 18, 2011
My values and my ministry are founded largely on the struggle for justice. I preach regularly as a counter-culture voice against the status quo. I have preached against corporate personhood, and have called for a radical revision of the U.S. Constitution with the goal of better protecting human rights. I am one of countless millions of victims (or is recipients a better word?) of the crumbling U.S. economy, trying with difficulty to raise a family, and wondering whether either of my two pensions will ever be sufficient to allow me to retire. And yet, I am struggling with whether I can support the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many colleagues, parishioners, friends, and others will be angry at me for saying that I don't support mass protest of our nation's oppressive financial sector. But for now, I don't. At some level, I want to. I want to scream out, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" I agree that we have created an oppressive economic structure that will eventually crumble beneath its own weight, bringing all of us down with it if left unchecked. But that's also why I am struggling with taking to the streets in emotional outrage, righteous indignation, with a litany of demands, as being an effective means of countering the system. First, we created this mess. Not you and I per se--but in the short span of 200+ years, a quarter of which I have witnessed, our not-so-distant ancestors erected an economy founded on occupation, conquest, and slave labor. We (you and I) have perpetuated it as consumers par excellence, even if only in allowing ourselves to be manipulated by it. Ironically, every ideology that has sought either through rhetoric or action to destroy our noble democratic experiment of freedom, equality, and justice for all, has done so by attacking or predicting the demise of our economic system. The Soviets knew they would never defeat the west militarily. Their openly admitted goal was economic victory. Communist (or is it now capitalist?) China is now attempting the same without shame or secrecy. Those fringe ideologues who attacked us physically ten years ago, attacked Wall Street at least partially because of U.S. economic world domination and oppression. Are those the footsteps we want to follow in? In the past year, as in years past, we have watched people in many nations courageously take to the streets to overthrow oppressive regimes with some measure of success. However, those regimes were not founded upon the primacy of the people. They were not representative democracies (or even republics) created with inherent checks and balances, of the people, by the people, for the people. Ours was and is. We are already in charge. To try to topple our own nation's economic infrastructure through an admittedly anarchic strategy of occupation is to commit social and cultural suicide. It is knocking down our own house of cards rather than building it stronger. If these efforts are successful, we will all suffer. I am not saying that peaceful protest and even well-placed civil disobedience are not useful tactics. They are often incredibly important elements of a larger strategy. I simply think better strategies and tactics could be employed to fix a broken economic system that is the pulse of our capitalist (or is it socialist?) nation, for better or worse. Perhaps we should just stop using the system for our own gain and comfort with such wild abandon. This isn't so hard to do if those of us with something to sacrifice would be willing to do so. I am changing my bank accounts from the well-known giant I use for convenience to my member-owned bank. I plan to start using cash almost exclusively for daily tranasctions. I have closed some credit accounts than I no longer need. I am again looking more closely at how my 401K retirement account is invested. There are many other steps that we can take as consumers to quickly get the attention of a failing economy. We own it, we feed it, we drive it. It is of the people, by the people, for the people. They (Wall Street) use OUR money, which WE choose how to spend. Wall Street couldn't care less if every citizen of the world takes to the streets, as long as we keep lining their corporate pockets. Changing our spending habits will, however, get their attention quickly. Again, I know that this will be an unpopular position among my usual associates. I know that there are many more complexities to this critical issue. I agree that we have slowly created a system of economic apartheid under the guise of the American dream. I know that many with extreme wealth exploit the system and everyone in it. I know that many living in poverty don't have the leverage that I have. I know that the rapidly growing poverty gap must be fixed soon before this house of cards comes tumbling down on all of us. But again, this is exactly the point. Those of us with some leverage CAN make a rapid difference by rapidly changing our spending and voting habits with which we feed the system. My bias is that I have most often effected change and countered the status quo from within the systems I have been a part of, not by tearing them down from the outside. Some will simply call me a hack, a company man, a stooge. But isn't changing a system from within the truest manifestation of revolution? Didn't Jesus ride through the gates of Jerusalem knowing full well what he was doing? One final point. Occupation? Isn't occupation and oppression what we are trying to overcome? Aren't the people occupying Wall Street and main streets all over the nation and world the same people who oppose military and ideological occupations? How can we occupy what is already ours? We can take it back, but we can't "occupy" it like an army. If we are truly a nation of the people, by the people, for the people. If we are truly a nation founded by people of faith who espoused the virtues of neighborly love and care, then let us move beyond the language and symbolic practice of the violence and oppression that we oppose and go deeper. Let us create a beloved community without tearing down the entire forest, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, without the militaristic language and practice of occupation. With all that said, I want to be proven wrong. I want the "occupiers" to be successful in tearing down oppression. I just want them to be smart, careful, clever, and creatively subversive. Much like Jesus was. Jesus turned over the money changers' tables too. But that was a small part of his revolution. His was a revolution of the mind, body, and spirit. I see people taking to the streets. I want to see people occupying hearts and minds with justice, equity, and compassion. Maybe I'm just getting old and mellow. Maybe I am too much a part of the system to any longer change it. But maybe not. Maybe changing the world one heart, or one dollar, at a time is still the best way. Blessings, Rev. Matt Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
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"Why?" It was many years ago now, but I can still remember the first time my eldest son asked that question. He was three years old. I was telling him to do something (I don't remember what). Instead of responding with the worn-out and parent-torturing two-year-old anthem, "No!" he invoked the three-year-old, even more disturbing and existential, "Why?!" Oh no. Now I had to answer him, reason with him, and know things. Of course, I was well-prepared with my best parental response, "Because I said so!" This, of course, didn't work. It just perpetuated a string of "Whys?" Three year olds are not the only ones who repeatedly ask why. Therapists do it too. They call in inference-chaining. The idea is to repeatedly ask the client "Why?" to each subsequent answer about their presenting problem or feelings. This moves them closer and closer to their deeper issues. I think this is also the reason young children ask, "Why?" "Because" isn't the answer they want. They want to go deeper, to learn something they don't know, to explore life's core. "Why?" is a very human question. Beyond being a learning tool and a means to deeper understanding of ourselves, it can also be an existential call for help. "Why me?" "Why them?" "Why not?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Very simply, to ask why is to be aware of our desire not just for learning, but for difference or change, to ask for help, to be aware of both opportunity and tragedy. It is to be aware of the divine. In our ability to ask "Why?" we are the universe becoming aware of itself. Sometimes, the answer to "Why?" is neither "Because" nor some deeper insight. Sometimes, the answer is simply, "I don't know," or as Jesus was know for doing, asking a question in return instead of providing an answer. "Why" lives In the realm of uncertainty and discernment. To provide an answer too quickly (despite the child's natural inclination for concreteness) risks disturbing the creative process. Unquestioned answers are far more dangerous than unanswered questions. Investigation, discernment, and creativity take time. Perhaps the best response to the "Whys?" that come our way is, "Why, indeed?" Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
September, 8, 2011 On September 9, 2001, I led a small Sunday worship discussion with several young adults at the University of Illinois. We were talking about the watershed events in our lives and world. My generation remembers the moon landing, Elvis’ death, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. The generation before me remembers the assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedys. The generation before that remembers the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the A-Bomb a few years later. The young adults in that worship service on September 9 said they didn’t have any such events in their lives. That would change just 48 hours later… Some say that the world changed on September 11, 2001. But violence and evil have always existed. Human beings have always been capable of and too often willing to engage in the unimaginable. We can read about the most horrific human terror in even the most ancient manuscripts written across the millennia. The world didn’t change ten years ago. It simply continued in the reality explained to us in Ecclesiastes–that there is a time for everything, and there is nothing new under the sun. Even the U.S. didn’t really change ten years ago. Our ancestors have repeatedly seen tragedy of epic proportions in poverty, war, slavery, and genocide in just the past few hundred years. What happened that day was that we once again lost our innocence. The unimaginable happened to us. All of us. As with natural disasters, few people never feel safe (and are always fearful) in the aftermath of terror. This is because we lose our sense of control, and so our natural instinct is to regain that control. The problem is that none of us can control the hate of another. We can only control our own feelings of love and hate. “There is a season for everything under the sun…” Vengeance, as natural as that response is to our human sensibilities, doesn’t work. As Dr. King said: Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. And so, ten years later, as prophets and sages have been calling us to do since the beginning of time, we are again called to love one another–to live our lives to the fullest despite the uncontrollable realities of the world. We are called also to remember that good and evil happen to both saint and sinner. We needn’t respond with cynicism or hopelessness to life’s unavoidable tragedies. Quite the contrary, our fragile existence, and the certainty that one day each of us will meet death, are the very things that call us not to take life for granted–to “eat, drink, and be merry,” as Ecclesiastes also encourages–to live with faith, hope, and love in the face of evil. On this anniversary, our grief remains strong. For some of us, vengeance is still a temptation. But all of us are called to the difficult and painful process of healing–of letting go–letting go of all hope for a different yesterday–letting go of some of our memories of tomorrow–letting go of our anger and hate so that we can make room for joy and love. Looking forward to the life that awaits us rather than reliving the one that has formed us. As Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” There is a time for everything under the sun. Blessings, Rev. Matt Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
August 14, 2011 This summer I didn't get as much reading done as I would have liked, but I did start listening to music more intently again. Mostly when I am driving and running. So, I decided to compile my top 40 song list. It was both a simple and difficult task. Compiling was easy. Ranking them was tough. These aren't necessarily the "best" songs ever recorded, but they are my favorites. Interestingly, if I were to select my favorite albums, rather than songs, the list would be altogether different. For example, some of my favorite albums are the Grey's Anatomy soundtracks, but only one song from three albums made this list. Why these are my favorite songs is a mixed bag. Some of them speak to me deeply on a spiritual or emotional level. Others have been very influential at different points in my life. And the rest just rock! I was also surprised in the end that this is a pretty serene list overall, even though there are several different genres. So here's the list from 1 to 40: (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding Blue Boat Home - Peter Mayer Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) - Green Day Landslide - Dixie Chicks Over The Rainbow - Eva Cassidy Imagine - John Lennon Redemption Song - Bob Marley & The Wailers Amazing Grace - Ani DiFranco You Can't Always Get What You Want - The Rolling Stones The Sound of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye By My Side - [Godspell] Elizabeth Sastre and Jacqueline Dankworth Piano Man - Billy Joel I Am The Walrus - The Beatles The Long Way Around - Dixie Chicks One of Us - Joan Osborne Stairway To Heaven - Led Zeppelin Nowhere Man - The Beatles Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles A Day In The Life - The Beatles Swimming To The Other Side - Emma's Revolution Hallelujah - k.d. lang I Honestly Love You - Olivia Newton-John Holy Now - Peter Mayer Southern Cross - Crosby, Stills & Nash Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival Scarborough Fair/Canticle - Simon & Garfunkel Can't You See - The Marshall Tucker Band Truth No. 2 - Dixie Chicks Graceland - Paul Simon Chasing Cars [Acoustic] - Snow Patrol Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - The Beatles Puff, The Magic Dragon (Live) - Peter, Paul & Mary Love Me Tender - Elvis Presley House of the Rising Sun - The Animals Love Shack - The B-52's The Christians And The Pagans - Dar Williams Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - Jewel Jericho Road - Joan Baez Continue reading
Posted Aug 14, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
July 27, 2011 When I turned 20, I thought I was invincible--but I wasn't. When I turned 30, I thought people would start taking me seriously--but they didn't. When I turned 40, I was sure they never would--but they did. I alway thought that when I turned 50, I wouldn't care what others thought. I always thought that I wouldn't care about getting older. I turn 50 this week--and I care. I shouldn't care. I don't feel 50. I train for and run at least one marathon a year. I completed an Ironman triathlon just a few years ago. Fifty is the new 40, after all. Right? So, I was taken completely by surprise in recent weeks when I started feeling old-- and not liking it. It didn't make any sense. I had long looked forward to my 50s. I'd already had my midlife crisis, albeit early, which led me both to ministry and a more active lifestyle of long distance running, biking, and swimming. Most of my high school classmates have made the transition with grace and good health. So, why has this become more of a burden than a blessing? What am I so worried about? Even Jesus said, "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:34 ESV) Perhaps, it's because I'm entering the decade in which my father died (he was 59)? Or because neither my siblings, nor my cousin, nor my best friend ever made it this far? Maybe it's because my body, which still serves me very well, nonetheless needs several daily medications to stay balanced? Is it because I've accomplished so much in my first half-century, with three successful careers and raising a family, that I wonder whether I can do as well in the second half? Each of these certainly plays a role, but aren't the primary object of my concern... Very simply, this mental milestone has put me face-to-face with my own mortality. It's not the first time. It won't be the last. Too many others find themselves on the other side of this life without warning or without fairness. We, who are still on this side of life, are blessed to have this mirror of our mortal selves held up for us, however clearly or dimly we may see. This self awareness, the ability to contemplate our mortality, is what makes us human. It is a key to our survival and success. Indeed, here can be found our likeness to God. In Genesis, God created all that exists, not all at once, but in steps over time. And at each step, God reflected and recognized the good in each creative process. We follow humbly in God's cosmic footsteps as tiny co-creators on this small, wet, warm, ball of dirt on the fringes of our 14 billion year old, perhaps middle-aged universe. We have the seeming miraculous ability to look out into the abyss, simultaneously into the past and the future, and see that it is good. We are literally the universe being aware of its mortal self. We can see that our days are numbered, either by the hundreds of billions or by a few tens of thousands at best, depending on how one counts the days in a life. And so, I care. My days are numbered. As a middle-aged marathon man, I have another 10 or 15 thousand (but not 20) sunrises left in me--if I'm lucky. My task is to live each day as if it were my last, because one of them will be. In the meantime, I will ride this blue boat home for all it's worth, making each day matter, letting tomorrow be anxious for itself. I will be 50 this week--and it is good. Continue reading
Posted Jul 27, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
May 3, 2011 Last night, I watched the news of Osama bin Laden’s death with great interest. I also watched the impromptu celebrations at the White House and at Ground Zero with great sorrow. I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. I minister daily to people who were in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 and who lost friends or family members in that attack. I am also a retired naval intelligence officer. I had friends and colleagues who were killed and injured in the Pentagon that day. Bin Laden’s death is the culmination of nearly 20 years of tireless and difficult counterterrorism work. The operation carried out by special forces was one of extreme courage, heroism and personal sacrifice. How can we not be proud of those who risk their lives every day in extraordinary ways? And as difficult as it usually is, my faith also tells me that we are to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. Every breath I take is guided by this nearly impossible but absolutely essential task. This is not a time for celebration, nationalism and bravado. It is a time for prayer, for honoring those who have died at bin Laden’s hand and for continuing the very difficult work of creating a more peaceful world. Also published in the Editorials section of The Record by North Jersey Media Group on May 2, 2011. Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
April 25, 2011 I have often heard Unitarian Universalist ministers and others call Easter the most troublesome of holidays. I have listened to sermons that ridiculed the resurrection story. I’ve never understood this confusion or rejection of Easter. I find Easter uniquely compatible with modern Unitarian Universalism. Every faith tradition has its stories around new light and new life, about resurrection and renewal, the cycles of the earth and life on it. That’s the easy part. Beyond that, resurrection stories were a common literary and device in first century Judea. But let’s go deeper… The story of the empty tomb in all four gospel accounts is filled with ambiguity, unknowns, doubt and disbelief. If that isn’t a reflection of Unitarian Universalism, I don’t know what is. In Mark, Luke, and John, when Mary finds the tomb, the stone is already rolled away. There is no explanation as to how it was moved, and no attempt to find out. In Matthew, an angel comes down and rolls the stone away. The story in each case intentionally questions the status quo. Tomb stones are not generally moved by angels or mysteriously by themselves. Next, the women find the tomb empty, except for an angel who tells them Jesus is risen. They are immediately afraid and they run away. Then, when Jesus appeared to Mary and to others, some didn’t believe it was him. They were filled with doubt. We Unitarian Universalists are masters of doubt. Each new day, each sunrise, there is something new to learn, a new experience and mystery to be solved because we specialize in empty tombs. On our search for truth and meaning, we most often look in the empty space. We search through the sometimes frightening world of ambiguity more than the comfort of certainty. In the surprise of the empty tomb we are forced to look within ourselves for meaning, and not just rely on that which we can see and understand clearly. When we find something that seems clear, we continue to struggle through our doubt and disbelief as a means to better understanding rather than confusion. More importantly we find our faith in the process rather than the destination. We find it in the process of the sun rising everyday, rejoicing in each new day no matter how tragic or triumphant. Each morning breaking brings with it unlimited opportunities and possibilities. New light and new life come with every morning. Empty tombs are alive and well. Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
April 25, 2011 I have often heard Unitarian Universalist ministers and others call Easter the most troublesome of holidays. I have listened to sermons that ridiculed the resurrection story. I’ve never understood this confusion or rejection of Easter. I find Easter uniquely compatible with modern Unitarian Universalism. Every faith tradition has its stories around new light and new life, about resurrection and renewal, the cycles of the earth and life on it. That’s the easy part. Beyond that, resurrection stories were a common literary and device in first century Judea. But let’s go deeper… The story of the empty tomb in all four gospel accounts is filled with ambiguity, unknowns, doubt and disbelief. If that isn’t a reflection of Unitarian Universalism, I don’t know what is. In Mark, Luke, and John, when Mary finds the tomb, the stone is already rolled away. There is no explanation as to how it was moved, and no attempt to find out. In Matthew, an angel comes down and rolls the stone away. The story in each case intentionally questions the status quo. Tomb stones are not generally moved by angels or mysteriously by themselves. Next, the women find the tomb empty, except for an angel who tells them Jesus is risen. They are immediately afraid and they run away. Then, when Jesus appeared to Mary and to others, some didn’t believe it was him. They were filled with doubt. We Unitarian Universalists are masters of doubt. Each new day, each sunrise, there is something new to learn, a new experience and mystery to be solved because we specialize in empty tombs. On our search for truth and meaning, we most often look in the empty space. We search through the sometimes frightening world of ambiguity more than the comfort of certainty. In the surprise of the empty tomb we are forced to look within ourselves for meaning, and not just rely on that which we can see and understand clearly. When we find something that seems clear, we continue to struggle through our doubt and disbelief as a means to better understanding rather than confusion. More importantly we find our faith in the process rather than the destination. We find it in the process of the sun rising everyday, rejoicing in each new day no matter how tragic or triumphant. Each morning breaking brings with it unlimited opportunities and possibilities. New light and new life come with every morning. Empty tombs are alive and well. Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
Keynote Address by Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle Bergen County, New Jersey Birthday Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Temple Emeth, Teaneck, NJ January 17, 2011 Have you ever been to a historic site and tried to evoke some sense of the incredible events that took place there, or to imagine standing next to the people who made that history? I’ve been to the train station in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa where Mahatma Gandhi was ejected from the train because of the color of his skin and thereby embarked on his path of nonviolence…but Gandhi was not being ejected that day. I went to the Parliament building a few blocks away where he later protested, but again he was absent. I’ve been to the sacred ground of Hiroshima and Nagasaki….but all was calm except for the tears that flowed without ceasing, mine included, from those who realized the inhumanity of what happened there only 65 years ago. I have stood many times on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood and spoke of his dream. But Dr. King was gone and his words were not audible. I received my seminary diploma from the writing desk of 19th-century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, and wondered if it was the same desk where he kept a pistol to help runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad in the 1840s. But neither the pistol, nor Parker, nor the prophetic words that he penned at that desk were present, and so I could not ask. I have been to so many of the historic sites around the world and in our own country where blood was shed, where freedom was won, where transformational assemblies occurred, where prophetic words were spoken, and where generations were inspired, but there was no one to ask about what had really happened there. Every age has its watershed moments, its messengers, its prophets, its historic events, but they are all gone in this moment. We are now the keepers of their dreams. Dr. King was a modern day prophet who explained his dream time and again and paid the ultimate price for preaching the same message of love and compassion that the prophets before him had preached. His genius was that he carried on the message of his predecessors. Dr. King was particularly fond of using a message by Theodore Parker, whose pistol I mentioned a minute ago. As Congressman Rothman just quoted King would often say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but I am certain that it bends toward justice.” He was quoting Theodore Parker whose original quote in the 1850s was: I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Dr. never claimed these words as his own. Neither did he ever say, “That great 19th-century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker once said…” He was simply keeping the dream alive. I was only 6 years old when Dr. King was shot. I don’t remember it well, but did grow up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s where segregation and de-segregation were front and center. I remember when the first African American students began attending my elementary school in 1969. I remember wondering why the teachers were making it such a big deal. I didn’t grasp the power of racism in South Carolina as a third grader. I simply liked my new friends. Unfortunately, I would understand better in high school when I was attending a Southern Baptist church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina where we were encouraged to witness to and bring our friends to church—but only our white friends. When I asked one of the deacons why I couldn’t bring my black friends to church, he said they had their own churches to go to and would feel uncomfortable in our church. I left the church for many years over that incident. But I’ve realized more recently that what I should have done is to keep Dr. King’s dream alive by inviting my black friends to my southern white church or by attending their churches with them. Instead, I did what too many of us do…I walked away from the dream. Thankfully, a spark of some sort remained with me because I eventually found my way back to the church and into ministry. The first placed I turned in my ministerial studies was Dr. King. As a new seminarian I listened to and read all of his sermons and speeches that I could find. In them, and in his articulation of his call to ministry, I found a way to articulate my own call. Dr. King said, when he was a 21 year old seminarian: My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity…. Even though I have never had an abrupt conversion experience, religion has been real to me and closely knitted to life. In fact the two cannot be separated; religion for me is life. I am no Martin Luther King, Jr., but his call to ministry was identical to mine. I found his sermons to be prophetic and timeless. I also found that I had never heard most of his words. I, like most of the nation, knew his Dream and Mountaintop speeches, but little else. A whole new world was opened to me. I was so impacted that I requested and received permission from the King Center to occasionally preach his sermons in their entirety so that a new generation of Americans could keep the dream alive. Of course, I have never attempted to recreate his style or delivery, which would be both incredibly disrespectful and quite impossible. Rather, I have preached Dr. King’s sermons in my own style, and have found that doing so gives renewed access to his dream to everyone present. What we must be ever mindful of is that we are not keeping Dr. King alive. He is tragically no longer with us. In listening to and reading his work, we are not even keeping his words alive. Nothing is more fleeting than a word. We are keeping the dream alive—not the man, not the words, but the meaning behind his words. Dr. King’s dream was remarkably simple. As he said: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. Although we have achieved much in the past 43 years, we have not achieved as much as we could have. We are making progress, but we have not fully realized Dr. King’s dreams. We have seldom ventured to the mountaintop, and have yet to see the promised land. Last week, in Tucson, Arizona, it seemed that dreams, mountaintops and promised lands were completely out of reach as a lone gunmen killed six people and wounded a dozen more. Our dreams are too often shattered and yet we must continue to have faith and hope in the face of such extreme tragedy. Dr. King knew this. His dreams were shattered time and again, but he carried on. In July 1965, he said: About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died... So yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits. In response to the shooting last week in Arizona, President Obama gave us some additional insight into how we might keep our faith in the face of such tragedy. He said: I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us. Friends, we reach the mountaintop by climbing it, each of us must make the journey, but we must make it together. From the mountaintop, what one can see is the next valley, and the next mountain beyond that and so on. From the mountaintop one sees communities building lives together. Dr. King was clear that his work was that of building a beloved community. He was always exalting valleys, and lowering mountains, and making crooked places straight, and bringing neighbors together. We cannot reach the mountaintop alone, we cannot see the promised land by ourselves, we must do it together, lest it remain simply a dream. Martin Luther King Jr. had the same dreams as so many before him. What made him great was that he had the courage to keep the dream alive when it was his turn. The most remarkable aspect of his mortal life was that he risked it, without turning to violence, for a dream of a better life for all people. We have to be willing to risk our lives on the journey, as Dr. King did in Memphis in 1968, as Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb did in Alabama in 1965, as Gabriella Giffords did in Arizona a little over a week ago as she stood outside a grocery store to meet and listen to those whom she served. When you find yourself in a historic place looking for the specters of those who came before you or listening for some whisper of words spoken in times past, take what courage and inspiration you need from them, but move on. They are not there. You are now making history, you are keeping the dream alive. It is our turn and our task. It is our time, but the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late…. we are the keepers of the dream. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste. Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2011 at The Indefinite Article
A sermon preached on November 14, 2010 at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ. Reading: Martin Luther King, Jr., Excerpts from "Guidelines for a constructive church" (1966), and "A Knock at Midnight" (1963) You see, the church is not a social club, although some people think it is. They get caught up in their exclusivism, and they feel that it’s a kind of social club with a thin veneer of religiosity, but the church is not a social club. The church is not an entertainment center, although some people think it is. You can tell in many churches how they act in church, which demonstrates that they think it’s an entertainment center. The church is not an entertainment center… …in the final analysis the church has a purpose. The church is dealing with man's ultimate concern. And therefore it has certain guidelines that it must follow. The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Hopi Elders reflection: There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves, banish the word "struggle" from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we must do now must be done in a sacred way and in celebration. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Sermon: I want you to remember this weekend as a milestone, a catalyst, a turning point in the life of Central Unitarian Church. Beginning with our Outreach Auction last night, which raised a record breaking $41,000 in service to our community. With this service, in which we will cast a vision for our future, and with this evening’s installation of me as the minister of Central Unitarian Church, during which you and I and our entire faith will be charged on our way forward. As our good friend Rocco learned in the story this morning, we must ask, learn the answer to, be able to explain the answer, and then live our lives in response to the very simple question, “Why are we?” Not, “Why are we here?” Not, “Why are we Unitarian Universalists? Not, “Why do we come to church?” Not, “Why do we believe this or that?” Very simply, “Why are we? Rocco didn’t find the answer while scurrying around collecting acorns on the ground. He didn’t find the answer while darting across the road in front of your car. He didn’t find the answer while chattering at the curious cat at the base of a tree. Rocco found the answer at a higher elevation. He found the answer from the vantage point of an owl house where he could see everything more clearly. If we are to discern the future of our liberal faith, and see the path forward, we have to get out of the weeds and up on the balcony. Exactly one year ago this week I made the decision to move from my ministry in Houston after six years and to seek out a new ministry. This was a difficult decision, one that came only after long period of discernment, and one that represented a significant leap of faith. We didn’t know where we would end up, if anywhere. We began a national search, and by Thanksgiving week were in conversation with several congregations from coast to coast, including Central Unitarian Church. My first conversation was with Search Committee member Arthur Eves. What I didn’t realize until recently, since our candidating week here in April was that I had made the decision to seek you out, even though I didn’t know it was you I was seeking out, in the summer of 2009, several months before I made the conscious decision last November. And this awareness happened when I was able to get out of the weeds, literally up on to the balcony where I could see everything clearly. I was at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Utah in late June 2009. That Saturday morning, I went for what I call a "walkabout" run. This means no watch, no phone, no time constraints, and no particular destination. I try not to get lost, but it has happened. I set out looking for an easy route without much traffic. Our hotel was downtown, one block from Temple Square. I decided after running past the LDS Temple to head uphill into the neighborhoods just beyond downtown. Then I saw my destination...a peak in the distance with a small monument on it. I wondered to myself, "How do I get to that peak?" I didn't question my personal ability to get there, just whether the peak was accessible. I kept heading in that direction, through one neighborhood, past the state Capitol building, then another neighborhood and many twists and turns, and finally there was the entrance to the peak. It turns out that this peak, about 1,000 feet above the Salt Lake Valley (which is already at 4,300 feet above sea level) is an historic landmark called Ensign Peak. Two days after Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake in July of 1847, they also saw and climbed Ensign Peak to survey the Valley and decide where to settle and build the city. Millions of years ago Ensign Peak just barely rose above the surface of the sea that filled the Salt Lake Valley. As I climbed the peak I was amazed at the varying perspectives I held all at once. I had to attend to the rocks, dirt, and path under my feet, as well as the dragonflies and other insects that flew around me. I marveled at the space between Ensign Peak and nearby peaks and valleys, thinking of how each little cove must have supported an amazing underwater ecosystem different than the one in the next cove. And then, as I got to the top, I could see for at least 50 miles in almost every direction, including the Great Salt Lake, the entire city, and the mountain ranges that surround the valley. Everything was clear... This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said he had been to the mountaintop. Perhaps this is why Jesus preached his sermon from the "mount," why Moses found the burning bush on Mount Sinai, why Mohammed received his revelations from God that would become the Qu'ran in a mountain cave, and why Joseph Smith claims to have found the golden plates which he translated into the Book of Mormon on Cumorah Hill. Everything is clearer from the summit. I sat on Ensign Peak that Saturday morning and surveyed the valley, as Brigham Young had done 162 years earlier. I spent about 20 minutes at the top and not only surveyed the Salt Lake Valley... I surveyed the continuing course of my ministry, life, congregation, and my vision for the future. Everything was clearer. I thought at the time that I had just recommitted myself to continuing my ministry in Houston perhaps for the entirety of my career. I learned later that what I had discovered on that peak was why I am, and that what I had committed myself to was the future of our liberal faith. I believe that future is bright. I believe that the future of Central Unitarian Church is equally bright because those futures are, as they have always been, inextricably intertwined. The bad news is that Unitarian Universalism has been stuck since the coming together of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961, just a few months before my birth. We are a young faith, even though our religious ancestors organized hundreds of years ago. We have had few successes, remain exactly the same size nationally as we were in 1961, and have not, in my estimation served our mission well as a larger movement in the past 50 years. Unitarians and Universalists founded this nation, were prominent in practically every social issue that faced it for nearly 200 years, but we stalled out. We’ve done good work in some areas, but cannot seem to get our act together in other areas. We have moved away from being religious people and away from being an influential force in our society, which very much needs our voice, and more importantly, our courage and action. We focus mostly on those who are already inside our church walls, sending away almost all of those who seek us out. We need a new liberal reformation. We need to be born again. Too often we reject the notion of being born again as a fundamentalist tenet of other churches that we look down upon. On the contrary, staying the same, stagnant and increasingly irrelevant in the broader world is the more fundamentalist notion. Being a social club rather than a force for justice in the world is a more fundamentalist notion. Lest you think that Central Unitarian Church is immune from such fundamentalism, let me remind you of a story from your past. In 1953, this article was written about the Unitarian Congregational Church of Hackenack, as you were then know, on Park Avenue in Hackensack. It tells some of the history of the congregation all the way back to its founding in 1897. It tells the wonderful story of transformation when your predecessors found themselves shortly after the turn of the twentieth century to build a modest church building, which still stands today. It tells another story of transformation in how congregation had turned over that building to the church religious education program, which had grown to nearly 200 children. They began worshipping in a civic hall because there wasn’t room in the church. It tells the story of looking for a new location, which ultimately would be the space where we stand today as Central Unitarian Church where you moved in 1956. It tells these great stories of transformation. But it also tells a story of stagnation and inward focus. This article says that the congregation in Hackensack had the reputation for being, and I quote, “the little club around the corner.” Not intended as a flattering image. When congregations become comfortable, they often stop trying even without knowing it. After moving into this building, the membership and the activity of the congregation peaked. Some say there were as many as 800 members. I have learned that the more conservative estimates were 400 or 500 members. Which is still more than twice as many as we have today. But the membership declined and has remained between 200 and 300 at least since the mid-1970s. I’ve heard people say the reason that the church declined was the turmoil of the 60s and 70s. Because people stopped going to church back then. But during the period between 1930 and 1970, roughly the tenure of your first settled minister, the Rev. George Howard, the population of Bergen County more than doubled and has held steady since. The reason we declined since then and have held steady for the past several decades, like our denomination nationally, is not I believe, because people stopped coming to church. It is not because of the turmoil of the times. Indeed, since the 1930s, the Gallup Poll and other survey organizations have reported that about 40% of U.S. adults attend church regularly. Even if inflated, the percentage has held steady for 80 years. And in times of turmoil, more, not fewer people seek out a faith community. The reason, I believe, that Unitarian Universalism has stagnated is because most of our congregations, this one included, have solidified their reputation as “the little club around the corner.” I can’t tell you the number of people who have used that term with me over the years. That is how we are perceived. A social club at best and a cult at worst. Rest assured that this is not the cause of anything you did uniquely as a congregation. It is the current plight of our entire faith. As congregations go, you are an amazing church, with amazing talents ands strengths. Frankly, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I would not waste my time or yours on a congregation that was not ready and able to transform itself, and to lead Unitarian Universalism into a new century. My colleague, Rosemary Bray McNatt, who will preach the sermon at the installation this evening, recently put it this way: More than one person in our movement has remarked over the years that, for people who are blessed with the gift of free religious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with one another and ourselves than be tender and merciful, in simple acknowledgement of how hard it continues to be to do what we must do in our congregations. We must admit that we have a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new. The religious landscape of our nation, and even across the globe, is changing. We are truly creating a global village. There are few societies remaining on the planet that don’t have real-time access to the rest of the world. We are connected culturally, socially, economically, legally, and religiously. We have created an interdependent web of human existence. I believe this will result in another radical reformation the likes of which come along only about every 500 years. I think what is yet to be seen, at least within the U.S., is what role religious liberalism will have in this transformation. Specifically, will we be a relevant force and influence in the changes, or will we be the ones left behind? As I said from this pulpit two weeks ago, an increasing number of surveys from the likes of the Pew Forum, and even more conservative religious think tanks like the Barna Group are acknowledging that religious beliefs in the U.S. are changing, particularly among Christians. They are concluding that people shop around for religion, that people are more accepting of other religions and the idea that there might be many paths to salvation than ever before. In short, the attitudes of Americans around religion are becoming more pluralistic, less absolutist, more transient, and more accepting of others. Through all of this, I think we Unitarian Universalists have sat back on our laurels with a certain sense of self-righteous glee, because we’ve been proven right. We have always professed the ideas of a chosen faith, many beliefs, acceptance of all people, and so on. We have always promoted the worth and dignity of every person, the legitimacy of many paths, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning that seem to be the current tide of religion in America. This is the confidence that Thomas Jefferson had later in his life when he discussed repeatedly that Unitarianism would be the general religion of America in his lifetime. Everyone would see the light. Finally everyone else would figure out what we’ve already figured out. We get stuck on the identity part, who we are, and forget to move forward to purpose and path, why we are. Too often we focus on what it means to be a UU, distinguishing ourselves, setting ourselves apart from others. We tell our children and ourselves how we are different from others, and in the same breath tell our children and ourselves that we embrace everybody… but we don’t… We teach elevator speeches and everyone of those elevators are going down, not up, because they are mostly stories about who we aren’t or what makes us different than everybody else, or we just try to add to our list of famous UUs. At some level, the future of our liberal faith depends on us letting go of our own self-importance. We need to lose the market brand. In the Christian scriptures, in the all four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Jesus is recorded as having said, “Whoever finds his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life shall find it.” We need to lose ourselves, because we haven’t been very successful trying to be the Uncommon Denomination. People are not going to flock to us because Susan B. Anthony was a Unitarian, because P.T. Barnum was a Universalist, or because, Christopher Reeve was a Unitarian Universalist. We are not even the General Religion of America that Thomas Jefferson predicted Unitarianism would become. It was a ridiculous prediction anyway because, as Jefferson very well knew, if the U.S. ever intentionally or unintentionally adopted any single brand of religion as its primary, the entire democratic experiment will have failed. Church consultant, Michael Durall, offers the heretical insight that the problem is that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a strong enough God. In his recent book, “The Almost Church Revitalized," Durall says: UU congregations need a strong enough God, however defined, to handle the world’s most troubling concerns. Failing to define such a God limits the emotional repertoire that people in community can and should experience together. I confess (Durall continues) that I have conflicting thoughts that seem to have no outlet in Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes I go to church feeling lonely and doubtful, but I dutifully take my place in the pew, maintain an outward decorum, sit and listen quietly. I participate in chitchat during the coffee hour. I am nice, but I am not genuine. I come away more troubled than when I arrived. (And he concludes) Writers far more insightful than I have taken liberal religion to task for standing in the wings while others claim center stage—faiths that preach intolerance, strident voices in the media that foster rage and resentment, the incessant drumbeat of advertising that advocates mindless consumerism, television and movies that are disturbingly violent. … Liberal churches do not possess the potent language required to thwart the destructive effects of contemporary society. It makes me wish we had a heavy-duty God. Michael actually called me a few weeks ago because he had seen a guest blog post that I had written for the UUGrowth blog. We discussed our skepticism in whether our congregations could hear this message of transformation and rebirth. Friends, if we are truly to have any influence, any legitimacy, any clout and capital in an increasingly diverse religious landscape, and in an always troubled world, then the future of our liberal faith depends on US letting go of our rejectionist past and self-importance, and beginning finally the business of being religious people. We need to claim center stage, we need to cry out against the worlds biggest problems, we need to embrace those who come through our doors in pain, we need to bring our own pain to this alter of hope. Too many of you are suffering silently. You come to church feeling lonely and doubtful, you are struggling with illness or addiction, with unimaginable pain and suffering that you can hardly bear, but you dutifully take your place in the pew, maintain an outward decorum, sit and listen quietly. You participate in chitchat during the coffee hour. You are nice, but not genuine. You come away more troubled than when you arrived because you can’t find the emotional repertoire you need here. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that I don’t like chitchat. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that I almost never sit and listen quietly, that I will not dutifully take my place in the pulpit and, as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it in 1841, “preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, ‘It is peace’ when there is no peace.” Perhaps you’ve already noticed that I do not long suffer ingenuine people, that I prefer unorthodox passion to outward decorum, and that I do not shy away from a heavy-duty God. The future of our liberal faith is not for its own sake, it is for the thousands of people who have walked through the doors of this church hurting and yearning to cry out. For everyone who loses a little bit of themselves each time the world suffers an injustice and who need a place to join their voices with others. It is for a hurting, struggling world that needs our vision and our voice, that needs people who will stop talking and start doing, who know why they are… Why we are is not to be the little club around the corner, not to be the general religion of America, but to go to the mountaintop, to see everything clearly so that we can be a religion for our time. The time is now. It is our turn and our task. But, as Dr. King said, “the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late." Together, let us cast a bold vision for the future of this congregation and the future of our liberal faith. Let the congregation say, Amen. Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
A sermon preached on October 31, 2010 at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus NJ. This sermon begins with several letters to and from Thomas Jefferson: Readings: To John Adams, August 22, 1813: I very much suspect that if thinking men would have the courage to think for themselves, and to speak what they think, it would be found they do not differ in religious opinions as much as is supposed. I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all. To Benjamin Waterhouse, June 22, 1822 Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian. William Short to Jefferson, July 02, 1822 At Boston the revolution in this respect seems to be complete. There is scarcely a man or woman there of information or fashion, who is not professedly unitarian. Even Cambridge has been taken complete possession of by this new school, who affirm however that they are oldest of the Christian sects, & that the idea of the trinity was an interpretation only after some centuries. The principal of Harvard University &amp; all the Professors are unitarian. And from this source teachers of the doctrine are dispersed throughout the United States. You know without doubt, that the Chaplain, chosen last year by the house of representatives, is one of them. And such an instinctive terror of this new doctrine now exists amongst the other Christian sects, that they have all buried the hatchet hitherto raised against each other, & have become a band of brothers to combat this new enemy, the most dangerous probably they have ever had. Jefferson to Short, October 1822 Unitarianism has not yet reached us; but our citizens are ready to receive reason from any quarter. The Unity of a supreme being is so much more intelligible than the triune arithmetic of the counterfeit Christians that it will kindle here like wild-fire. Short to Jefferson, November 1822 Unitarianism has already had the effect in Boston which you expect from it in Virginia. The University of Cambridge which was founded principally for the education of what they conceived to be Orthodox ministers, is now altogether in the hands of Unitarians. The President & every Professor of that establishment are openly & avowedly Unitarian. The most literary, the most wealthy & most fashionable society of Boston are also Unitarian, but some of the individuals, I observe, are yet a little timid & shamefaced on the subject, so that they would not openly & in words acknowledge themselves anti-trinitarian, although they belong to & support, for instance, the stone chapel & Dr. Freeman its preacher, who is considered indeed the Pope of the Unitarians. Jefferson to James Smith, December 1822 Sir, -- I have to thank you for your pamphlets on the subject of Unitarianism, and to express my gratification with your efforts for the revival of primitive Christianity in your quarter. The pure and simple unity of the Creator of the universe, is now all but ascendant in the Eastern States; it is dawning in the West, and advancing towards the South; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States. Sermon: Over the past couple of years there have been a number of interesting religion surveys by the likes of the Pew Forum and even the more conservative Barna group, among others, that have found religion in America is changing rapidly on a number of fronts. They are concluding that people shop around for religion, that people are more accepting of other religions and the idea that there might be many paths to salvation than ever before. Mainline Protestant denominations have been hemorrhaging members by the millions for a couple of decades, and those Americans unaffiliated with any faith community are the fastest increasing segment of the population. In short, the attitudes of Americans around religion are becoming more pluralistic, less absolutist, more transient, and more accepting of others. We could take all of this as a formula for the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s prophecy that Unitarianism, now Unitarian Universalism, might become the general religion of America. We have always professed the ideas of a chosen faith, many beliefs, acceptance of all people, and so on. We haven’t been hemorrhaging members, and as many as 1,000,000 adults in surveys and census collections identify as Unitarian Universalists. And yet fewer than 20% of those 1,000,000 are registered members of our 1,000 congregations. We have the same number of adult members in Unitarian Universalism as we had in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged. How and why could this be? Why didn’t Unitarianism and why hasn’t Unitarian Universalism become the general religion of America? There are easy answers on both sides of the aisle. Within our congregations we tend to take a stance of saying that we are welcoming to everyone, but then leave it up to them to break into the family. Outsiders see us as adrift and without foundation, and at least a little self-righteous. We come across to others as the church for rich people, smart people, and frankly self-centered people….. (visitors, it’s not true) There may actually be validity in these evaluations, but I don’t think they are the primary reason that Unitarian Universalism isn’t reaching it’s full potential. I think the real reasons lie in our history, and our failure to face up to the ties that bind us. Just as our nation, founded on freedom, universal equality, and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it was also founded on the backs of slave labor, and expanded on the genocide and internment of this continent’s indigenous peoples…all directly counter to its expressed noble principles… Unitarian Universalism has its own demons, which keep us small, largely irrelevant, and mostly isolated. Let me clarify my own views before I proceed. I have no delusions that Unitarian Universalism will ever be the general religion of America in the 21st century. Nor should it be. Diversity of belief is a strength within our faith and, I believe, across human experience. I do, however, believe that we have held ourselves back, limited our potential, and failed to recognize the demons of our past. I love this faith with all of my heart and soul. I have surrendered my entire life to serving it. I believe it holds great promise for spreading the transforming power of love. And yet, I realize that promise requires understanding and coming to terms with our past, for better and worse. As James Luther Adams said, an unexamined faith is not worth having. Why did Thomas Jefferson believe that Unitarianism would be the general religion of America? Before we can answer that question, we have to have a basic understanding of who Jefferson was religiously. There are volumes written about Jefferson’s religion and how it affected and continues to affect our entire national will, but I’ll give you the readers digest condensed version. He was born and raised an Anglican. As an adult, and especially while in office, he refused to reveal his religious affiliation, refused to even stand up as godfather to children in the Episcopal church because he could not adhere to the doctrine. He never joined a Unitarian church, although he attended occasionally and pined about the absence of Unitarian congregations in Virginia during his life. Today he might be one of those million who considered themselves a Unitarian Universalist, but never joined in community. He once wrote, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” In the same letter he continued by explaining that Jesus had only said that God is good and did not define God. He continued, “I am, therefore, of His theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after this example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good, and eschewers of evil.” He also said: But I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I would say this statement alone puts Jefferson squarely in the Unitarian camp. He mentions time and again his adherence to the true essence of Jesus’ moral teachings and to the Unity of God over the trinity, calling himself a real Christian on this point. Later in his life, when he did most of his writing about Unitarianism, he offered this Unitarian creed in the same letter to Benjamin Waterhouse where he suggested that every young man in America would die as a Unitarian: The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man. 1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect. 2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion. Nearly 200 years later, most Unitarian Universalists could quarrel even with Jefferson’s brand of Unitarianism. We are divided on notions of God, particularly in the realm of God’s supposed perfection. Universalists more than Unitarians have been quarreling even before Jefferson’s time about the existence and timing of any systems of rewards and punishments. I think the only point of Jefferson’s Unitarian creed with which we still agree enmass is loving our neighbors as ourselves…and even that is harder in practice than it is in belief. But I believe that we have inherited also from Thomas Jefferson and the Unitarians of the Boston elite much that works to the detriment of our faith even today. This is the part where we have to examine our faith and even its most valiant proponents… Thomas Jefferson, particularly in his later years was, for lack of a more descriptive term, an ornery cuss…. He spoke with a sharp tongue against those with whom he didn’t agree. He called the trinity a doctrine of “metaphysical insanity” and “greek arithmetic.” He called John Calvin a “malignant demon.” Of these traditions he said, “They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations,” He spoke of the, and I quote, “hocus pocus of a God like another Cerberus with one body and three heads.” He hated clergy, particularly in the more hierarchical traditions, saying, “My opinion is that there never would have been an infidel if there never had been a priest.” Jefferson was a radical separationist. Even after the separationists lost the debate over church and state to the disestablishmentarians…it’s important to remember that the first amendment to the constitution is not an article of separation, but of disestablishment of a state church such as the church of England…Jefferson, using his power as president, wrote that a “wall of separation had been erected.” Jefferson was a rugged individualist, especially when it came to religion. He considered religion to be a personal matter between oneself and God and had little use for religious community. He was a vehement anti supernaturalist, his ultimate act being the “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” in which he literally took scissors and razors to the Christian gospels and cut out all references to miracles, healings, the virgin birth, angels, prophecy, the trinity, divinity, or resurrection. What’s more, he did this while in office during his first term as the President of the United States. Can you imagine Barack Obama or any other president sitting down and taking scissors to the Bible or any other sacred text? Maybe Richard Nixon…. If you are filling with pride for the radical Mr. Jefferson, let me dissuade you with another little-known tidbit. Thomas Jefferson wrote that every young man of his time would die a Unitarian, he wasn’t simply using the male-centric language that dominated English until only recently. He didn’t mean, young men and women. He meant young men. He repeatedly talked pejoratively about the religious fanatacism of women. Let me quote: In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women. They have their night meetings and praying parties, where, attended by their priests, and sometimes by a henpecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus, in terms as amatory and carnal, as their modesty would permit them to use to a mere earthly lover. This is the point on which we must examine ourselves…an unexamined faith is not worth having. We do have a reputation as Unitarian Universalists of being sharp-tongued, individualistic, and anti-religious to the point of being a fundamentalism all of our won. As such, we are dismissed by the rank and file as too radical, irrelevant, ungrounded in serious religion, elitist, simply a social club at best and a cult at worst. (Visitors…) We bring all of this onto ourselves. Indeed we inherited these tendencies not only from Thomas Jefferson and the entire revolutionary spirit upon which this nation was founded, but also from centuries of radical reformers before him. Our religious ancestors were the social elite who also founded this nation. We can honor them for risking everything, including their very lives, for the privilege of a free society. We continue to reap those benefits as a free faith in a free nation. But we have to remember that their perspective was skewed, and therefore incomplete. They were fighting for their lives, they were fighting for our lives to the extent that we could just as easily call them our personal saviors as Christians call Jesus the same. Five hundred years ago John Calvin was burning Unitarians at the stake. It’s no wonder Jefferson considered him a demon, and I might agree. I might agree except that I recognize that if we are truly to have any influence, any legitimacy, any clout and capital in an increasingly diverse religious landscape, we have to let go of our rejectionist past and begin finally the business of being religious people. We have to face the fact that our forbears weren’t saints, but were products of their time, which often included great travesty and sin in the name of freedom. They were mysoginist and racist and murderous. They were elitist. We needn’t be. We can’t be. As poet Maya Angelou says, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, however, if faced with courage, need not be lived again." I thank Thomas Jefferson and so many others for the path they cleared, but the path has been cleared. We don’t need to keep beating it. We may have to maintain it, but our primary task as a people of faith is to use the path for our journey forward. We will probably never be the general religion of the United States. Nor do I think we should ever have such a goal. Strength comes in diversity. If the United States ever opted for a single brand of religion, the entire democratic experiment will have failed. But we have as of yet failed to realize our potential as a faith, which remains pitifully small. The reasons this was true in Jefferson’s time remain so today: First, the other Protestant faiths rose up in organized opposition to Unitarianism because it threatened their orthodoxy. Secondly, the Unitarians, if you can imagine, were sorely disorganized. They simply couldn’t and we still can’t pull ourselves together in a Unitary voice…oh the irony… Finally, they were and we are ridiculously insular, isolated, and anti-evangelistic. Jefferson, to his credit said, “I know there are many around me who would gladly become so [Unitarian], if only they could hear the questions fairly stated.” Today we must add to these lingering obstacles our continuation of Jefferson’s and others individualism, rejectionism, and elitism. Jefferson saw little use for the gathered church as it relates to an individual’s relationship with the divine. He, like many of you, had been too wounded by organized religion, that he could only see it as hocus pocus, as fanatacism, as metaphysical insanity, a deleria of crazy imaginations. But today, we know that we cannot go it alone. We fool ourselves if we think that a community of caring where we tackle life’s most significant issues is not necessary. We also fool ourselves if we think our primary purpose within these walls is to serve our own needs. Our needs will be met here if we commit to caring for each other, but that caring will be a natural outcome of our caring for others. The only question we need ask ourselves is “what have we done for others today?” “How have we served, cared for, loved others. This is how, in Jefferson’s words, we love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. Let us not build the general religion of America, but instead the religion that belonged to the Thomas Jefferson of our children’s story this morning. A house in which a farmer is as good as any other; and where, if there's no room for a farmer, there can be no room for us. Let us live the Christian gospel without which we would not exist, in its most primitive and pure form, as even Jefferson would have us do, by truly loving our neighbors as ourselves and loving all that exists with all of our heart, Let us live with our hands rather than our tongues, with our deeds rather than our creeds. Let us expand that gospel beyond Christianity, not rejecting it, but embracing it and more to include all that sacred in life. As 19th Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said: Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living. May it be so. Today, tomorrow, and always… Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
A sermon preached at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ on October 10, 2010 Dietrich Boenhoffer wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." In the past month, six teenage boys and young men, all gay, have taken their own lives: Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh. It is time for all of us to act. I was going to preach a different sermon today. A sermon about the historic place of the Unitarian side of our faith in American history. An important story, and one often not told. I will preach that sermon for you in a few weeks. Today, I have a more pressing story to tell. This is a story of injustice, one for which we are all responsible. One for which we must all come out and speak up. I changed the topic of this morning’s sermon because my colleague and friend, the Reverend Deborah Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, wrote an open letter to clergy in her Washington Post blog on Tuesday calling for all of us from our pulpits to come out with our support for GLBT youth and adults today. Over the past ten years as both a seminarian and an ordained minister, I have been a fierce advocate for two primary issues. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender rights and issues of mental health. Today, I am heartbroken as these two passions of mine have tragically come together as these young, gay men, victims of bullying and psychological abuse, lost hope and health enough that they saw no other alternative than to take their own lives. These are not just people on the news. There isn’t a rash gay suicides happening. You know these young men and this happens all the time. Tyler Clementi graduated from Ridgewood High School this June. If you personally didn’t know him, chances are you know someone who loved him and cared for him deeply. He wasn’t a Unitarian Universalist, but he was an accomplished violinist and often played concerts at the Ridgewood Unitarian Universalist congregation. In the United States, more than 34,000 people die by suicide each year. Suicide accounts for 12% of deaths among 15 to 24-year-olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. For every completed suicide by a young person, it is estimated that 100 to 200 attempts are made. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. More than 1/3 of LGB youth report having made a suicide attempt. Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt. Questioning youth who are less certain of their sexual orientation report even higher levels of substance abuse and depressed thoughts than their heterosexual or openly LGBT-identified peers. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. Eighty to ninety percent of gay teens report having been bullied. You know these young people. And this happens all the time… For the moment, the media has our attention and the attention of the entire nation. Let us use this moment as moment of grace, however tragic, to make things different. Forty years ago, in 1970, the Unitarian Universalist Association passed its first resolution opposing discrimination of homosexuals and bisexuals. Since then, nearly a dozen related resolutions have been passed and we have become one of very few faith groups in the U.S. truly offers the full rights of membership to its glbt members, that ordains gay clergy and that encourages clergy to perform same sex marriage ceremonies. About quite 20 years ago, the Welcoming Congregation program was introduced. This program assists congregations in becoming more welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Today, more than half of our 1000 congregations have become certified as Welcoming Congregations. Central Unitarian Church became a welcoming congregation in 1999. But passing resolutions, certifying congregations, and ordaining ministers is not enough. Our task as people of faith is to save lives. Nothing more, but nothing less. In congregations that are just beginning the welcoming process, it is common to hear things like, “We welcome everyone, we believe in the worth and dignity of all souls, why should we single out gay people fort special treatment?” We do this work because it literally saves lives. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are still, more often than not, unwelcome in religious communities unless they are willing to change. There are many churches teaching that homosexuality is destructive, preventable, and treatable. But, we offer a spiritual home to all people, we affirm the worth and dignity of every person -- just as you are. We need to distinguish ourselves in this regard. We need to “come out” as a congregation. You may even say, well look around, we have plenty of gay people and families in our congregation. Even though we have openly gay and lesbian people in our congregation, there are also gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and adults in this congregation, in this sanctuary this morning, who are not out, because it isn’t yet safe. There are people in this community, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, who don’t know that we offer a safe, spiritual home for them. We do this work because it saves lives. My heart breaks when someone is denied a spiritual home. My heart breaks when anyone loses hope to the point their life is the only price they can think of to pay. My heart breaks, and I am left without the ability to understand abuse, hatred, and violence by or between human beings. We are all born into this world worthy of all the love and opportunity that our miraculous life has to offer. Love is not love without a basic respect for human dignity and acceptance of who we are. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people live every day of their lives being denied their selfhood. They aren’t allowed in our society to enjoy the same benefits as heterosexuals simply because of who they are. They are denied not only the same rights – they are denied their existence and spirituality because they just happen to fall in love with the wrong people. It breaks my heart when people come to me and say, “I just want to be myself and not feel like something is wrong with me. People always tells me that I’m not ok.” I know how they feel. I don’t often tell the story, but I was also bullied and beaten as a teenager because people thought I was gay. I no longer remember all the details, but in the 8th grade, on the school bus, a jacket was thrown over my head, I was held down by some boys as others beat me on the head with a yo-yo as they called out derogatory names about my sexuality, as the rest of the kids on the bus watched without interfering. As the bus driver did nothing. I escaped physically with only a big knot on my head. My parents and I went to the principal, and the boys were eventually banned from riding the bus, and given a few days suspension, but they weren’t expelled from school, and so I lived the rest of that year in fear that I would just be beaten up again. I probably wasn’t because that was when I started hanging out with some other rough kids for protection, not even conscious of it at the time. Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. As frightening as it is, I've decided, at 49 years old, to come out of the closet! I'm attracted to women. I fall in love with women. I've known this since I was about five years old. Over the years, I've dated lots of women. I have married and lived with two female partners, one for six years, and my current partner, Gail, for twenty years. I never felt like I had a choice. I just like women. I never decided to like them. I just do. The problem is that throughout my life people have expected me to like men, or at least thought I did. After all, I was an actor, somewhat effeminate, and wore flashy clothes. Men tried to date me, but I always turned them away. I like women. I've always liked women and it's about time I came out of the closet! But I'm worried that I will disappoint my family and friends who always thought I liked men. Recently, a childhood friend said "I thought you liked guys!" What does she think now that she knows I like women? When I was a teenager in middle school and high school, people told me that too. I dressed rather flamboyantly, to say the least. Shiny silk, often “puffy” shirts, platform shoes, leisure suits, and long hair, and mod glasses. I didn’t quite rival Elton John, but it was close. Only one boy in my high school dressed more effeminately and he was openly transgender, presenting most often as a girl. I’ve always wondered what happened to him. Being an African American, transgender, male teenager in South Carolina in the 1970s, was not a particularly safe way of being in the world. He had such courage to be himself. Beyond my own colorful appearance, I was in the drama club. Not only was I in the drama club, I was good -- winning statewide and regional acting awards and breaking into community and professional theater while still in high school. I was voted “most talented” boy when I graduated. Everyone knew who I was and many of those assumed I was gay. They just had to look at me. If that didn’t do it, then they saw who they thought I was because of my affiliations. I nearly gave my drama teacher a heart attack when I performed a monologue of young gay man struggling with his identity and relationship with his family. She gave me an A, but thought it was too accurate of a portrayal and was concerned about where I had even learned to ACT that way. I WAS exposed to the gay community in high school and college in the 70s and early 80s, and I am a better person for it. I had ample opportunity to be in gay relationships, with more than one guy over those years asking me out or hitting on me. The assumption, after all, was that I was gay. But I wasn’t. Much to their dismay, I liked girls. I never decided to like girls, I just did. I never struggled with the idea of liking girls, I just did. But when presented with the opportunity to be in romantic relationships with guys, the question was at least on the table. I could have chosen to be with men and to try to fall in love with them. It was expected of me. But I liked girls. It was and is who I am. One of the times I had to bring this realization to a conscious decision was when I found myself in an interesting triangle with two friends. He liked me, I liked her, and she liked him. He couldn’t fall in love with her, and I couldn’t fall in love with him; so she and I ended up dating for a while. Suppose for a minute that society expects you to fall in love with someone, but you just can’t. You can’t put your finger on it, but they are just not someone for whom you have any romantic affection whatsoever. Now, suppose that the person you want to fall in love with – your soul mate, the person you know you have to spend the rest of your life with, is completely off-limits by society’s and your family’s rules. They are not the right man or women for you. It would break your mother’s heart; they would disown you; you’d be fired; your life might be in danger if you made them your life partner. In some cultures and places it is still wrong to fall in love with and marry someone of a different color, a different nationality, a different religion, or even a different socio-economic status. We are still struggling, but mostly in the U.S. we recognize that love transcends these ancient social norms – at least as long as your partner is still the right gender -- the other gender. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in this country are still not allowed to fall in love with their soul mates. They are legally prohibited from marrying and they are more often than not denied a spiritual home unless they are willing to change. Worth and dignity and love -- they can have none of it. Sometimes gay people are asked questions like: “When did you decide to be gay?” What if heterosexuals had to hear such questions about themselves? When did you decide to be straight? No one, straight or gay, can answer this question because we are who we are. I fall in love with women rather than men. Because I am a man, that makes me straight. If I were a woman, it would make me lesbian. But I never decided to be who I am. Tragically, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are forced to struggle with who they are everyday of their lives, because being themselves isn’t acceptable – they don’t decide or choose to be gay, they just are. One of the arguments used against the gay community IS that of choice. Don’t gay people choose to be that way? Can’t they choose to be straight? Every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender person HAS made a choice. But not the choice you might think. They haven’t chosen who they are or who they can fall in love with any more than any other person. Their choice is a different one. They sometimes make a choice to live in conformity with society’s preconceptions and expectations of heterosexual and gender normality, thereby denying or suppressing their selfhood. Or they make a choice to live a double life – privately being true to themselves but publicly living a façade that requires constant maintenance. Who knows, who doesn’t, who is safe, who isn’t, who will still love me, who won’t? Or they make a choice to come out publicly to their families and friends and coworkers, often to be rejected by those they love or to be fired from their jobs, or exposing themselves to personal danger. A friend of mine, whom I met in 1982 years ago, when we were both young naval officers, only came out to me a few of years ago. I knew from the early days of our relationship that she was gay. But as long as she was still in the Navy, which she was for nearly 30 years, she had to live her life hiding her long-term, committed, monogamous relationship even from some friends. It just wasn’t safe. She never brought the right guy home. She likes girls. It’s just who she is. She never decided to like girls, she just does. She could have chosen to be in relationships with men, and thus deny her own selfhood. Instead she chose to live separate public and private lives because it was the only way she could safely be even partially true to her spirit. Yes, gay people make choices, but all of their choices force them into a losing situation. They are still being denied their selfhood in our society. Although progress is being made in many areas, the rights and the spirituality of gay and lesbian people are being threatened like never before in this country. If you disagree -- talk to someone who is gay, or lesbian, bisexual or transgender and find out what they think. They are not people on the news. You have gay friends and family members. Ask them why they should have the same rights that you have. Let them ask you why they shouldn’t. They love their families, their partners, and their children. But they ARE different from you because they must be on guard every minute of every day. They are denied their selfhood because they love the wrong people. Morality isn’t tied up in who we fall in love with or who we choose to be romantic with when the relationship is between mutually consenting adults and no one is being abused. Morality DOES come into play in how we treat one another. It is immoral to abuse another person—physically, psychologically or otherwise. It is immoral to intentionally deny a person their selfhood, a spiritual home, and the rights supposedly afforded to every person in the greatest democracy in the world. It is immoral to deny the basic human right of love. It is time for all of us to act. It is time for all of us to come out. I believe the next step for Central Unitarian Church is to embark on the follow-up program to the Welcoming Congregation certification that you received 11 years ago. It is time to renew yourselves in this work. This is one of the many reasons that I am here. When Gail and I read in your congregational record that you had been a welcoming congregation for a decade but had not yet done the follow-up program called Living the Welcoming Congregation, we took notice. We, and primarily Gail, have led two congregations through the welcoming process. It is more than a certification, it is more than offering a curriculum, it is a transformative way of being in the world. My commitment to you on this front, and Gail will join me in this effort, is to lead you through this process, including offering the Living the Welcoming curriculum. We will need others to lead with us. This is very much a shared ministry of caring, of radical hospitality. It literally saves lives. We will be in touch very soon via the newsletter on how to proceed. What we need from you is your commitment to save lives. Nothing more, nothing less. I invite you to take a moral journey of welcoming. But I should warn you, that you will be forever transformed. You will be opened to a world of understanding and accepting all people in all of their beauty. You will look into their souls and will reveal your own. They will become a part of you and you them. This journey will require faith – faith in human goodness. This journey will require hope – hope for a world in which everyone is afforded their inherent worth and dignity. This journey will require love – especially love – love for yourself, and for everyone you encounter, regardless of who they are. You are welcome here! My hope is that in relationship with one another and in the presence of all that is holy to us, we can work together in loving community toward creating a world in which you are welcome everywhere. As we celebrate national Coming Out Day, as we mourn the loss of those whom we could not save, I am standing on the side of love with those who have lost hope. I am calling on all people, and especially allies of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to speak up and act out! Come out, come out, wherever you are... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
The first time someone gave me the advice, "Let go and let God," was when I was about to conduct my first memorial service as a seminary student about ten years ago. I asked some of my peers for their advice, and one of them said, "Let go and let God." It worked. I stopped worrying, took the care of creating a beautiful service, and let God do the rest. But wait... I don't believe in a God who directly intervenes in life, answers daily prayers, or spares some and condemns others in the same tragic moment. For me, God is verb, the process of the universe, which is constantly creating and re-creating. God is that which is greater than anything we can imagine, which sustains us, which we have little control over, and which we must also nurture in return. God is in everything and everything is in God, and the sum is exponentially greater than the parts. And so, I let go and let God... It was freeing, empowering, literally "recreational" in that it allowed me to re-create myself and my role in this particular situation. I did not conduct a memorial service that day. I let God. I was there, and the words that I had prepared came out of my mouth, but the service wasn't mine. I let go... I have learned over the years, often reluctantly, that this is good advice. It's difficult for me to do. I like being in control. But I have learned that I am actually in better control when I let go. It's a bit like when a pilot learns to trust their instruments over their own vision and perception, which can often fool them. This makes me think of the bumper sticker, "God is my co-pilot." Like most people I know who are followers of liberal faith, I haven't always been sympathetic to those who seem to surrender everything to their God or savior. I have seen this sentiment as weak and irresponsible. As the Book of James says in the Christian scriptures: "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied with action, is dead!" I've always believed that we have to take responsibility for ourselves by taking action. Like Nelson Mandela, I find great strength in William Ernest Henley's poem, Invictus, which concludes with these words: I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. But I've learned that the desire for complete control is even more unhealthy because it can never be satisfied. Life is too fraught with uncertainty, tragedy, and chaos to go it alone. I know that I can't control everything that happens to me. I know that I need help in navigating life. What I've learned over the years is that these two sentiments, surrender and control, are not mutually exclusive. We can be the captains of our souls even as we let go and let God. In fact, the first verse of Invictus includes these words: I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. Recognizing that some things, many things, most things are out of our control--finding strength or comfort in gratitude to whatever gods may be--is, in fact, what allows our unconquerable souls to flourish. It is what allows us to let go, to find our life by losing it. One of my mentors, the Reverend Margaret Marcuson, puts it this way, "It's a matter of shifting from the impossible: controlling others, to the merely difficult: managing myself." Let go and let God. Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
Why I am a Unitarian Universalist Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ October 3, 2010 Reading: "Heaven for the Godless?" by Charles M. Blow, December 28, 2008 In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life. This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that. The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they? So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them. And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go. What on earth does this mean? One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. Reading: from "The Cathedral of the World" by Forrest Church Universalism speaks with particular eloquence to the challenge of our times. Today our neighbors live not only across the street, but across the world as well. During an age when we share a global economy and communications systems in addition to nuclear and environmental threats, universalism addresses our era's most dangerous dysfunction: theological parochialism. Every denomination, including my own Unitarian Universalist Association, can fall prey to such nearsightedness. To fulfill its promise, modern universalism must witness against fundamentalists on the left as well as those on the right. By definition, "universalism"is not the property of any discrete religious body, including those that include it in their name. Sermon: Why I am a Unitarian Universalist Have you ever wondered why there are and have been so many religions and multiple sects, denominations, and expressions of those religions, into the thousands, when the truth is that we all live on the same wet planet, orbiting the same mediocre star, on the outer edge of second rate galaxy somewhere in the midst of an ever expanding universe? We are all experiencing the same mystery and wonder from which we and all that exists, as far as our eyes and instruments can yet see, have emerged. It seems peculiar then that we would subdivide ourselves into sects of believers based on the nuances of how we interpret what we can see, but more significantly, what we cannot see or know. I actually don’t find this remarkable at all. Subdividing ourselves into smaller communities is what humans do. It is how we survive. We are social animals, and we work well in small groups. Family units of varying sizes are most often the foundation. We have learned to connect those family units into cooperative communities of hundreds and even thousands. Sometimes we grow into communities of strangers as large as several million, and we share laws on even larger scales. Beyond the physical necessities of finding and consuming food, building shelter, and protecting those within the social unit, two fundamental and universal things happen when humans come together. We develop systems of communication and of shared values. We are hardwired, if you will, to share information and to care. But we do so primarily in smaller groups first, where culture develops--in shared experiences and values. Both language and religion are human universals, and both are culturally-bound. This is why we have so many different languages and so many different religions. Whether in groups or alone, we also tend toward curiosity. We are always asking “Why?” and “How?” We are still learning how to socialize and subdivide on a global level. It has only been several hundred years since humans have begun to travel globally and gain and record intimate knowledge of those on the other side of oceans. And yet humans have sprung up on every land mass, each with different cultures. As we learn to cooperate with one another geographically, we sometimes fail. We encounter differences in language, law, custom, and belief that must be overcome. We haven’t quite figured out how to get beyond our differences without conflict. We are still threatened by the other. Sometimes on a small scale and even within our family units, but more often on larger scales. Some people want to make everyone believe, behave, and even speak as they do. It seems that the more power a people have, the more likely they are to be of this particular ilk. On the other hand, some have taken to better understanding the other. Learning from, caring for, and sharing with them. Despite the apparent virtue of this latter approach. It seems too often to be the minority approach. And so, we are naturally and perhaps necessarily divided into groups—each with a different approach. How is it that we end up practicing the religion we do? Sometimes it is because we were raised in a certain faith. We learned its lessons from an early age and have developed family loyalty around its adherence and practice. We are what we are raised to be. Other times, we find a faith community that fits our particular needs and even personality. We are looking for a place to raise our children. We are looking for community. We have been disappointed or even hurt in another faith. We have had a life crisis that invokes in us questions of why and how. We simply felt that something was missing in our lives and didn’t know how to articulate that space, but find it less empty with faith. But why and how did we end up here…in this particular faith called Unitarian Universalism? What is it that draws us to this expression instead of innumerable others? We could each tell a story with differing and similar details and practical reasons for being Unitarian Universalists. My story, like many of yours, includes being disappointed by other faiths, looking for a place to raise children, and seeking to fill a void. These are the how and why we got here, but don’t answer the question of why we became people of liberal faith. As I decided to answer the question, “Why am I a Unitarian Universalist?” I decided to challenge myself with two criteria which made it significantly more difficult. I decided my answer couldn’t be relative to any other religion. That is, I couldn’t say that I am a Unitarian Universalist because I couldn’t be some other religion…Even if that is true, I and you are a part of THIS community for a reason that goes beyond why we are not somewhere else because we have the option of not practicing any religion. My second, more difficult, criteria was that I had to look for those reasons that were unique to being a Unitarian Universalist, which I could not find elsewhere. One can be a good person and practice the golden rule in every religion on the planet, and again without any religion at all. We can and must follow social conventions of not harming others, whether secular law or sacred commandment, in every society on the planet. We Unitarian Universalists sometimes think that our first principle of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which is an expression of Universalism, is what makes us unique. On the contrary, it is actually the least unique aspect of our faith. As the editorial that I read earlier tells us, most Americans are Universalists. In fact, Universalism came perilously close to disappearing as an organized faith community near the turn of the 19th to the 20th century because the doctrine became widely accepted. So, being a Universalist isn’t necessarily a reason to be in a Unitarian Universalist church. Necessary, perhaps, but not sufficient. I have also asked others over the years to answer the question, “Why am I a Unitarian Universalist.” The answers are always inspiring. Here are a few: … I have always believed that there is room on this planet for all beliefs and, instead of "othering" people who are different I really appreciate and take an interest in people's beliefs who are different than mine. It is also humbling knowing that I am one small part the Greater Web of Existence. To me, being a UU is all about choice and commitment instead of creeds and guilt. I am a UU because it is what I chose - not because it is what I was taught to be, told I had to do, or feel I must do or bad things will happen. I think I've sort of always been a UU. Each day I learn more about myself, the world around me and my faith and I learn something more about why "I am a UU." Caring, inclusive church where how you treat others is more important than what doctrine you believe in or what you might have done on Saturday evening. Although I am very new to The UU Family, I have received more Love and Kindness from my UU Family despite our differing views on the afterlife or lack of one. In fact, since my joining this Family, people of my so-called Believers World have pushed me away, because of my Love for this way of Life. What would Christ say about that? Because as life circumstances and additional learning affect my beliefs, I don't have to change religions. When doubt and even despair caused my understanding of the "transcending mystery" to evolve, I was still a Unitarian Universalist. And as I healed and came to a new understanding of God, and became more open to things I felt but couldn't explain away, I was still a Unitarian Universalist. All of these are beautiful expressions of personal faith. I don’t buy for a second that Unitarian Universalists don’t know how to articulate or share their faith. Again, some of these characteristics of Unitarian Universalism aren’t unique and could be found in other faith communities, but I think there are some amazing insights here. Practicing one’s chosen faith is not always intuitive. Maybe you remember the story of Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas Austin, and a professed atheist. A couple of years ago he wrote an editorial in which he said: I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don’t believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don’t believe exists. Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church. He goes on to say that his decision was not at all a theological one but a move to engage himself and others politically and morally. He joined the church because the people there “expect to engage fundamental questions about what it means to be human and the obligations we owe each other.” I have to admit, that with only minor changes to my beliefs, I could probably be a Christian. Most likely in the United Church of Christ; or a Buddhist, most likely in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn’s Unified Buddhist Church and community of mindfulness; or a Taoist, following the path. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am all of these, and I am none of these. The reason I am and remain a Unitarian Universalist, beyond it being a good fit, beyond the comfort of knowing that people “get me” here; beyond the integrity of knowing that I am being true to myself and my convictions; beyond even our primary emphasis on good works here and now, which is fundamental to my faith—all good reasons—beyond these is the belief that we are uniquely positioned as a faith community to make a difference in a divided world. We humans, thousands of years after the story of Babel was written, are still learning how to cooperate on a global level. Even though 65 or 70 percent of Americans unknowingly profess Universalism, most religious and social institutions do not. The pluralism that Unitarian Universalism embraces; our ability to come together with differing beliefs and shared values is what we have to offer the world. Any difference we make will be made within this framework. We are not a religion of many faiths, but we are a religion that embraces and strives to understand and to learn from many wisdoms. To use a rather strange analogy, we are a universal remote control. We are a UN religious translator, if you will. We speak many different religious languages. We will probably always be a relatively small faith community. Unitarianism will never be the general religion of America as Thomas Jefferson more than once predicted. I’ll be preaching about that prediction next week. I do believe we Unitarian Universalists transcend the mold of how humans gather, which is as cultural units of shared beliefs, values, and experiences. As much as we UUs would like to believe otherwise, we are not like-minded people. If we were, this fundamental tenet of our faith wouldn’t work. We inherently gather against the grain of like-mindedness as people of differing beliefs, coming from many different experiences, but still working toward shared values. We are uniquely positioned to bridge the gaps between people who remain afraid of one another both on the small scale and on a larger scale. And I don’t mean to infer that this in any way makes us superior to other faiths. It does not. If anything, our religious diversity is also one of our weaknesses because the practice of drawing from many different sources of wisdom also keeps us from establishing roots as deeply as we might in our own faith. But it keeps us fresh, and prevents us from stagnating. It is incumbent upon us, our obligation to use this natural strength to make what difference we can. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I firmly believe that we are poised to make a real difference in the world by serving as a catalyst for bringing people of differing and even conflicting cultures closer together; helping them to be less afraid of the other, and less worried about being right and making others wrong. I am not a Unitarian Universalist because of what it brings me. I don’t ask what I am getting from my faith or church. I am a Unitarian Universalist because it transforms me and turns me toward the broader world. I am a Unitarian Universalist because it matters what we believe. I am a Unitarian Universalist because we can ask how and why and whether God has a big toe [reference to children's story told earlier in the service], even if we can’t know the answer. I am a Unitarian Universalist because it requires me to learn other languages, to focus on others before myself, because as God taught the people of Babel, it is more important to be a an integral part of the interdependent web of all existence, spread across the earth, caring for it and others on it, encountering and living life her and now, than it is to build towers to heaven or to make a name for ourselves. I am a Unitarian Universalist because it challenges me to be my best self, to minister to others in love and to serve the greater community. I am a Unitarian Universalist because even that eloquent vision is not enough. I am a Unitarian Universalist because it calls be to be a better person than I can currently imagine. Because it calls me not only to minister to others, but to open myself to the more difficult work of being ministered to. Because it asks the question “what would our service to the greater community look like if we were ten times more bold than we are now? I am a Unitarian Universalist…. Namaste. Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
I preached this sermon at Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, NJ on August 29, 2010: Matthew 25:31-40 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' 41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." As I was reading from the book of Matthew, my guess is that some of you were thinking… “I’m not a Christian. I come to the UU church to get away from Bible readings. Some of you were thinking, “It’s wonderful that we can learn from all traditions, including Christianity, at the UU church.” Perhaps the first-time guests were thinking, “I wasn’t sure whether this was a Christian church or not, maybe it is…” And now you’re wondering again. And I know that the rest of you were thinking, “How in the world is he going to turn sheep and goats, the second coming, judgment day, the reward of eternal life and the punishment of hellfire into a Unitarian Universalist message?” And yet, how could a Unitarian Universalist message be anything other than firmly and deeply grounded in the sources of our living tradition, which include Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. And so, today, I have two messages. The primary message is that of the passage in Matthew, how we bring ourselves to care for others as our natural way of being when they are hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison; and how providing that care to the least among us is caring for all existence. When you do this to least of these, you do it to me. What we do to each other, we do to everyone and everything. I’ll address the second message first. It is one that Unitarian Universalists desperately need if we are to succeed in reaching out to others. This is to learn how to embrace our heritage, specifically our Christian heritage, rather than completely rejecting it. We need to know how to interpret the sacred texts of all traditions in a way that speaks to us. Someone will come to me after the service and say, “The Bible just doesn’t mean anything to me.” My response will be, “That’s why I’m challenging you to give it, and all of our sources meaning. Otherwise, being a Unitarian Universalist is meaningless.” Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther rejected the authority of the Pope and the Catholic priests, he did not reject all Christians teachings. Not long after, Michael Servetus, the Socinians, and Unitarians of Eastern Europe who followed, rejected the specific doctrine of the Trinity, they did not reject all Christian teachings. Universalists Hosea Ballou and John Murray rejected the doctrine of vicarious atonement and elect salvation, they did not reject all Christian teachings. Unitarians Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing rejected various aspects of Jesus’ authority as God incarnate, they did not reject the wisdom of his teaching. In fact, each of these and so many other heretics, protestants, and radical reformers did what they did, often at the risk of their lives and livelihoods, to preserve the power and importance of Jesus’ teachings. Today we Unitarian Universalists reject claims that any single faith is the only path for all people, but we embrace the wisdom that comes from all religious traditions. We embrace a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we understand that there is always something new to learn, and we so we look to our heritage, and to all wisdom, sacred and secular, holy and irreverent, orthodox and heretical in our journey. Just to be clear, Unitarians and Universalists were exclusively liberal Christian denominations until the early- to-mid twentieth century. A few years ago I met some visitors to my Houston congregation who were long-time members of another UU congregation in the southwest. They enjoyed the service they attended here, but a few days later I received an email from them expressing how upset they were that we would list on the back of our order of service that we use Christian teachings. They had never heard of such a thing in a UU church, had spoken with other UU friends who agreed with them, and were offended that we would single out Christianity as something that we teach to the exclusion of other teachings. I had to explain that what was listed on the order of service was the Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles and sources, which our 1000 congregations have endorsed as a whole. They include the source of direct experience, of Judaism and Christianity, of other world religions, of humanism, of earth-centered traditions and other prophetic voices. Several years ago, I was preaching a sermon in a small UU fellowship in Indiana that didn’t have a minister, and I made a passing reference to our Christian heritage. After the service, a member of the church Board came to me and said, “I didn’t understand what you meant about our Christian past, Unitarian Universalists were never Christian.” I had to explain that we were, and we were until not too many years ago, and that no one has ever declared us other than Christian, we have just naturally evolved into a more pluralistic and inclusive faith. We embrace the message of universal love in Christianity just as we embrace the struggle for freedom embodied in Judaism, and the sanctity of the journey inherent in Taoism, and the call to right ways of being in Buddhism, and the reverence for all that exists in Paganism, the power of reason and tolerance found in humanism, the power of necessary doubt offered by atheism, and so many other manifestations of faith found across the ages in the hearts and minds of more souls than anyone could ever count. We are all of these things and we are none of them, we are a faith that is both ancient and always brand new, we are a community of all souls. And so, it is critically important that we know how to interpret the second coming, the judgment day, the reward of eternal life and the punishment of eternal hellfire in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. So, when I was reading the passage from Matthew, I hope at least a few of you were multi-tasking and listening to the message itself. Let’s look at the passage again…It begins with Jesus teaching his disciples about the second coming and the judgment day, which some look to as a future event, when Jesus will return to the earth and will judge us according to our deeds or according to our faith. I make no such assumption. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker taught us over 150 years ago that Jesus himself was transient, as is any messenger, the words, and the message behind the words are what remain. The message here is that how we treat each other is critically important. In this story, all people are judged…all the nations are gathered. I believe we are all judged every moment of every day. How we treat friend, foe, and stranger, robbers and saviors alike, is central to our faith. Jesus said that he would come again in the lifetime of his disciples. Well, we know that this didn’t happen literally. But what if it simply meant that Jesus, like all of our loved ones who have left our physical presence, will return to us and be with us in critical times. We will use their examples when we need them. What if it means that we should live our lives as if he and they were still with us, offering us guidance. So many of my family and friends have died over the years, but each one of them, when I needed it, have been with me. Their lives and examples offer me love and support and guidance in times of need. That, for me, is the second coming. And the third and the forth and the fifth. As far as the judgment day goes Judgment day is every day in my life…we constantly judge ourselves, others judge us, history will judge us, we are judged against the standard of the teachings that we value, as we are judged according to our own deeds. We are only human, and so often fall short, but without something against which we measure our actions, we wouldn’t be very effective in being our best selves and improving how we are in relationship to others. Without a deep sense of values, of integrity as I preached about two weeks ago, we can’t be our best selves, we can’t minister to each other in love, and we can’t serve the community very well. Another element of the Christian scriptures is that, although they offer challenges to modern readers, they are very well-written. We find layers of meaning in a variety of literary devices. The first and most obvious here is the metaphor by which people are sorted for judgment—as sheep and goats. In the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish ritual, maintaining the purity of the Passover lamb is very important. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus himself is repeatedly referred to or treated as a Passover lamb. The sheep, symbols of purity and goodness, get to sit at the right hand of Jesus. Those at the left hand are goats--hooved and horned animals associated with evil. The sheep are told that they are blessed, that they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The meaning of the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God is a sermon for another day, but I read this not to mean that they are literally promised an eternal afterlife of milk and honey, but that they will experience all that is good here on earth…they will receive the kingdom that is made from the world. It doesn’t say that the kingdom is prepared from the heavens, but from the world. Our reward comes from the here and now. Now, the central and most familiar part of this passage: Jesus says to the sheep…. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the people who had done all of these good things didn’t even remember doing them for Jesus…They said “Lord, when was it that we did these things?” Jesus had to explain to them “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are the members of my family, you did it to me. Helping others is just what these people do without thinking about it, without worrying about what’s in it for them. They weren’t even aware that their good deeds had far reaching positive consequences. Doing good is just who they are. As Universalists, we believe that all people are members of one family. Any good, or any bad, done even to one member of the family is done to all and is done to God. God, for me, is not a sentient being, but the process of the entire universe. We are all part of the divine and the divine is part of us, and so anything done to even one of us is done to all of us. We literally save the entire world, one meal, one drink, one piece of clothing, one nurturing moment, and one visit at a time. This is the core of this passage for me. Another important element of this passage, which is so much a part of the text that it goes unnoticed, is that it is the people of all the nations who are doing either good or bad. Jesus, the pastor, is not the only one visiting and nurturing and feeding and clothing, even though through his travel and teachings he always set that example. He is again teaching others that it is also their job to feed and cloth and visit and nurture each other. Next, Jesus has the same conversation with those pesky goats. They did not provide the food, drink, clothing, care, and visit to even one of the least among us. He calls them the accursed and offers them eternal fire prepared not from the world but for the devil and his angels. Now again, we can take many paths here without rejecting the text altogether. For example, we can assume that there is a literal eternal hell somewhere, or we can accept this also as a metaphor for the scarcity, the poverty, and even the misery and sorrow that come to those who offer nothing to others. Just like those who did good as a natural way of being, those who didn’t help others also didn’t have a clue. They were ignorant to their indifference and to the negative consequences of not living in right relationship with those around us. They asked “When did we not do these things…” What they didn’t do to even one person, they didn’t do to any and all of us, and so we are all left hungry and thirsty, and naked, and sick, and lonely in prison. At the end of the chapter, Jesus again offers eternal life or eternal punishment…These are not literal rewards and punishments, but the reality of the condition that we will be in depending on how we behave with each other. We can create heaven and hell here on earth. If we care for each other, we will be closer to heaven. If we do not, our existence here is closer to hell. We know this from experience. The rewards of being generous are unlimited. The rewards of being indifferent or of looking out only for ourselves are few. The effects last as long as they are perpetuated…If they are perpetuated forever then they eternal for better and worse… A final interesting aspect of this passage goes back to the great complexity, care, and artistry with which this text is written. You may think that the Bible is just a bunch of ancient stories that don’t apply to modern life, but you’d be denying yourself access to some of the greatest wisdom, most masterful writing, and most discrete lens into the universal and timeless nature of the human condition that has ever been recorded. In chapter 26, immediately after this story, we are offered two actual examples of the whole story…but with an additional twist that I think points to the interdependent nature of all existence. The next two stories are about how we care for each other. First, Jesus is in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, and a woman is anointing Jesus with expensive oil. The disciples criticize him for letting her do it. They see it as a waste. Here we have a woman doing good, caring for Jesus, who has just predicted his own death. She is the least among us, and she is caring for Jesus. She should be getting cared for herself, bit she knows that what she does to anyone she does to Jesus, and so we see her literally caring for him. Jesus responds to his disciples, “Why do you trouble this woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” And so Jesus is cared for by the one who needs care. She is just doing what she does. It is just who she is. And Jesus says that wherever this good deed is told in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. Her eternal reward is her legacy of doing good. The very next story is Judas’ plan to betray of Jesus. Here is one of his inner circle, one who should be taking care of Jesus and others, and he is doing the opposite. He betrays Jesus, but later realizes his sin and returns the thirty pieces of silver he was paid. Then he ended his own life…This was his eternal punishment and his legacy. The chief priests decided that this was blood money and therefore it could not go back into the treasury, attempting to reverse Judas’ wrongdoing into a cycle of good deeds, so they used it to purchase a field to be used as a cemetery for foreigners. Often, when a member of the church is in need, people come to me not sure how to help. “What can we do to help them?” Is the most common question I am asked. We are clueless, even when we want to do good, on how to do so. This is because we approach each other too often as if we need fixing. We don’t want to see others suffer and so we try to figure out how to relieve their suffering. We want to solve their problems for them. But we can’t. If someone has lost a loved one we can’t end their grief, but we can love them. If someone is in trouble with the law we can’t solve their legal troubles, but we can visit them. If someone is literally or figuratively hungry and thirsty, we can bring them food and drink, for the body and the spirit. If someone is so financially strapped that they are without basic needs, we can give them some clothing. And this is where I do take this passage literally. The answer to how to care for each other is right here. Take them some food. Offer them a drink. Cloth them. Love them. Visit them. Let them say, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” When you do this to the least of these, you do it to me, and to yourself, and to the entire family of humanity, to all that exists. Amen. Continue reading
Posted Sep 28, 2010 at The Indefinite Article
This is the sermon I preached this Sunday, September 26, 2010 at Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, NJ In the Christian Scriptures, in the King James Version of the Book of Matthew (5:17-18), during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is recorded as having said: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." I’d like to tell you a story that I hope will give you sense of my personal credentials in discussing jots and especially tittles. In English, jots and tittles are best described as the cross of a t and dot of an i, respectively. In the original written Greek of the Christian scriptures they were iota and keraia, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet and a serif or accent mark. In the spoken Aramaic of Jesus’ time and place they were probably the yodh, the smallest letter in the Aramaic alphabet and small diacritical marks, hooks, and points that help to distinguish one letter from another. The point in all three cases is attention to the smallest detail. I could say that my study of linguistics, my credentials as a secondary school language teacher, a masters degree in the teaching of Russian, and a PhD in Educational Psychology and second language acquisition, combined with my theological training at that esteemed Unitarian Univeralist seminary, Meadville-Lombard Theological School, are my credentials for explaining jots and tittles, but I would be misleading you. The real story is this….. Forty-nine years 1 month and 27 days ago today, on July 30, 1961, my parents, Harold Edwin Tittle and Phyllis Deane Tittle, bestowed upon me the biblical name of Matthew. They were, at the time churchgoing folks, Presbyterians, my mother with perfect attendance for many years. So, they certainly knew that the passage in the King James Bible which read: “one jot or one tittle” came from the book of Matthew. Hence my name Matthew Tittle is inherently biblical--that is as long as you’re reading the King James Version. My parents would not have overlooked this detail, especially since I know my family was focused on the gospels. You see, my older brother was Mark. My older cousin was Jon. I came third as Matthew, but my mother’s youngest sister rebelled, when her son was born, she refused to name him Luke. So we had Matthew, Mark, Jeff, and Jon. If I had been a girl, I would have been Mary, I don’t know if the intent was mother or Magdalene. In any case, being especially qualified to do so by virtue of my name and family tradition alone, I am preaching today on what it means to attend to every jot and tittle in our spiritual lives. Now I know that some of you dislike references to biblical teachings. Unitarian Universalists have an unfortunate tendency to reject Jewish and Christian teachings, often because we have come to this faith after negative experiences especially with Christianity. This is exactly why this particular passage is important to religious minorities like Unitarian Universalists. Every Sunday, after I preach a sermon, if I have used biblical teachings several of you come to me and ask why. Several more of you come to me and say thank you. If I don’t use biblical teachings, several of you come to me and ask why. Several more of you come to me and say thank you. We are a faith that draws from many sources. We are a faith whose roots and heritage are squarely planted in the Christian tradition. I don’t keep a tally of how often I use teachings from different traditions. I don’t have a quota system. And I don’t debate these points. You will never hear me ask you to accept Jesus Christ or any other prophet or deity as your personal Lord and Savior. You will never hear me tell you to believe in any singular and inerrant truth. If you are uncomfortable with the various sources of the living tradition that I am using-- and by the way, today I will have used all of them before our time together is finished: direct experience, prophetic words and deeds, wisdom from world religions, Jewish and Christian teachings, Humanist teachings, and earth centered traditions—if you are uncomfortable with my using any particular tradition, then your first task is to look within to determine why that discomfort is there. Then, as a Unitarian Universalist who is committed to acceptance of one another and spiritual growth, your task is to stretch yourself, to grow and to learn how to find meaning in that particular tradition. If you are already, or when you become comfortable with the various sources of our living tradition—and I know this is difficult work because I have done this work—I also threw out the babies Jesus and Moses with the bathwater long ago, but have since retrieved them—then your task is to apply those teachings in your own life, to attend to every jot and tittle of your spiritual life. Whether you agree or disagree with any particular preacher or the sources they are drawing on is irrelevant at best and a roadblock to deeper meaning at worst. You are on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I am not telling you what to believe. I am challenging you to be your best self, to minister to one another in love, and to serve the greater community. In his 2005 sermon, “The Very Hardest Thing,” Unitarian Universalist minister, Edward Frost, said, "Unitarian Universalism is not an easy religion, nor should not be. A liberal and optimistic faith that people are inherently good and that this life is a blessed existence, especially for those who suffer the most, is a difficult proposition in the face of the truth of an indifferent natural order capable of great destruction, and an often intentionally angry humankind filled with a predictable history of evil." He says, “liberal faith in the perfectibility of humankind is tested to the breaking point by the daily demonstrated truths that human beings are capable of just about anything.” We need to think deeply about and attend to every detail in our practice and understanding of religion. As religious liberals we encounter much that requires us to understand every jot and tittle of our own religion and that of others. A few years ago, I received the following letter from a conservative Baptist preacher, who had stumbled on to my personal website. He wrote: I am concerned for those who are involved in this type of church. It seems that UUs believe in anything whether it is right or not. Contrary to public opinion, there can only be one truth and the rest lies and deception. Truth is not to be determined by man but by God. The bible is the word of God and it is to govern human life. In the Bible, we are told the truth about who we are. We are sinners from the moment of conception due to the fall of Adam and Eve. Because of sin, we are eternally separated from a holy God. God's love for us was so great that he determined that he would die in our place so that we may be reconciled to God. Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life [his mistake not mine] and no man cometh unto the father but by me. We must admit that we are sinners and repent of our sins, trust the vicarious substitutionary death of Jesus and by faith ask him to save us. My prayer is that your eyes will be opened before it is eternally too late. I receive these sorts of messages often. Just last night I received the following from someone who apparently stumbled upon a blog entry of mine from about a year ago calling for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law: Dear Reverend Matt. I believe the bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of Lust one of the Capital Sins. St. Paul in his Epistles writes that homosexuality along with many other sins is wrong. Was it Carl Menninger who said, “What ever became of sin?” God loves every person he created, but remember he also gave us the Ten Commandments. At the surface level, these sorts of remarks are easy for me to dismiss, just as this other minister found it easy to dismiss Unitarian Universalism. At a deeper level, however, I find it critically important to understand the phenomenon of how people can be so conditioned to a particular and singular, absolute truth, because I think that this is just the opposite of what Jesus was trying to teach. All wisdom literature, Christian and Hebrew scriptures included, are inherently subject to and especially meant for interpretation. I don’t read any scripture from the perspective of assuming that the events depicted are true, but I do assume that the writers had a point. Those who wrote about Jesus portrayed him most often as teaching in parables. Parables are meant to be interpreted. They don’t have one true answer. The Buddha also taught in parables. The point of the parable, like a good sermon, is for the story to speak to the listener in ways unimagined by the speaker. "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." When Jesus explains that he hasn’t come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, he is referring specifically to Jewish law and the teaching of the many prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, and was preaching to those who knew the Jewish Law and Scriptures, both Jew and Gentile. He had to explain himself in this way, because he had just seconds earlier done something incredibly risky by saying, that the poor, those in mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and the falsely persecuted are those who are blessed. He raised them up over the rich, those without feeling, the bullies, the well-fed, the merciless, the deceitful, the war makers, and the persecutors. He also told them, the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on, that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and that they needed to let their light shine. This was heretical, dangerous stuff. He was also about to offer alternative ways to follow the law. And so, he felt it was necessary to explain himself. Even if the Sermon on the Mount never actually happened, those who wrote these stories were taking there own lives and livelihoods into their own hands by writing such subversive literature. Let’s assume for the sake of telling the story that these events did occur. Now, Jesus said he wasn’t trying to destroy the law. He even told the people specifically to obey and not break the Ten Commandments. But he was still very much an activist and even a subversive. I think he was trying to change the law. He promoted nonviolence, but he also promoted active resistance. He told the people to turn the other cheek, effectively offering an oppressor the chance to take another shot, which may very well land them in trouble; he said go the second mile. Soldiers could enlist citizens to carry their gear a certain distance, but no further, Jesus suggested going the second mile, not to help them out, but to get them into trouble. He said give them not only your shirt but also your cloak. A debt collector had to leave something for people to be afforded basic comfort. The cloak was both a coat for warmth and a blanket for sleeping. It couldn’t be taken, but if you gave it to them, again those charged with protecting the law risked breaking it. And even if these measures are interpreted as gestures of goodwill to the authorities, the result is still additional suffering on the part of the poor, the meek, the pure of heart, the peacemakers. The result either way is that the weak are really the strong. They are the blessed. To invoke a phrase from my former cross-town colleague in Houston and Sunday morning televangelist, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, “the victims are the victors.” Or as he says to his congregation “Be a victor, not a victim.” I’ don’t often quote Joel Osteen before, but this is a sound sound byte. Let’s continue with the text: “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” What was he fulfilling? I think this is the key to the whole passage, and perhaps the key to the whole of Christianity. Traditional conservative interpretations suggest, as did the Baptist minister who set me straight about the truth of religion, that the meaning here is nothing short of eschatological, the end times and the fulfillment of the apocalypse, the second coming and the final judgment. But, if we separate the wheat from the chaff, to invoke another biblical nugget, we find that the heart of Jesus’ teachings, the wheat in this case, was almost exclusively devoted to the theme of love and care for one another, neighbor and enemy alike. It was for the creation of a beloved community. Continuing again: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Here comes the good part… This first phrase, “For verily I say unto you” in the King’s English (I’m sorry I don’t have the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic on the tip of my tongue) is universally interpreted by biblical scholars to be an attention getter. “Hey folks, listen up, you better believe me when I say…” Let me paraphrase: Hell will freeze over before even the smallest detail of the law changes until all is fulfilled, until you do something about it. Don’t go breaking the law, but change it so that this beloved community can be formed. And after going through a few examples, he told these underdogs that until their righteousness exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, until they became victors and not victims, that they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and the Pharisees were the recorders, interpreters, and enforcers, of the political, social and religious order. Jesus is saying that those who suffer, those who care, those who are oppressed, those who look out for the world, are as well and even better equipped for the task of interpreting the rule of law. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus refers to doesn’t only mean in the hereafter as many would have us believe. It is here and now. We can create heaven or hell here on earth. Human beings are capable of almost anything. Nothing is going to change until we change it. Not one jot or one tittle. We need to attend to the details of our spiritual lives as Unitarian Universalists. This is the point of our religious plurality and acceptance of many wisdoms. Not to believe in anything we want. Not to keep from offending others. Not to practice an all-encompassing religion, but to practice great discernment and to keep our faith even in the face of unimaginable truth. To challenge the status quo, which has always been a primary mission of the church, so that we can bring about heaven here on earth. We can sit back and watch and do nothing and feel sorry others, or feel sorry for ourselves. But this would be the worst sin of all. Our playing small does not serve the world. Edward Frost also said in his “Very Hardest Thing” sermon: “I believe it is the task of the Unitarian Universalist minister (and I would just say ALL Unitarian Universalists) to do the very hardest thing—to proclaim and maintain a faith, while struggling with the truths that, without a faith to live by, would hollow us out and beat us down.” In case you hadn’t noticed, we are a religious minority. We have willingly been the victims, we have been persecuted for hundreds of years for our heresy. Over the past few years in the United States many have been criticized, ostracized, and persecuted for doing just what Jesus did, for dissenting—for being critical of the status quo and of those in and with power. But this is our task. This means speaking out, and more importantly, acting out in the world. It means knowing who you are spiritually and being as certain and secure in that faith as are the scribes and Pharisees of our times. If we shy away from this moral imperative, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” Amen. Continue reading
Posted Sep 27, 2010 at The Indefinite Article