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The Virtue of Pride – 6/19/2011

I want to say “Happy Father’s Day” to all the dads here this morning, including my own. Thank you for your patience and your wisdom, and for your kindness and compassion, and your hard work. Thank you to the father who are here, and thank you also for the fathers that we remember on this day, who come to worship with us this morning because we carry them in our hearts. As one of the fathers in the room, I also want to offer up gratitude for the opportunity to be a dad – it is a privilege to be a parent, and we know that not everyone who longs to be a father gets to become one. There are many gifts that come with parenthood, and one of the little ones that I really enjoy is having the chance introduce a new person to things that I enjoyed when I was their age.

So I get to eat corn on the cob with my daughter, and read her the Runaway Bunny, and sometimes we watch Sesame Street together. Some time ago, we were sitting together on the couch and we saw a vignette from the show that I had missed out on in the 20-odd year break that I took from being a regular viewer. Elmo, the most commercially-successful furry red monster in the history of children’s television, was singing a duet with a rock star from the mid-90s about pride – about believing in yourself, loving yourself. They do that sometimes on that program – they’ll take a popular song and put different words to it about counting or learning to tie your shoes. Now this particular song, that Elmo’s was based on, I remember from when I was in High School, and I remember just hating it. But watching that fuzzy red muppet dance and sing to the same tune I didn’t mind it so much, because his message: to have respect and love for yourself, is something I want my child, and every child, every person, to learn.

Religion has often taken a negative attitude towards pride. Consider, for instance, the recurring line in the Gospels that those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, but those who humble themselves shall be exalted. Humility is a common religious value, and it does good when it teaches the powerful to be mindful of the struggles of the powerless. One of the finest things that religion can do for us and for the world is to root out our comfort and our complacency and to call us to account for the ways in which we have fallen into selfishness. But too often the only people who hear that message of selflessness are the folks who have already been humbled by the world in which they live. Ground down by prejudice and oppression, and made to feel small and empty by the inescapable message that their lives and experiences mean less than certain others.

This month in cities all over the country, parades and festivals are being held to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual pride. It is a chance to live out loud joyfully, to lift up an identity that is still all too terribly often beaten down. The celebrations come in at this time of year because June 28th is the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. On that night, 42 years ago, a group of Transgender, Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay people gathered in a bar called the Stonewall Inn. Almost the only way they could get together or be themselves at that time was in private or secret. Being Gay wasn’t just stigmatized; it was an arrestable offense. That bar – a limited, imperfect outpost on the fringes of an overtly intolerant society – was raided by a group of police ominously titled the Public Morals Squad. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that the crowd decided not to be harassed and arrested quietly. Led by mainly by homeless gay teenagers and drag queens, the people inside the bar and a crowd of passers-by refused to submit, and stood up to the police, and managed to drive them out of their neighborhood. That one night in one neighborhood, in one city helped lead to a new level of organization among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people in the US, and a new determination to be visible, to demand change in the status quo, and to answer defamation with pride. Resistance is a powerful antidote to the demoralizing influence of oppression.


Still today there is so much further to go for the liberation of LGBT people and numerous other folks whose identities are dismissed and denigrated. The poet and activist Eli Clare uses the metaphor of a mountain to talk about the experience of being marginalized, the feeling of being denied full personhood on the basis of class or race or disability, of sexual orientation or gender identity. At the pinnacle of the mountain is comfort, privilege and normalcy. Around the base are all the identities and ways of being that do not fit in at the top of the mountain. People who have been cast out and bullied are told time and again, in subtle and unsubtle ways to climb that mountain, to change themselves to be more acceptable, somehow. Eli writes about the pain and futility of the struggle to conform in order to survive, describing the experience of people who try to climb from the base to the top:

We are afraid; every time we look ahead we can find nothing remotely familiar or   comfortable. We lose the trail. Our wheelchairs get stuck. We speak the wrong languages       with the wrong accents, wear the wrong clothes, carry our bodies the wrong ways, ask             the wrong questions, love the wrong people. And it’s goddamn lonely up there on the     mountain.[i]

Some of us recognize that story because we have lived through it, and others of us know it because we love someone who has struggled on those rough slopes. We live in a world in which the ethos that some are superior and others inferior is powerful and prevalent, and not something that can be written off as the fault of a small minority of villains, driven by greed or bigotry. The injustice is a part of the way our society is formed, and it dwells even in our own hearts. Changing this requires an active confrontation, digging down and smoothing out the terrain, beginning with the parcel we live in. Make no mistake: this is exactly the sort of thing our faith is for. We are called by the suffering of inequality to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Let every valley be raised up, every hill and mountain made low. Let the rugged ground become level, and the ridges become a plain.”[ii]

This is because our faith affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Our tradition teaches us a reverence for human beings and it does not grant us the luxury of exceptions. The potential to do good, to choose life, to make the world whole is present in all people, as the Unitarian poet Lydia Child said that “Every human soul has the germ of some flower within” – the flower is evidence of our inherent worth and dignity, but it is in the seed that these qualities reside. Circumstances and human actions, whether others’ or our own, may damage the plant and rob it of potential to flower and grow, but the seed is eternal. Even death cannot reliably destroy it. Our dying cannot make certain that no good will ever come from our having lived. The power of the soul to bless the world is joyfully persistent. And that, friends, is something well worth feeling proud of. Proud for our species and proud for everyone in it, including ourselves.

I mentioned before that I’ve been sharing some of my favorite children’s television with my daughter. She watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for the first time the other day. If you’re not familiar with the program, Mr. Rogers is a middle aged man who had roughly the same haircut for 30 years. Every time he entered or exited his house, he would change his shoes and his outfit, and sing. He liked to feed his fish, play with a toy trolley, and learn about how different foods and consumer goods were made. He gave his audience of small children lots of advice and encouragement by speaking directly into the camera, and he had an extensive collective of house sweaters. When I was a young child, I was an avid viewer of his program. My mother, however, was less than impressed by the show; Mr. Rogers was, after all, something of a square. One day she asked me why I liked watching. I thought for a minute and responded, ‘Because: I think he wuvs me.’

At its root, pride is just the belief that we are worthy of love; that it is possible for other people to care deeply about us and want us to be happy and well. That is a feeling that every person deserves, everyone needs, in fact. It is one of the great purposes of a congregation; to welcome in new folks, and to show them that they are loved. As a religious community we have much to be proud of in this regard, and also much more to do. Starting in the fall, when the cycle of our worship year begins again, we will spend some time talking about how we can better be the proudly open and radically welcoming community that we are called to be. It is a mutually-reinforcing proposition that loving others and receiving love from others helps us to better love ourselves, while it is only when we love ourselves that we can truly begin to love those around us. It is hard work, but it is worth doing and worth doing together. I look forward to reflecting on it with you this summer, and to taking up the effort in earnest, as a community, in September.

[i] Eli Clare, Exile and Pride

[ii] Isaiah, 40:4


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