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Unforgettable Mercies – 11/20/2016

I don’t consider myself to be a very good giver of gifts. I had a friend once who would say to each of his friends, on their birthdays, “This is my gift to you this year: I didn’t get you anything. Now you don’t have to worry about getting me anything next year.” And I thought that sounded like a very amicable sort of arrangement. But every so often, I do manage to remember a holiday or a milestone, and send a loved one or acquaintance something appropriate to mark it with. And a certain small percentage of the time after that, something else happens, and no matter how many times it does, I never fail to be completely taken off-guard by it: that something, is that I get a thank-you note in the mail.

This always leaves me confounded and impressed – that someone had the level of organization necessary to execute such an intentional practice of gratitude. The unexpected is usually more memorable than the anticipated, and so acts of kindness and consideration can often feel more meaningful when they take on an unexpected form or come to us from an unexpected source. Let me give you an example:

In 1995, Tupac Shakur was one of the biggest names in hip-hop, in the whole of the American popular music scene, in fact. He was also in the midst of a nine-month prison stint. He was the first artist, in fact, to have an album reach #1 on the Billboard charts while incarcerated. A prison is, by its design and intent, a grim and unkind place. No matter the circumstances that bring a person to that place, it is a hard and painful thing, for a human being, to live in a cage. After his release, Tupac was asked in interviews about his experience in prison. He talked about the authors he’d read – Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli. He offered his thanks to the friends, family, and fellow artists who had supported him. But there was one name on that list who stuck out as sort of an odd duck: Tony Danza.

For those of you who don’t know, Tony Danza was a rather famous actor in his day – he’s still working today, in fact. He had a couple of very successful TV shows, tending to play big-hearted, quick-witted working class characters. He was not, however, someone you might have expected to find, in the mid-90s, in the orbit of the gangsta rap genre. But, like much of America, he’d listened to Tupac’s music, and knowing that the poet was then behind bars he felt moved to write to him. Not just a small note – long, deep letters, more than one. And receiving those letters, from a stranger he didn’t know from Adam, clearly meant something to Tupac Shakur. Up until his death, far too young and far too soon, Tupac continued to talk in interviews about his gratitude to and appreciation for Tony – a man he hadn’t known before, whom he now considered a friend.

It is said the teacher Jesus said, in the course of a story to his students, about the sorts of kindness most worthy of appreciation, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”[i] Our gratitude is stirred most – or, at least, it ought to be – when we receive some mercy that we deeply needed. This is true even in the cases of an act of compassion we didn’t consciously know we needed, or that we could not have articulated the need for. It is also true – and this is particularly important – even when that unforgettable mercy is mutual, rather than one-sided. An exchange of grace that each of the parties to it needs as much as any other.

A friend of mine was generous to give me permission to share one of her experiences with you this morning. The scene unfolded earlier this week. That friend, Samira, was driving a long distance, late at night, and stopped at a nearly empty service plaza to pick up a few things for the rest of her trip. A lot of people, in this country, and some of us, here in this room, have felt less safe, and more on-edge since the election. Its outcome sent a message of hostility and unwelcome to many of us; it’s only natural for folks to be more guarded, and skeptical of strangers they encounter. Samira herself had had an unsettling experience on election day – a stranger, making an assumption based on her skin color, had muttered at her, “You dirty Muslim, we shouldn’t let you vote.” Samira is actually Jewish, but it’s tragically common for people of South Asian descent to be targeted on the assumption that they’re Muslim. One of the hallmarks of bigotry is that it rarely bothers to do its homework.

That encounter on Election Day, and what came after it, when a young boy who’d also heard the insult spoke up on Samira’s behalf, actually made it into an article in the Washington Post.[ii] But alone, at night, in the nearly-empty store, Samira found herself assuming that the white woman ringing her up had most likely cast one of the 60 million votes which had increased Samira’s sense of alienation from her own country. And then, she noticed that this woman was wearing a safety pin on her clothing. We talked about this last week. The symbolic meaning of this practice – an import from Great Britain – is that the person wearing it promises to extend safety to anyone else around them who might need it. To make sure that if someone is targeted or harassed for who they are, they will be there to do what they can, to intervene. For a very new practice, it has a lot of critics on both the right and the left. My counsel to you last Sunday continues to hold true a week later: the symbol is hollow unless you are determined to follow through on the commitment it implies.

Seeing the pin, Samira complimented the stranger on it, and that is when the store clerk’s whole demeanor changed. She shifted from a shallow, casual interaction to a much deeper one. The woman talked about how seriously she took the commitment of wearing that pin. She spoke about her identity as a veteran, coming from a military family. “This is America, and we are better than this. We have to be better than this…I can’t tell you it will be okay, but I can tell you that there are decent folks who will go down fighting. I put my life on the line to protect America, and it wasn’t for this.” When she wrote about the whole thing later on, on Facebook, Samira said this about it. That, “…for just a few moments, I was back in the United States in which I want to live.”[iii]

My friends, each of our lives depends each day upon a thousand or more acts of simple and meager kindness. The mundanities which carry most of us through life rarely get acknowledged by us, and to some degree that is alright. But there are still moments that come to us as benevolent surprises, unforgettable mercies. Such fragmentary instances have the power to reshape our lives and ourselves, if we are willing to open our hearts to them – and to the practice of gratitude which they stir up in us. The time of Thanksgiving this week is set aside in our national consciousness for us to reflect together on what is most precious in our lives and worthy of our gratitude. Even though it is beset on all sides, by the commercial encroachment of Halloween before it and the ever-widening juggernaut of Christmas-consumption, after it. Even under the all-too-real, all-too-terrible specter of the colonization of the native peoples of this continent, still there remains a crack in the door of our collective heart. Not simply wide enough for the smell of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to waft through, but sufficient to allow in the light of wonder, and of hope, at the beauty and the possibility of this common world we share.

 

[i] Matthew 25:35-36

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/11/16/from-despair-to-resolve-those-who-did-not-vote-for-trump-are-coping-with-the-loss/

[iii] From Facebook, November 16th, 2016. Retold with permission of the author.

What To Do When The World Falls Apart – 11/13/2016

 

Do you remember the movie, Bambi? The story about a cartoon deer, growing up in the forest? It’s generally considered to be a children’s movie; I’d venture to guess that the majority of us have seen it, including a majority of the children. It’s also a movie that’s pretty honest about fear and grief and loss. It has some very sad moments, and some hard truths in it. I wanted us to be together this morning – all of us, of every age – so that we could practice a similar honesty. In all times, but especially in times of crisis, people who care for and respect one another owe each other the truth, and this applies as much to children as to anyone else.

So I will say to all of you now a version of what my partner and I said to our children, on Wednesday morning: Donald Trump is going to be our next President. We didn’t want for it to happen, but it is. He’s promised to make a lot of bad rules, and to be mean and unfair to a lot of people. That’s why we’re worried, because we’re thinking about the people he may hurt. But we are going stay true to our values, and help each other stay strong, even as the world around us may not, because that’s what a family does. And the strength that we have as a family isn’t just going to be for us; we’re going to be strong together, and we’re going to use that strength to help other people who need it, because that’s another thing that a family does.

Wednesday was a hard morning for a lot of us, whether we were trying to explain the situation our country now finds itself in to our children, or simply to ourselves. The aftermath of the election, in terms of the scope and degree of emotional response in large numbers of people, felt a lot like what follows a natural disaster or other sudden loss of life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole, I mean it in a sober, measured way, as someone whose job it has been to accompany people in moments of profound trauma.

There’s a moment in Bambi, near the end, that’s very frightening. There’s a forest fire, and hunters, and a chase. Bambi leaps, and falls, and for a moment, we don’t know if he’s going to make it or not. If, after this week now passed, you empathize with that image, of a crumpled deer lying on the ground, then this sermon is intended to stand in for what happens next in the movie. The bent but unbroken young buck begins to stir and wobble to his feet, as from off-screen, we here a voice. It is Bambi’s father calling out, urgent, but clear. “Get up, Bambi! Get up!”

My instructions for what to do when the world falls apart are not limited to this particular situation, so any of you don’t resonate with the sense of calamity surrounding this election can keep them on hand; crisis comes to each of us in time, no matter how comfortable, or well-insulated we may be. The first one, you may have already heard: Go to church. When we are overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, we need to connect with others and to replenish our spiritual resources. It is an essential purpose of any spiritual community to sustain and support its members and friends in the hard work of living. Indeed, this is a definitional matter – any group that accomplishes this, however formal or informal, traditional or not, is a spiritual community, while any group which does not, no matter its historical purpose or identification with organized religion, ought not to flatter itself with the title of spiritual community. A good synagogue, temple, masjid, gurdwara, or church will be a natural supplier of many of the things you will need: solace, encouragement, the tools to forge meaning out of meaninglessness, people to work alongside, and, in the majority of cases, strong coffee. Church is also, and I hope this is obvious, a very appropriate place to cry.

The next step is to take stock of what has happened. I put this after seeking out a spiritual community because it is so easy to spin-out into the limitless depths of anxiety and self-doubt when we approach a dire situation from a place of isolation, without any grounding or anyone to offer a reality-check. What has happened, in this instance, is that a person who made bullying and hate-speech into a cornerstone of his campaign, and whose policies dehumanize and endanger immigrants, people of color, disabled people, Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and, in particular, transgender people – has been elected our President. And this, in turn, has further emboldened the most hateful and violent agents of white supremacy, Christian supremacy, male supremacy and heterosexual supremacy in our country. The social compact that pushed such overt contempt for the lives of others out of the mainstream of what is acceptable in society has been badly damaged. Through its cracks, very real danger is pouring through.

I don’t want to sugar-coat any of this, but I do want to say two things about it. The first is simply factual, the second is theological. First the fact: though he received the support of a terrifying number of people, Mr. Trump did not have the votes of even a majority of those voting, let alone of all citizens. If you are feeling alone, please remember that. As for the theological: there is an idea abroad in the land that good always triumphs over evil, that love always wins out over hate. It’s a pleasing sort of idea on its surface, but it can also lead us to blame ourselves when things go terribly wrong – we wind up excoriating ourselves and each other for the slightest hint of imperfection, thinking this must be the reason for our suffering. But the simple observation of history shows that this is not so: the right does not always win. Greed, contempt, and the thirst for power often succeed. That is why we are called to struggle so hard against them; it is why their challenge is always on-going, and why it has to be faced again and again by every generation in every new age. It is not that justice always prevails, but that justice always ought to prevail; it is always worthy of our highest effort, which is why every time its ideals are thwarted some of us humans pick the banner up again, and carry it on.

The third and final step we need to take when the world falls apart is to find out what can be done, and to do it. There is a pop song that’s been on the radio for the last little while. You may have heard it, perhaps, when you were frantically turning your radio dial away from NPR sometime in the last several days. In it, the singer asserts that he is willing to stand in harm’s way for a friend, even for a stranger. But then he immediately interrogates himself; it’s easy to make such a claim when there’s no danger at hand. He closes the thought with this line: “Hypothetically, I’m the man, but literally I don’t know what I’d do.” Well, friends, now we get to find out. Let me confess something to you, of which I am deeply ashamed: until Wednesday I had not realized how complacent I had allowed myself to get, under the Obama administration. I remained critical of many of the things my government does; signed petitions, went to rallies, campaigned for changes in the status quo. But on some level, I now must admit, I had begun to think that even if I managed only B-level work on behalf of justice and human dignity, the victories would keep rolling in. It was always a mistake to entertain that notion; the last five days have just made clear the depth of that mistake.

As the person this congregation has called to be its spiritual leader, I had to answer two questions on Wednesday, when it became clear how much greater the work of liberal religion was to become in the next four years. The first: are you ready to give yourself over to this struggle? I took my time to arrive at the answer, but humbly, and deeply aware of my own faults and limitations, I said, “Yes.” The second question was a lot like the first: is your congregation ready for the same? That answer came loud, and fast: “Heck, yes.” I am standing before you this morning because I trust you as co-workers in the labor justice, and I believe that you are up to the great challenge that history has placed before us. If I didn’t, I would have cried with you and held your hands on Wednesday, and turned in my keys on Thursday.

Many of us here this morning are afraid, afraid for our most basic wellbeing, with the election of a man who denigrates us and winks at violence against us. To you, my friends, I say much the same thing that I said to my children: we are going to help each other stay strong. Where your rights or your bodies are threatened, we will be there. We are going to uphold our values together and help to answer your fear with courage, because that is what a congregation does. And we are going to use the strength we build by standing up for one another to reach out and do the same for as many other people and as many other groups as we possibly can – because that is also something a congregation does.

Now, I need to say something to any of Mr. Trump’s supporters who may be listening. I don’t know for sure that you’re out there this morning, but I also don’t know for sure that you’re not. First, and I mean this quite truthfully, I want to thank you for showing up this morning, and for staying here. You had to know something like this was coming, and it’s likely harder-edged than you expected. I’m grateful you stuck with it. My message for you is this: I still love you. I meant what I preached last Sunday: whatever happened on Tuesday and whatever you did or did not do about it, you still have a place here, and I am still prepared to be your minister. I can’t imagine this has been a sterling week for you, either. Almost no one, and no one, I have to believe, who would have any interest in being here, relishes being associated with a figure scorned by so many around them. I would not be surprised if you felt some need for pastoral support in this, and I promise you I am available to supply it. Just call me, and let’s set an appointment; it is my duty, one I gladly perform, to care for the souls of my congregation. Our political disagreements are no barrier to this. But I want you to understand something up-front. Both because of his stated policy goals and the people that his rhetoric has given aid and comfort to, the election of Donald Trump has created very real danger for many of the people in this room. For members of your family, for neighbors, for strangers across the country and around the world who are entirely innocent and undeserving of this threat. And it is because I care about you, because I am called to be your pastor, that I am obligated to try to help you understand that. But in another four years, you can do the same thing over again, if you like. Just do not expect that your opposition will stop or slow down my or this congregation’s doing what we are called to do to confront hatred and injustice.

I cannot yet call what lies ahead for us good, but it is profound. We are going to need to speak out every time the rights of one of us or one of our neighbors in infringed. We are going to have to offer sanctuary to anyone and everyone who needs it. We are going to be called upon to answer every hateful word or deed stridently, with a love that knows there are some things love cannot abide. As a congregation, we’re going to find out how and when and where this manifests together; some of that discovery we’ll be doing today in fact, as we have an important discussion about our role in the work of racial justice after the service today, and I have already accepted an invitation to accompany our youth group to a vigil at the immigration detention facility in Boston later this afternoon – anyone who’s interested, you’re more than welcome to join us. But there are two other immediate things I want to offer you this morning. The first comes from a colleague, Rev. Ashley Horan, a practice she calls Neighborhood Love Notes. She’s inviting other Unitarian Universalists – and anyone else – to use chalk to make displays of love and beauty in the areas around their congregations and homes. Messages of welcome, inclusion, celebration and appreciation – much needed counterweights to a world now being crowded with contempt and scapegoating. Your chalk is waiting for you by the exits – please take some with you, and do wonderful things with it.

The second invitation involves the safety pins here on the altar. A few of you are already wearing them, so I know that the word is out that, in a practice originally imagined by an American living in Great Britain, a good many folks here in the US are wearing single, closed safety pins prominently on their clothing. This is meant to signify that the wearer is committed to extending safety to anyone who is marginalized or targeted. To watch for any threatening, bullying, or hateful behavior and to make it their business to come to the aid of whoever needs help. There is already, I’ll tell you, a backlash against all this, that it’s too easy and shallow. But I am offering it to you because I believe this safety pin is worth exactly as much as you commit to it. That’s why I’m distributing them without any ritual – rituals create social pressure to participate. I only want you to join me in this after you have reflected deeply and seriously on whether you will follow through on the unspoken pledge. Will you turn towards something ugly, when everyone else looks away? Will you trust a stranger who says, “I need help?” Will you practice de-escalating a situation, and tie your comfort and security together with someone else’s? As I said, the pins are here on the altar. You are free to take one – or not – following the benediction. In fact, if you are already wearing one, and what I have just said has given you some reservations about it, you are also welcome to leave yours in the bowl. Take some time to reflect, and to steel yourself for the work ahead. I’ll be happy to give you a new one, when you’re ready to put it on again.

We Unitarian Universalists have long been concerned less with the mysteries beyond death than with the way humans create paradise or perdition here on earth. It’s been a hell of a week. So, sprinkled with tears as necessary, let’s get back out into the world, and help to heal it.

The Sacrament of Democracy – 11/6/2016

I am obliged to begin my message this morning by saying something very clearly, up front: I neither have, nor do I desire to have, the spiritual authority to tell you how to use your vote. No matter what you do, or do not do, have done or have not done, on or before this Tuesday, I have no special power to offer you any reward or punishment, whether theological or ecclesiastical. I can neither threaten hell nor promise heaven as an inducement – my Universalism takes both the carrot and the stick off of the table. And while there are a great many things that I would say you or I could do wrong, come Tuesday, none of them will change your status here. Neither I, nor this congregation, make any endorsement of any party or candidate. What exactly you will do with your one wild and precious vote remains, quite thoroughly, up to you.

If I say that this has been a particularly sour and anxiety-filled Presidential campaign process, full of much wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I rather doubt that many will rise to its defense. I have found in the last few months that only three possible outcomes remain, when the subject of the election comes up in conversation between two or more people: fight, flight, and mutual obsession. The fight option should be fairly self-explanatory: a tense and quite possibly heated exchange between strangers, co-workers, or family members, arguing about the merits of one’s chosen candidate – or more likely, the flaws of another. Flight is also pretty straight forward: it is the impulse to avoid the subject at all costs, by avoiding the subject, changing it when encountered, actively leaving the room when it is brought up or literally pleading that the group turn its attention to something, anything else. To be clear, I’ve seen all four of those possibilities play out. The third option, after fight and flight, however – mutual obsession – might require a little more explanation. This is when two or more people manifest the free-floating angst in this election by exchanging numerous scraps and tidbits about it – fragments of polling data, semi-obscure stories from the political press, comparisons to little-known episodes from American history, and theories about exactly how things might unfold, come Election Day. As one who has chosen this third option again and again, this election season, I have to own up to what it actually is: a way of appearing to be bravely engaged in confronting this frightening spectacle consuming our nation, while really it’s just yet another spin on flight; obsessing over minutia as an intellectual dodge.

My calling as your pastor, to care for the wellness of each of your souls and to lend what aid I can in trying times, exhorts me to offer some comfort, here. To remind you that no matter what world we wake up to on Wednesday morning, the earth will continue to spin, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west, and life will continue on. All of which is true. But I am also compelled by my role and by the covenant we share to fumble towards prophecy: to speak to you plainly and honestly about what matters most. So I will say this: elections have consequences. Their outcomes matter, and in fact our shared faith demands that we take them, and our role in them, seriously. To some of you who would wish that this was all over, or would all go away, that may sound more like the hard truth than the comforting reassurance. But I say it today, because I believe it to be both. Here’s why:

There is an old Jewish fable, about a boat which set out to sea on a long journey. It carried both people and cargo, and the captain of the ship assigned those people – of whom were quite poor – each a little plot in the hold, just as though they were goods to be sold. The voyage was long, and by the middle of it the passengers had run out of food, even after sharing and carefully portioning what little they had. So, with their bellies hungry, the people appointed the Rabbi who was among them to go to the captain and ask for his mercy. The Rabbi explained to the captain that the passengers in the hold were going hungry. Yet, the ship’s cargo contained a great deal of food meant for sale when they arrived at their destination. Couldn’t the captain open just one of his crates, and distribute enough food to make sure no one went hungry?

The captain refused. The food was his, and he planned to do with it as he chose; whatever that was, it was no business or concern of the Rabbi. The Rabbi was sad to hear this, but not surprised. He convinced the captain, however, to come with him into the hold, to little square of floor that had been assigned to the Rabbi as his portion. When they arrived, the Rabbi produced a hand drill, and began to drill into the floor. The captain yelled at him to stop – even a small hole would let the whole ocean into the boat. The ship would be lost, and everyone and everything aboard it as well. The Rabbi kept on doing exactly what he had been doing, drilling closer to the water underneath and around the boat with each turn of the crank. “This is my part of the hold,” the Rabbi explained. “I paid for it, and you assigned it to me yourself. It is mine, and I plan to do with it as I choose. Whatever that is, it is no business of concern of yours.” Ashamed at the mirror the Rabbi’s actions held up to his own selfishness, the captain relented, and opened one of his crates to feed the hungry passengers.

It is our faith that all of our lives are connected to each other. That our world is not defined by 7.4 billion private interests, but ultimately by a single, common good. The rights, and the worth and dignity of the individual, we affirm and defend. But it is not because each of us is a precious jewel, beautiful but alone. Rather, we are each threads in the same garment: when one of us is diminished, the whole of us suffer the loss. These two deep understandings about ourselves and our world – the unique value of the one, and the shared value of the all – constitute the first and the last of the seven principles which our Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote. It is from these two, that all others proceed, and one of them, the fifth principle, names our explicit commitment to democracy as a religious imperative.

Even when it is being supported, democracy is often presented as a compromise of sorts. Of course, goes the argument, we each would prefer to have a dictatorship which followed our own preferences perfectly, but because none of us would wish to live in anyone else’s dictatorship, deciding matters together, or electing representatives who will do so for us, is the next best option. “Democracy,” as the British statesman Winston Churchill once put it, “is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But what I tell you is this, and I pray that you remember it on Tuesday: I could not, and you should not, ever be content to live in a dictatorship. No matter how convincing the rhetoric of the man – and friends, I’m sorry, but it’s always a man – ginning up the crowd is. No matter how grand his promises or seductive his prejudices – even if he professes to hate exactly whom you hate, and love exactly whom you love, and vows to return the earth to your favorite, imaginary era of lost perfection, neither joy not security will follow for you, once he makes his ascent. When you give your own power over to a would-be-emperor, who so neatly and absolutely divides the world between the righteous and the vile, between the sheep and the goats, you will never be safe on the side of the angels. Everyone, but the one who is king, is simply waiting in line for their turn to be persecuted. Your only hope to avoid becoming a victim of the regime that you championed is that your life might be shorter than the length of the line ahead of you.

We are not religiously committed to democracy because there is some spiritual magic in the act of voting; there are other ways of making decisions that can be equally democratic, or more so. We do not commit ourselves, as a movement, to this principle, because there is some inherent good in the electing of others to make our most crucial collective decisions for us. There are many different ways to practice democracy, to pursue the elusive ideal that are subject to a decision – who must suffer for it, benefit from it, or in any case, live with it – must be the ones who make that decision, together. So there is no reason why our faith compels you to do anything in particular with yourself this Tuesday, except that this is the particular system we have at this time, and if you are a citizen of this country, and legally an adult, and have not been stripped of your right by incarceration, then you have some power over what sort of world we will wake up to on Wednesday. Whether or not the people in the hold will continue to go hungry, indeed, whether or not we will all wake up to a hole in the boat.

Whether you retain the right and responsibility of the franchise or not, you have the still some power, I promise. To volunteer, to campaign, to organize. If you do not like candidates available to you in this election, find someone you would like better – yourself included – and encourage them to answer a call to public service. If you do not like the system of our voting itself, I urge you to work to change. There is much more we could do, as a nation, to ensure that every person who wishes to can exercise their right to vote, and that those votes can lead to outcomes and officials that better reflect the intent of the people who cast them. Of all the electoral systems in the world, we are among the most hostile to the creation of new political parties – we could only be more so if they were banned outright. And the rigidity of our two-party system distorts the major parties we do have, and leaves them either beholden to the most extreme attitudes of their base or insulated from their chief concerns all-together. Perhaps you’d like to do something about one of those problems, or both.

A political election, like nearly everything else in life, is a collision between the ideal, and the practical. In any choice regarding parties, candidates, or legislation, there is some degree of compromise involved. Unless you, or someone you love and trust even more than yourself, is running for high office, then there will always be some space between what you might wish for, and the options available to you. But democracy is not holy because it is pure, it is sacred because it is messy. Because it is complicated enough to matter, and touch upon the real problems faced by people in their real lives. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there is work to be done on Wednesday. Some of it will be different, pending the outcome, but much of it the same. The struggle for the rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people will still be far from over. The millennia-old dominance of men over all other genders will still be in place – no matter who wins, friends – and still need to be finally toppled. The architecture of racial injustice, built up over long centuries of suffering and death, still today the cause of so much suffering and death, will still need to be dismantled. The ethos which holds that one religion is superior and all others inferior will still be abroad in the land and in need of confrontation. Your power, this Tuesday, to make some incremental progress in each of these areas is real, and for that reason it is a profound responsibility. It is also just one link in a long chain: whether that chain is pulling us all up or holding us all down will depend on what we do on Wednesday, and every day after. That is my good news for you this morning.

And know that, having said all of this, I am largely preaching to the choir. That half or more of you have voted already, and that the decision of how you would vote was made by you months ago. So if what I have said to you this morning you already basically know, then I call on you to get out there folks, and tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell strangers in the street. Tell everyone you can, that they have power, too. Whether or not they realize it and whether or not they want it. Not enough of it, in most cases, but we can all get a little bit more of it, if we use what we have, together.

I want to close with a brief word about the four questions appearing on the ballot here in Massachusetts. As with candidates and parties, I won’t presume to tell you how you ought to vote, but I do feel a responsibility to illuminate the moral framework in which each of these matters rests.

Question 1 asks about adding a new slot parlor in the commonwealth. People are largely entitled to do as they will for recreation, and I find no basis in our tradition to deny a person’s right to gamble, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in any of the other vices I don’t enjoy, any more than we might deny someone’s right to eat fried food, or drink excessive amounts of corn syrup, or stay up too late reading about the election on the internet – all vices that I am provably in the thrall of. But the business of commercial gambling depends upon exploiting addiction. Without people who are psychologically compelled to gamble – rather than merely enjoying it as an occasional distraction – these businesses can’t generally turn a profit. With or without one more slot parlor, there will still be opportunities to gamble, and to do it in Massachusetts. I cannot, therefore, see an argument for creating one more opportunity for a private business to make money on the backs of people struggling with addiction.

Question 2 asks about approval for new charter schools in our state. Of the four questions on our ballot, I believe this may be the most controversial among people in this room. As a movement, our commitment to ensuring accessible, quality education for all people is possibly our single most unswerving commitment. Nationally, charter schools are championed as a source of innovation in public schooling, providing an increase range of choices to children and their guardians and promoting greater opportunities for learning. It would be impossible to say that no charter school has ever succeeded in this regard – it would only take one committed teacher, or one accomplished student to disprove that, and there are certainly many of these. But also, nationally, charter schools have served as a vehicle for undermining the victories of teachers’ unions, for side-stepping accountability to local communities, including parents, and have offered a back-door for private, for-profit businesses to grow wealthy at the expense of the children they purport to serve. Again, it would be wrong to say that every charter school is the problem, but it would also be wrong to dismiss all the structural criticisms based on the individual students, teachers, and parents who have had positive experiences. As a product of public schools myself, and specifically of alternative public schools which were teacher-centered in their leadership and student-centered in their outcomes, I believe fiercely in the need to reform and restore our system of public education which has been systematically denigrated and dismantled in the 17 years since I graduated from high school. I’m not convinced that charter schools, in their current form, should be an increasing element of that project. I also know, from talking with some of you, that this is an issue which reasonable, principled, compassionate people can disagree on. I ask you to remember that, no matter whether you are celebrating or lamenting the result on Tuesday night, someone seated near you this morning will be doing the opposite.

Question 3 would ban the sale of caged animals for their meat, eggs, or other produce. I suspect you already know what your vegan minister thinks on this issue. My advice to you is as it always is with regard to food: know where yours comes from. Understand what goes into its production. And if you cannot stomach any element of that process, let that guide you as to what you choose to put into your stomach.

Question 4 would legalize the recreational use of marijuana by anyone 21 or over, something that is already permitted for medical reasons and largely decriminalized for all other purposes. I say largely, because as long as the sale and production of the substance is illegal, there are and still will be people arrested and punished for doing what is supposed to be a negligible, tolerated misdeed. Despite the fact that the assumptions strangers make based on my haircut, lead folks to try to sell the stuff to me on a somewhat regular basis, I’m not a particular fan of marijuana, and I don’t promote its use. I would say that I feel towards it about as I do towards alcohol: I’d just as soon as not our society were rid of the stuff, but it’s easy for me to dismiss an intoxicant I do not take pleasure in. I find no nobility in judging others for their enjoyment of the stuff, however. Should this measure pass, there will be work to do on the regulation side, and charge you that if you vote yes, you will have some responsibility to ensure that this new, lucrative industry does not go to benefit only affluent and almost-exclusively white entrepreneurs. If the poor people and people of color, presently in jail for the sale or production of marijuana are locked out of this new, legal industry, a profound injustice will have been compounded. But I will also say this: if you have ever smoked pot, when it was against the law for you to do so, and you didn’t go to jail for it, you need to vote yes on this measure, if only to ensure for others, the same luck which you enjoyed.

No Second Chances, Only Many First Ones

The other night, I returned from the store with my groceries in tow, and in a rush I tried to bring them all into the house too quickly – making two trips, when I ought to have made three or four. I set the first batch of bags on an empty space on the kitchen counter, even though it was not a wise place to put them: there were too many bags, and not enough space for them. I went back out to the car for the rest, and on my way back in I heard it – the crash of one of those bags slipping off the counter and onto the floor. It happened to be full of apples, which tumbled and scattered across the kitchen floor, rolling under chairs and over to the heating grate. I responded with exasperation and some words I won’t repeat here.

As mistakes go, my sloppy, hurried chore work had a very low cost. The apples were salvageable, and not badly bruised – they’ll most likely all still be eaten. But there is no denying that what happened happened, that however little the repercussions for my family’s fruit supply, there’s no way to undo it, exactly. Spill a glass of milk and you can clean up the mess, get out a fresh glass, and fill it up with milk again. But that first glass was still lost; there’s no getting it back. And while objects are usually fairly interchangeable, people never are. When our choices and our mistakes affect others, the stakes become dramatically higher.

In the late 1960s, Unitarian Universalism (like every other movement or organization in the United States) was faced with a profound moral challenge. The struggle for racial justice – which was, then as now, older than the republic, and which had been marked and defined by violence and suffering since the first beginnings of colonization and slave-holding in this hemisphere – had reached such a degree of visible intensity that white people and predominantly-white institutions all across the social and political spectrum were forced to grapple with growing demands for societal transformation. Our movement had, in its history up to then, made some laudable contributions to the goal of racial equity and a truly just society. We also had a sorry number of failures to our name. Our Association of Congregations received a new opportunity to act or fail to act when a campaign of black Unitarian Universalists called for the creation of a major new initiative to support people of African descent within our movement.

Their demand – the creation of the Black Affairs Council, and its funding for a sum of one million dollars spread over four years (an enormous sum to our small institution in 1968) – was initially approved by the elected delegates of our General Assembly. They were bold enough to do this, over-ruling a more middle-of-the-road proposal from the Board and President of the Association. The work began; grants were distributed and new efforts were undertaken, including programs to foster the real, full inclusion of black people within our existing congregations, and to form new congregations specifically devoted to reaching out to black communities. Unfortunately, the project did not last even for those four initial years. Many white leaders (and some black leaders) within the movement disagreed with the organizing strategy of the Black Affairs Council, which they saw as being based on separation, rather than integration. The BAC had overwhelming support from people of color within the Association, and sizeable support from our white membership, especially among the younger leaders. But the conflict was enough to get the amount of money set aside for BAC in its second year reduced from $250,000 to $200,000. This came across to many as a vital promise irreparably broken. The BAC and its program essentially collapsed, and a painfully large number of black (and some white) Unitarian Universalists (an entire generation of leaders) left the movement in anger and despair.

I recount all of this to you now, because of what happened just this past month. The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective – a contemporary effort by black Unitarian Universalist leaders – presented its program to support and expand the role and visibility of black people within our movement to the Board of Trustees of our Association. Our national Board voted to fund BLUU with $300,000 immediately, and a guarantee of $5,000,000. That’s a less than the value of one million 1968 dollars would be adjusted to 2016, but it’s in the same ballpark – a dramatic, and serious commitment of our common resources. The Board has expressed its determination to make the visionary choice and see it through this time. There are no second chances, but there are frequently new first ones. Finding, and following them, is the challenge.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

 

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