Charge to the Minister – for the ordination of Sean Neil-Barron April 2, 2017

First, Thank you. It is my joy and privilege to charge you in your new ministry – I think doing the charge is like every older sister’s dream.  But – really, it is my honor, so, thank you.

To begin, I need to tell a little story, from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She tells about a time when she was invited to co-teach with one of Buddhism’s greatest teachers.
It was a big honor, but also, it left her kind of confused – as no one really told her who she was in relation to this great teacher – was she great, too? She says, “Sometimes I was treated like a big deal who should come through a special door, and have a special seat.
And so then she’d think – OK I’m a big deal.”

And she’d start to act in big deal ways…..But then she’d get the message – no no no no –
just sit on the floor, mix with everyone else, be a part of the crowd – be ordinary.

But then, just as she’d get used to being “ordinary,” she’d be asked to do something that only big deals did. She says this was an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful experience – because she was constantly feeling humiliated based almost entirely on her own expectations – whenever she thought she knew what to expect–  she’d get the message that it should be the opposite.  So she’d switch, and then again, the opposite.

Finally, she went to her co-teacher with some exasperation – “who am I supposed to be here? Am I big deal, or not?”

And her co-teacher responded, as if it was completely obvious – well, what you need to learn is how to be big and small at the same time.

And this – Sean –is what I charge you with, in your ministry. To be big, and small, at the same time.

Be big, because, you are a big deal. And you need to know that. You are smart, and deep, and hilarious, and dorky in all the best ways. And we – all of us – need to learn from you.
You’ve so often been the youngest one in the room – don’t worry, that will eventually change – but I’m sure that makes it hard to fully step into your role as teacher, and leader – but our people, and our faith need you to claim that space, and grow expansive, deep roots. We need you to be loud, and sometimes even obnoxious. It’s ok. Because only in boldness might you discover – as Rilke says – the limits of your longing.

The world needs you to go all out – in imagination, in relationship, in pulling from the depth of our tradition, and the depth of your connection to the holy.

The rest of us will need help to grow into this vision of course, so I also charge you with being big in patience, big in adaptive skills, and big in your compassion. Because we know – being a big deal in ministry really means making everyone else in the room feel like THEY are the big deal, needing the special seat, and entering in the special entrance.

Which is why I charge you not just with being big, but also, small, and ordinary, and regular.  I don’t mean be invisible, or insignificant, but more – be a learner, and a beginner, and relentlessly curious – even about the thing that you’ve encountered 8 million times and you’re pretty sure there’s nothing new to learn there – still, be curious.

You have a long ministry ahead – which means that you’re going to have a number of years where you start to feel like you’ve already seen most everything, met most every type of person – been there/done that. But being small in your ministry means remembering that everyone, and everything, is almost always a mystery – and no one, and nothing, is ever one thing.  So remember to be enchanted, confused, surprised. Stay loose with your conclusions, and your analysis, and stay in touch with all you don’t know or don’t have under control, and let that be a visible part of your ministry too.

Because PS we know you don’t have your act together all the time.  Even though you’re a big deal, you’re also just regular, and ordinary, and struggling like the rest of us. And we love you not in spite of this, but because of it – because we like our ministers human…And so, we hope you remember, that although in many ways, your colleagues and your congregation need you – you also need us.

In all that your ministry may bring you, I charge you to manage this dance and sometimes-pain of being both big and small, at the same time. To recognize and navigate your own expectations, to keep a sense of humor, and most of all, to surrender to the mystery.

Because, to be honest this job mostly makes no sense – you’ll be thanked for stuff you think is crap, and overlooked for what you think of as your best work, you’ll be asked to be both invisible, as well as out in front, and you’ll hear the craziest stories, know things you wish you didn’t.  And yet somehow – through all of this – you will find yourself grateful, that you might faithfully be both small and big with these small and big people –
for your whole life. Or at least, we pray that you will.

We are so lucky to call you one of ours, and to say we had a part in making it so, and to keep traveling together in big and small ways. Many blessings on your ministry.

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Invisible Partners

img_0131We had been hiking straight up hill for nearly two hours.  Unlike the day before, it was sunny, not raining – but the remnants of the rain were everywhere – mud, and deep crevices along the trail, trees fallen along the path.  It was hard climbing, sometimes dangerous, and glorious.  I was hiking with a few of my colleagues – we were together for a retreat for senior ministers in large UU congregations – new friends whose words and work I had long cherished and now we were climbing a mountain together.
There was content in our week together – learning and reflecting and an official agenda. Yet, as always in these sorts of gatherings, it is the in-between times, the breath, the unplanned conversations, and the long walks to an unknown places that stay with me long after our time together.
So often in our congregations, and in our lives, we can start to feel isolated.  Like we’re facing all the struggles and challenges all on our own, and that there’s no one that quite understands, or shares the same longings or is working towards the same goals.  But then…you find yourself debating faith, and evil, and the popular misinterpretation of Universalism by way of overly-optimistic theological anthropology, all while navigating a rocky cliff and a rushing river…and you think, we’re all in this together! 
OK, I know, that’s not likely your specific example of discovering common ground.  But – we all have these stories.  Where we realize that where we thought we were going it alone, there’s actually a bunch of others out there, working alongside us – not always totally visible to us, but there nonetheless.
In these days where the work of repairing the world can feel insurmountable, let us remember the many partners who are out there who we cannot see, yet are with us nonetheless.  And let us give thanks for each of them, and for the visible ones too, and let us be faithful to our partnership, and the good work that calls all of us on.
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The Courage of Faith, and Doubt

belief-and-doubt-1Reading – from “Faith and Doubt” in Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith
An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy.

But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.

Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage. In the courageous standing of uncertainty, faith shows most visibly its dynamic character.

Sermon – The Courage of Faith, and Doubt 

The first time I met the man that many had told me could fund a full time minister in the church I was then serving – if he liked the minister enough, he hadn’t even asked my name, or told me his, when he leaned in to ask: Are you a believer?

It was a trick question, I knew – or rather, it wasn’t – and that was the trick.

He was looking for a specific answer, obviously an acceptable orthodoxy you might say, and then I’d pass the test, I suppose. I knew what he wanted me to say, knew he wanted me to put myself in one category or another, affirm my fitness for the congregation in doing so– maybe for UU ministry entirely…

Are you a believer?

I paused for a small moment, contemplating how much easier it would be,
if I just gave him that simple no that he was clearly looking for.

But….it turns out I’m not often lured in by something being easy….so, I instead responded….What do you mean?

Believer. He said – Are you a believer?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. I do believe in many things.

He became obviously impatient with me at this point: I mean, are you a deist?

Showing some restraint, I did not ask if he meant that I was a time traveler from the 18th century who believed in a cold and distant supreme being.

Instead I shrugged. Hm. I’m not sure why that matters.

And I walked away.

Obviously, I did not pass his test, and they did not end up with a full time ministry position funded that year.  And thus ends the story of what brought me to Foothills…just kidding. Mostly.

Asking about belief is not, regardless of what this man, and many others might think –
the same as asking about one’s faith.

Belief indicates a sense of certainty – like he was asking me to say, for sure, where I came down – did I believe?

Lately, I have been longing for this sort of certainty, something to hang on to would be solid, clear, concrete.  To have a list of answers, and know what’s right, what’s wrong–
to have clear black and white definitives for what to do, what part to play, how to react, and why.

And as long as we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind a feeling of confidence that God – still not the deist version mind you, but one that would be watching over us, and would never give us more than we can handle, and is also is totally taking care of climate change in ways we don’t yet see or understand.

Heck, these days I’d even take being in the 77% of adults who believe in angels – or as the studies put it, believe that “ethereal beings are real.” Because, clearly, we can use all the help we can get.

But, to answer the question that man asked me a number of years ago in the direct way he was looking for, No – I am not so good at belief like that. More often, I’m not a believer.
I’m a doubter, constantly navigating waves of uncertainty, confusion, and complexity.
Like Fox Mulder, I may want to believe. But, more often than not, I’m much more like Scully, skeptically squinting, “I’m not convinced.”

Luckily, I find myself in good company. We Unitarian Universalists are not – historically – known for our belief. Many of us have – as the Rev. Christine Robinson calls it, a “wintry faith,” where we live much more in the realm of doubt than in clarity. This is somewhat ironic given that our denominational designation – that 10-syllable sometimes-source of confusion to newcomers and media alike – Unitarian. Universalist –indicates a belief statement.

As in: Unitarian – an affirmation of the oneness of God, originally specifically, anti-Trinitarian. Universalist. Describing our theological conviction that ultimately, all people are saved, or healed, and loved, no exceptions.

Despite our name, however, our tradition has had a pretty complicated relationship with belief – I’d say for two main reasons -first, because both of our founding theological claims were in reaction to the orthodoxy of the time, which meant that the seeds of our religion were sown in the context of stating what we didn’t believe, rather than what we did – so that here we are hundreds of years later, and still sometimes we struggle to articulate a positive affirmation and construction of our individual beliefs, let alone those things “commonly believed among us.”

But secondly, and more importantly, our relationship with the idea of belief is clouded by the fact that all along, even in times when our churches have had creeds – which sometimes they did –there was always a clause in the church by-laws that said that ultimately all members were encouraged to follow their conscience, that “we need not think alike to love alike,” and that there was no helpful way to require someone to believe what their heart could not believe.

And therefore, membership in one of our churches could not be predicated on assent to a list of beliefs. This clause was what was known as the “liberty clause.”

In our covenantal tradition, belief has never been understood as our critically binding element. Instead, religious practice has been oriented towards faith as something much riskier, less controllable, and more dynamic than belief and its static, fixed, certainty –
something grounded in our actual experiences of being human, and what we discover as we come together in relationship with others.

Writer Sharon Salzberg – who was raised Jewish and is now a Buddhist – captures our idea of faith so well when she says – “Faith – in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state, that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside – from another person or tradition or heritage – faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.”

As the 19th century German theologian Friederich Schleiermacher would have it –faith is a feeling we each have, an experience of absolute dependence – an experience of life, of be-ing, an awareness of – everything – and the way we fit into all of thisand a surrender into this experience.

This feeling of absolute dependence is what Tillich means by the certainty of faith- (rereading the text)

This feeling is, however, pre-lingual; which is to say, words to describe it come later –
as are any attempts to attach meaning or ascribe beliefs to these experiences – and all of these are inevitably inadequate approximations attempting to capture what is unexplainable. And here is where we come to an uncertainty (read it).

My colleague the Rev. Jan Christian – who serves as staff for our Unitarian Universalist Pacific Western Region – tells a story about when she was about 10 years old. She was out on Lake Mead with her family, when her dad stopped their boat and asked Jan if she’d like to swim. She looked out at the water, unsure.

“How deep is it here?”, she asked.

“Oh, about 500 feet, I think.” her father responded.

She was alarmed. “I can’t swim in water than deep!”

“You swim in the deep end of the pool. Your feet don’t touch there and they don’t touch here.”

Her dad responded, quite reasonably.

“But, here I can’t see the bottom.”

Faith is the leap into the deep waters, where we cannot see the bottom – the willingness to trust, to relax, and to swim in the same ways we would have if we could see, if we did know exactly what is there, and to live with the unknowing.

Unlike belief, faith does not try to resolve the unresolvable tensions of existence, or attempt to make solid what is always dynamic and mysterious, changing and sometimes scary, or terrible.

Instead, it incorporates into itself our inevitable doubt, acknowledging all that we cannot see, all that we don’t know – all the ways we could be wrong, and how little control we have over how most anything will turn out. It takes all of this in and says, ok. Yep. That’s how it is. Let’s get on with the living anyway.

This understanding helps differentiate faith from hope, as hope is not so detached as this – hope is often oriented towards specific outcomes. In the quote on the front of the order of service, Vaclav Havel offers a definition of hope, but it seems to me, that instead this definition gives us a vision for what it means to release hope, to move into a steadfastness of living and loving, a loyalty to values and vision, regardless of how it will turn out. I’d call this not hope, but faith. And as Tillich asserts, its practice requires courage, particularly as the waters and the waves around us grow more active.

I’ve never been to Lake Mead. But I’ve been to other lakes that seem similar. And in most cases, the water is relatively calm. Even if it’s especially windy, or if the lake is particularly crowded – there’s no undertow, and even if the waves are especially big, if you have a life jacket on, and you know how to swim, you should be fine. You can trust that the water will hold you.

But this is not when faith is most needed, or tested. Faith is not only about leaping into the calm waters where you can’t see the bottom, but just as often, it is the practice of as diving into the open sea – where surrender to the waves might just take you under – take us all under. What does faith mean, in times such as this – which is to say, times like these.

The temptation in these moments of life’s greatest uncertainty, as I shared earlier about my own longings, is to lean into our own versions of faith as belief –to strengthen these beliefs into certainty, squelching all doubt within, or around us, hoping our sense of the truth might offer us a source of stability in the turmoil.

So that we are drawn to assert – not the existence of angels, necessarily – but to harden into whatever our own beliefs really are – even if they are unbeliefs. To lock into a story about what is happening – to us, around us, in our world – and who’s to blame. To harden the categories between those of us who believe as we do, and those who do not. To turn to our neighbors and ask, Are you a believer? And to use the answer as an indicator if they are the sort of person we can know, or that we can love.

Sharon Salzberg acknowledges that “Beliefs can provide a thread of continuity and perspective as we undergo the tumultuous changes and storms of everyday life. It’s not the existence of beliefs that’s the problem, but” – she says, “what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, when we presume the absolute centrality of our views and those who don’t share our views remain the ‘other,’ and we don’t really need to listen to them. Our story becomes the story.”

Even we who – at least in theory – appreciate a diversity of views – and who honor the many and sometimes-contradictory pieces of truth we all hold as valid – can be drawn into what philosopher Richard Bernstein called “Cartesian anxiety,” wherein – ever since Descartes – humans have been longing to claim a degree of ontological certainty – a singular and unchanging narrative that explains our lives, and life itself – mostly through the use of science, but also, through scripture, or even politics, or maybe today, political parties, and their rhetoric.

Unfortunately, or fortunately – ontological certainty, would be what some might call an alternative fact, or more simply, a lie. Because there is no way to know for certain – what it all means, what’s going to happen, how to make things better, as there is no way to reconcile our finite understanding with an infinite reality.

So instead of growing our orientation to belief, times like these invite us to take that courageous leap into faith – a faith that as Paul Tillich says – understands doubt not as its opposite, but as its elemental partner.

Last week I spoke about the practice of courage in our courageous love as taking action out of a sense of duty, regardless of fear – duty specifically connected to the value and vision of agape love. Tillich defines courage as “the daring self-affirmation of one’s own being in spite of the powers of ‘nonbeing’ which are the heritage of everything finite.” To translate a bit – he’s saying courage is the act of continuing to live, as if your life matters, as if it has a purpose – in a truly ultimate sense – even in the face of fear, and risk, and the realities of this ocean and its mad waves – even in the presence of doubt. Courage, he says, is an essential aspect of faith, because it is always a risk to live with such a willing awareness of all that we can’t know, to take doubt into one’s self, and yet persist in love, nonetheless.

Faith is the capacity to remain unresolved – to love the questions – as Rilke would have it – yet still remain confident – to acknowledge the mystery, the confusion, the pain at the center of life– and to love courageously anyway.

Margaret Wheatley reminds us, both Moses and Abraham were charged with great tasks, yet “had to abandon hope that they would complete these tasks in their lifetime.” Still, they persisted….Leading not from certainty, or even optimism, but from faith, and “from a relationship to” a vision “beyond their full comprehension.”

Courageous love calls to us with this vision, though so much remains out of our view –
beyond our knowing –  and calls us to have the faith that we might allow it to lead us on.

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Courageous Love

courageous-loveIn my life, the earliest example I remember of what I would call courageous love was from Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Archbishop Hunthausen was the Archbishop of Seattle from when I was born until I was 15. Since I grew up, Catholic, in a small town about 2 hours outside of Seattle, he was my Archbishop for the first 15 years of my life. I am told he was a constant advocate for the poor and for peace, which didn’t always make him the most popular.

But it’s a memory from when I was about seven that has stuck with me. My mom – a lifelong catholic was wearing this button one day, it said “I support the Archbishop.”

What’s that? I asked her.

She responded simply, “He held mass for the homosexuals, and people were very upset.”
It was 1983. “Very upset” was surely an understatement.

But in that moment, I didn’t hear the “upset” part. I only heard my mom saying the word “homosexuals,” and that my Archbishop had held mass for them. And she was good with that.

Fifteen years later when I was terrified to come out to my parents, that button flashed in my mind, and gave me hope, and courage; and surely that button had something to do with their eventual love and acceptance.

I am so grateful for that man, still, and for his sense of call, and duty.

He must have been so brave, received so much hateful criticism, it’s astounding he held his ground. The Cardinal even came in to investigate. How was he able to keep that clear about the call – the requirements of courageous love – it’s inspiring.

“Courageous Love” as an idea has been integral to my formation as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a minister.

Still, when we picked up this phrase in our mission statement last year, it was with a certain leap of faith – as in, we generally think we know what “courageous love” means,
and we even believe it’s what we are meant for in these times.

But also, in some ways, we knew we didn’t know, and it’s the unknowing that is the leap of faith– because you can’t really know – what courageous love is, until it’s asked of you,
and by then, well, we’ve already printed it on the t-shirts.

This leap of faith reminds me of that in the first book in the Lord of the Rings when our hero, Frodo, confesses that he isn’t feeling all that heroic.  So much has already happened,
and yet there’s still so much ahead,  pain, and loss he knows will come – he’d really just rather not. Why couldn’t he forget this grand adventure, this hero’s quest, and go back to the shire where he could enjoy a good second breakfast.

As he tells his teacher, Gandalf, ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time.’

Gandalf responds simply – “So do I. And so do all who live to see such times.”

I used to read the stories about Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks – or Galileo and Charles Darwin – or hear about Archbishop Hunthausen – all these heroes who worked to call forth the truth in a world invested in its opposite – and feel inspired, and eager to do what needed to be done to bring about the necessary change on behalf of justice, and righteousness, and compassion.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve started to feel a little less eager – as I have come to understand that answering the call of courageous love requires a capacity to live with a lot of pain, a commitment that persists through great sacrifice, and a willingness not to turn away, but to move towards what in regular times we might call, danger.

Whatever romantic notions I’ve had about the call of courageous love have, in recent days, fallen away.

This past week, I started an online class on strategic non-violent resistance led by Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist Sharon Welch – you may recognize her name as the leading thinker on what she calls, a feminist ethic of risk. She thought she’d have 40 or so clergy sign up, but over 60 were there. “I guess you’re all ready to take in a little theory to go along with your practice,” she observed as we started.

This is what I’ll try to offer today – a little theory around this idea of Courageous Love that we’ve been practicing, and that we’ve said we will unleash.

Let me start by dispelling any worries you may have that I’m about to get too heady
by asking you to repeat after me:

Going on a bear hunt
I’m not afraid
Oh look! It’s some wavy grass
Can’t go over it
Can’t go under it
Can’t go around it
Gotta go through it

OK. This campfire chant is a great summary of courageous love.  Seriously.

We say what we’re going to do (going on a bear hunt.)

This is like I said last week – we take a stand. And then, we give ourselves a pep talk to deal with our fear – I’m not afraid – like, “keep cool.” Then, we pay attention to what is right in front of us – stay connected – and go through it.

As Gandalf also says to Frodo, We do not get to decide which times we are born into. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

To make such a decision, we must begin with the love in courageous love.

This love is not squishy, romantic love, not even a love that’s about “liking” the other.

King reminds us that the English language limits our understanding of love – we have just one word to describe what took the Greeks three. They spoke about eros – that is the squishy, romantic sort of love; and also philia, which is like the way you love your friends –
and does have to do with liking them (at least most of the time).

But courageous love is neither of these – it is instead the sort of love captured by the word agape. As King wrote, “Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all. It is the love of God working in the [human mind]. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love people not because they are likeable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them.”

Agape is the sort of love that formed our Universalist tradition – that grace that is holding us all, and transforming us, but in courageous love this receptivity to grace meets our activity, as it calls us to become its active agents in the world.

Courageous love pursues – to use another Greek word – Eudaimonia – which is, the highest human good – that flourishing of all of life, in wholeness and health – that Sean spoke about a few weeks ago, what in the Jewish tradition we would call Shalom. Courageous love lives in the place where love of self, love of other, and love of the whole world come together into a love for all.

Sharon Welch calls this overlapping place, generative interdependence. Meaning, the creative, dynamic, energy born of all of us being in this together.  Courageous love doesn’t get stuck on just one way for us to “get through this,” but keeps discovering new ways –
like dressing up as clowns to disarm white supremacists, or resurrecting Frederick Douglass on social media to protest Presidential ignorance. Courageous love uses all the tools of art, and dance, spiritual practices, that we might keep finding that new way where there seems to be no way.

This is one of the repeated phrases in the Hebrew Bible, and one that is central to the theology of the black church – that God will make a way out of no way.

Or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?”

So often the answer to this question when it comes to courageous love is – sort of.

hunthausen_portrait

Archbishop Hunthausen

Remember my Archbishop, he surely felt a sense that he was making a way where there was no way – but also, he couldn’t have known all the many ways that was true, the ripple effects, how a second grader in a little logging town would’ve carried his ministry in her heart for the next few decades until she herself would be telling the story of his courageous love to the congregation she serves.

 

All of that, he could not have perceived, but could only trust, and have faith.

Which brings us to the courage in courageous love.

There is a misunderstanding about courage. That it is a matter of fearlessness – that in order to act with courage you must have no fear.

But in these days, I’m pretty sure that would mean not acting at all.

Anxiety is a normal response to living in abnormal times, that is, to times such as these. Studies have shown that we act courageously – not when we have squelched all fear –
but when we are able to remain connected to some deeper sense of purpose, values, or vision – when we feel a sense of duty, in our core.

As poet-activist Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less and important whether I am afraid.”

Courage looks fear in the eyes and says, so what. Courage says, something matters to me more than this fear, something motivates me to see beyond flight or fight, to persist with creativity, and humor, and life-giving generativity – to claim a life of joy, even in the midst of heartache.

At our workshop on Courageous Love last weekend, when we asked for definitions,
the first word that came up was risk. Courageous love embraces risk. Which is not something people go around advertising when they want you to join their group…
like, join us, we’ll make your life less safe…..

But…Courageous love confesses there is no moral life that guarantees safety. Courageous love knows that the only way to make everyone “safe” is through an ethic of domination and control, where one or more controls and dominates one or more others….and ultimately, if you want total safety, you’ll have to cut off life entirely.

It reminds me of the story of the Buddha – before he became the Buddha – his parents kept him all locked up in the palace when he was younger so he wouldn’t know suffering. But eventually he wanted to actually live –so he left the palace – and guess what – suffering, everywhere.  Which became the main teaching of Buddhism – life is suffering.  OK, it’s a little more nuanced than that, but you get the idea. There is no way to allow – let alone unleash – human flourishing and ensure total safety. To imagine total safety is privilege, and likely indicates that our safety is predicated on another’s risk.

Coming to understand this – our privilege, and another’s risk – takes stepping out of our bubbles – and stepping in to the grace of an intentionally diverse community – like this one, in all of its messy imperfections.

When courageous love and following the call of courageous love feels impossible –
too much to bear – community reminds us, we don’t have to do it alone.

When the weight of courageous love feels like too much to carry, Sunday comes around once again, and we remember, it’s not just on us – it’s a shared task, this repairing the world. And there’s all these partners, walking together – so much so we had to add a third service!

We hold the babies in the social hall, and we hear about the new hearing aids, or the new job, we meet each other at the latest protest line and hug, and we watch each other picking up a piece, our own parts, and then we realize, we can keep going. Together, we can do hard things – with love. Courageous love.

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Making Space for Grace

 

Audio podcast available here.

Reading: X by Wendell Berry 

making space for grace (1).pngSermon: Making Space for Grace 

How am I going to live through this?

This is the question people ask when they are in the middle of a crisis, a trauma, or in grief that won’t seem to find its bottom.

It’s a question I’ve heard more than a few times in recent days.

It’s not always about the actions of the US President, but almost always, those things are in there somewhere.

There is a collective anxiety and dread washing over our country – and even, over much of the world – as the campaign promises to turn our backs on desperate people seeking refuge, or to end an imperfect but better-than-nothing health care law, or to erect a $15 billion wall across mountains and rivers to keep people out…or maybe, in – as all of these and more start to move from theory to reality….fear is growing, as is a sense of helplessness.

Meanwhile, it’s not like all the regular parts of life got themselves figured out– life continues to be filled in big and small ways with struggle – broken relationships, illness, money troubles, job stress and strain. The work of simply trying to make a life, to become the person you are meant to be. Put all of this together and you come to that question: How are we are going to live through this?

Collectively and historically, as a faith tradition, we have answered this question in one primary way – which is, to get busy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, busiER.

In our Unitarian Universalist faith, as theologian Rebecca Parker says it, “WE are the agents of history, we are the creators.” We will build a land where we bind up the broken. We will.

And this feels good, necessary, and justified….until….we find ourselves in moments like the one we’re are currently in. Moments where we’ve been working hard and efforting, and marching and doing ALL THE THINGS, yet still the outlook for justice feels bleak, and even science is considered just somebody’s “opinion,” and we’re tired.

As Parker says, “We come up against our helplessness, the inability to stop loved ones from dying, or turn our children from paths of self-destruction, or from those we love from breaking our hearts. And we find ourselves asking, ‘Is there any source of help beyond my own strength? Is there anything I can trust beyond our power to make it right?’”

Today marks the fourth and last official service in our sermon series that we’ve been calling “We all go together,” which is exploring Universalism for the 21st century, although as we turn next to Courageous Love, we’ll keep coming back to this theology that can be summed up so well in the song that we’ve sung each of these Sundays:

There is a love holding us. There is a love holding all that we love. There is a love holding all. We rest in this love.

While the Unitarian strand of our faith would tell us that we better get busy, it’s all on us, the good news of our Universalist theology is that there is something bigger than us that we can trust, something that is holding us and healing us, that has nothing to do with our effort. As Parker puts it, “There is a gift, already given, to all people, a gift that does not have to be earned, that will never be lost, that cannot be taken away.”

This is grace. And in these times, it feels like exactly the good news we need.

Which is why we decided to step back from our usual monthly themes, and instead dig into Universalism, because we knew we would need to remember – there IS a love holding us – there is a GIFT already given – we are already blessed – already healed – and it is by resting in this love that we have any hope of remaining awake to all that’s broken in our world – and NOT becoming ourselves broken.

Yet even as I was working on this sermon, and then hearing the latest crazy news, I started to think – this isn’t the message we need! We need to take action. We need to do more, call more, read more articles, create more outrage, wake ourselves and our world UP to this tragedy, …this…pain….it’s up to US.

The early Christian monk, Augustine of Hippo – a great proponent of the idea of grace – once said, that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.

This is one of those sayings I should write on post its and place everywhere as a reminder…..because grace is the gift that life keeps trying to give to us, but if we’re so busy doing ALL THE THINGS, and our hands, which is to say our HEARTS and our LIVES are FILLED UP.  We cannot find our way to grace. There’s just NO ROOM.

In place of grace, we just see US, and WORK, and ALL THERE IS TO DO, and ALL THE NEWS ARTICLES and the LATEST thing to be OUTRAGED ABOUT.

But when we pause. When we slow down. When we imagine ourselves not in charge of everything, responsible for everything – but rather, as partners with something greater than us all.

Then, things like – the National Park Service going rogue – appear.

Or, spontaneous mass-gatherings happening at airports across the country with chants saying over and over, let them in, let them in, let them in.  And there too, lawyers working pro-bono on behalf of those detained. And taxi drivers rising up.  And then suddenly, a judge in New York City agrees, and there’s hope, again. All while most of us were resting.

This is grace.

Grace breaks through, and we breathe, and we notice how the sun came up once again – none of us did that – yet here it is.

“No leaf or grain is filled By work of ours; the field is tilled And left to grace. That we may reap, Great work is done while we’re asleep.”

To our great surprise and delight, we arrive in a room filled with these others who have come to sing, even to surround us in song – these souls who come still to hope, to figure it out, still not pulling the covers over our heads afterall, but feeling called by this possibility of peace, this righteous sense that Love still connects us, heals us, holds us. That we could rest in this love.

If the first week of this Presidency is any indication, it’s a long road ahead, my friends.

We don’t know which way the universe is going to toss us, what ups or downs – and sometimes this is daily, hourly.

If we are going to make it through – we need to make space for grace – that is – we need to make space between ourselves, and everything, and everyone else, so that love can break through. We know to know what part of the work is ours, and which is not.  We need to know where we stand, what we’re willing to do.  And we need to do this all from a deep connection to our center, to that peace within, that grounding. To live from this place, even as we are engaged with openness towards all that comes our way.

In our courageous love workshop yesterday, we called this the practice of compassion, with boundaries, although you might just as easily name it using the concept from family systems theory called “self-differentiation.”

Our colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, he’s a UU minister in Tennessee, and a guru when it comes to systems thinking describes self-differentiation as a matter of three puzzle pieces. They go like this:

1. Take a stand.
2. Keep in touch.
3. Keep cool.

Taking a stand is the part of knowing where you are, what’s ok with you, what isn’t, and sticking with it. It’s the piece of the world, and the work that is yours. And it is discerning and maintaining a great clarity of self, no matter what.

Keeping in touch on the other hand is about connecting openly with others- individuals, and also, the news, and all that’s happening. It is observing, and staying awake, with a great curiosity and care, including a willingness to consider how or if this information could or should alter your “stand.”

The trick is not to let this second piece destabilize the first. Which is where we come to the third practice – keeping cool. Maintaining both 1 and 2 is anxiety-producing, for everyone. There’s no getting around it – if you’re human, trying to figure out how to be a differentiated in relationship with others– you’re going to be anxious. So keeping cool isn’t about no anxiety. Just about regulating that anxiety.

I encourage the use of the word “fascinating” to help with this. As in, that is so fascinating that humans behave like that. It reminds you that YOU are NOT them, and yet keeps you connected without being toppled over.

Especially in a highly anxious time such as today, this can be a great challenge. We may find ourselves being touchy about stuff that isn’t that big of a deal – being stubborn or over-reactive about something we can usually let go of, or trying to solve the whole world by way of adding to our personal to-do lists….these are great indicators that anxiety is trying to derail us – even for ourselves we can say “isn’t that fascinating that I’m reacting like that.”

There are many things to help when anxiety gets the best of us. Breathing deeply. Singing. Taking a walk.

Still, none of these in-the-moment things will help as much those practices we take up outside-of-the-moment, those regular habits that help us know where we stand, who we are, whose we are, and by what, and to what we are called.

There are many sorts of practices that help with this, but I want to end my sermon today by focusing in on one in particular that I believe would be transformative and sustaining for all of us individuals, and as a congregation, and would be a radical act of faith – Universalist faith – for we who still often seek salvation by way of the to-do list.

It is the ancient spiritual practice of “Sabbath.” Anyone who knows me even a bit will realize that here we reach the part of the sermon that is aimed almost entirely at myself. It’s ok, it happens sometimes.

Over the past few weeks, my family has been trying out a mini-version of Sabbath. We call it “Family Fun Night.” It starts whenever I get home on Sunday, and it is completely tech free – that means no TV, no phones, no screens at all, and all four of us are together, and we do something that we think is fun. One time we played charades, and laughed hysterically. Another we made paper airplanes and had flight competitions all around the house. Most recently we played basketball and went swimming.

I confess that we all are terrible whiners as we attempt to begin – we’re too tired – or too worried about the text we might miss – or too lazy to come up with something that doesn’t involve a screen. But without fail, every time, once we’ve given in, it’s the best. It reminds us who we are, and what really matters. And guess what, the world keeps on going on without us….

Next up in my Sabbath practice, I want to let these Family Fun Nights move right into Monday rest day. It’s something I’ve tried with partial success over the years, emphasis on partial. But like with everything else these days, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to lean in to this major premise of our faith – the promise of grace.

So I wonder if you would you like to try this out with me – one day a week – no tech, or at the least, no social media….one day a week for rest, for remembering, for reclaiming who you are, whose you are, and what really matters. Don’t get too stuck on the particular day – I’ve heard that Sunday is a popular choice….but like I said, I’m on Mondays. All that matters is that you choose one day – every week where

As Wayne Muller says – “there is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished.” Sabbath, he says, “reminds us to be still. Stop. Take time to rest, and eat, and drink. Listen to the sound the heart makes as it speaks the quiet truth of what is needed.”

Every other day, we can be the ones doing, marching, writing, reading, calling….just one day, we make space for grace to show up and do its healing work on our hearts, and in the world.

In this turbulent world, and in these trying times, let us rest in this faith – our faith, and in this love.

May it be so.

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Harden Not Your Heart

Audio Podcast available here.  mlk service meme.png

MLK Service 1/15/17 “Harden Not Your Heart”

You might remember a few weeks ago I spoke about my momentary anxiety around how you all would react to the signs that we put out on Drake. I braced myself for someone to feel anxious about the particular adjectives and groups we identified there. But then, I got nothing.  Nothing except positive affirmation and pride that we would make such a clear statement of solidarity.

It was only in this past week, when we changed out one of the signs, that suddenly I got a flurry of comments in person, over email and on texts.  Republicans?!

Let me be clear that just as we have representatives from all of the other signs in our congregation, we also have republicans in our congregation. Also like the others, they tend to be in the minority. And yet unlike the others, this one caused people to question. One person semi-joked….”Republicans?!  We love Republicans?!”

This is the crux of the challenge of Universalism today, it seems to me. It is the tension that especially in the few weeks after the election I knew so many were wrestling with,
and many still are – does compassion for all and love for all mean endorsing all? How do we imagine that our call for Universal Love can be put together with the need to resist injustice – naming clearly and transforming forces of evil and oppression?

The topic of evil deserves its own sermon – and in fact that IS Sean’s sermon topic next week, which I confess gives me some relief….thanks for tackling that Sean.

For today, I am starting with the assumption that there is evil in this world. There is injustice. And there is a brokenness that exists both within each of us and among us all that we are called to resist and transform. Universal Love, and our commitment that “no one is indispensable” as Sean talked about last Sunday does not mean that we are not also fiercely drawing lines of right and wrong. Because the other part of that mantra he spoke about last week is equally, “no more victims.”

Since November I have been traveling back and forth to my home with this book  – it’s the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK wrote so much more than just his I have a dream speech, or his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Each essay and sermon, interview and book excerpt is so powerful, and filled with so many layers of theology and political and social analysis – so much of it relevant for our times.

Early on I was struck by just how Universalist King seemed to me in his theology and practice – I wasn’t exactly surprised – King attended UU churches here and there and considered seriously becoming a Unitarian Universalist – except felt that he wouldn’t reach the size of audience he had in mind through Unitarian Universalism.

And then, he also came to some struggles with some of the liberal insistence on a high regard for humanity….but his core philosophies, especially that of non-violence come across as if he was reading a 19th century Universalist as he was shaping them….

Which in some ways, he was. As Eleanor shared, and as Richard Trudeau writes in his book Universalism 101, “King was inspired by the freedom fighter Mohandas Ghandi, who was inspired by the religious writings of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, with whom Ghandi corresponded, at the end of Tolstoy’s life.

Tolstoy consulted with Ballou about his thoughts on and experiences with pacifism as he wrote his master work on non-violent theory, [The Kingdom of God is Within You].

Adin Ballou – not to be confused with his distant cousin Hosea Ballou who Sean spoke about last week- served Universalist congregations for 56 years, beginning in the early 19th century.  He was a leading theorist of non-violent resistance and pacifism, and had a keen sense of optimism and faith for the possibilities of the future – ever-hopeful that the message of love that he felt in his heart would prevail and transform the world.

As he said in one of his most influential works, “A great transition of the human mind has commenced and the reign of military and penal violence must ultimately give place to that of forbearance, forgiveness, and mercy.”

A hundred years later, as Martin Luther King Jr turned to non-violence as a way to address injustice and brokenness, this message and these ideas were still struggling to gain traction – because still there was this idea that Love was not compatible with resistance –
that if we are to meet the forces of evil and injustice with Love it must mean – like the Cobra, we let the forces destroy us, and continue, indefinitely.

MLK talks about this as one state of how African Americans had been before the Civil Rights movement in fact – that they had been accepting of their oppression in a certain way, not making unrest.  Referencing the Hebrew prophets, he calls this a peace where there is no peace.  “True peace,” he says, “is not merely the absence of some negative force – tension, confusion, or war; it is the presence of some positive force – justice, good will, and brotherhood.”

As the Civil Rights movement grew, however, African Americans and oppressed people everywhere started to push and lead towards this positive presence – for true justice – and as MLK said, “privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without a strong resistance,” and for MLK and his Universalist theology, that resistance had to be non-violent, grounded in Agape Love.

We don’t hear King’s own words on this subject enough – and because I have so appreciated reading these with more depth, I wanted to spend some time this morning reading to you from one of King’s articles on non-violence, this from an article that ran in the Christian Century called “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”

It was published in 1957, so it was a relatively early piece of writing – he was 28.
About six months before, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had concluded, and offered a living example of how to resist injustice with love.

As I read this I invite you to consider the theological convictions he is exploring, and how they sit with your understandings of Universalism and what it means to love courageously.

“The alternative to violence is non-violent resistance. This method was made famous in our generation by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who used it to free India from the domination of the British empire.  Five points can be made concerning non-violence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions.

First, this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The non-violent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence.
His method is passive or non-aggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent.  But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.”

(Side note – in other works MLK talked about the need to cultivate a tough mind, but a tender heart, and I think that’s a little of what he’s getting at here…..)

“A second point is that nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

“A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery Alabama: The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice, and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.

“A fourth point that must be brought out concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns.

“To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify hate in the world.
Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”

(Let me pause in reading King’s words for a minute to share a story from our colleague Andy Burnette, who serves the UU congregation in Chandler Arizona. Andy tells about a member of his congregation who is a Holocaust survivor who came to tell his story at his church. He says, “I think I will never forget him sitting with his arms crossed in a way that made visible the numbers tattooed on his forearm, saying he wanted children to know that if you let hatred for one person or group of people get into your heart, it makes it easier for you to hate others.

“Then the hate is in you,” he said. “And it’s hard to get it out.” Don’t let it in, friends. No matter what. It takes work, but don’t let it in.”

King is talking about the ways that letting your heart become bitter or hateful corrupts the world, but this story from Andy reminds us that it also corrupts you.)

The title of today’s service – Harden Not Your Heart – is a phrase that appears in both the Hebrew bible and the Christian Scriptures – but when I was thinking of it for today, I was thinking of the Pharoah in the story of Moses and the Israelites as they escape from Egypt.

It’s a really complicated thing that happens in this story because God is helping Moses to appeal to the Pharoah, but then also God hardens Pharoah’s heart and makes him unwilling to concede – over and over this happens, and each time, the Egyptians are hit with more violence and death – it’s terrible. Pain and suffering, and the Israelites still are enslaved. It is only when finally Pharoah’s heart is not hardened, that he releases the Israelites – and his own people stop suffering.

Last week Sean described Universalism as a profoundly difficult faith to hold. Because it asks us to find that path where we are seeking true liberation and justice – staying that line – even while we manage not to harden our hearts. It is a faith that asks us, even when we read the headlines about an action we find morally reprehensible – or the many actions piling up – we remember the humanity, the love that connects and has the power to heal us all ,and that we not lose faith in that love.

Which brings me back to King, for just a few moments to conclude – he says

“In speaking of love, at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion.
It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. “Love” in this context means understanding good will. There are three words for love in the Greek New Testament. First, there is eros, which has come to mean a sort of romantic love.
Second there is philia, which denotes a sort of reciprocal love: the person loves because he is loved. When we speak of loving those who oppose us we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in human life.  When we love on the agape level, we love people not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them”

(Because they are a part of us in a greater sense – held in love as we are)

“Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”

Love like this is not a simple endorsement – of Republican ideas or every GLBTQ person, or every immigrant – that’s not what our signs mean. Love like this asks exactly the opposite of such an easy acceptance – requiring instead that we hold those we love accountable, call them to their better selves.

Ultimately King’s vision of love, the Universalist vision of love, courageous love asks us to find that difficult practice that offers compassion, with boundaries; radical acceptance with an unfaltering call for justice. It does not stand for a peace that is no peace, but requires the disruptive presence of a Love that keeps rising up, until the great promise and dream of liberty and justice for all might finally ring true.

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Christmas Eve Homily 2016

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Linocut created by Ben Wildflower – text from Luke 1:46-55

Text: Luke 2:1-19

Homily: The Radical Story of Christmas – Mary, Jazz and Turning the World Upside Down 

It starts with being counted.

 

Whether or not they wanted to make the journey,
it didn’t matter. They had to go. In those final weeks of pregnancy, when the discomfort was everywhere and the eager anticipation bursting in every breath right then, these two young Jewish parents-to-be had to make the long and difficult journey. The Roman Emperor required it. He’d declared there was to be a registry, so they had to register.

Joseph and Mary were natives to this land – it was the land of their birth, their families –
but that wasn’t the point. As Jews under Roman rule, they were counted not because they were valued – at least not as people, but because they were sources of income. The registry was a way to make sure they were properly taxed. Their lives, their child’s life, ironically didn’t count for all that much.

This is where our story begins.

In our time, in our world today, hardly anyone knows the bible all too well, but the passage from Luke that I read is something most people have heard, and recognize. It’s a story that’s everywhere. Or at least, a version of it is everywhere – the old-standards children’s Christmas pageant story that can be told without risk or scandal – this story we know well.

But the fuller story – the story that starts with this couple that came to be counted,
but whose lives didn’t really count – this story still hasn’t been heard. And it’s this story that is worthy of our announcing joy to the world, glory to this universe,
go tell it on the mountain.

This story of Christmas is risky – the kind of risk that would put an image of Mary as a warrior trampling death in the image of a serpent with the words “cast down the mighty”
and “send the rich away” in your Christmas program.

I made sure that we printed the scriptural reference there below the artwork – as I was worried you might not realize that these radical sounding words can be found in the chapter right before this part of Luke that we more often read every year.

They are a part of a song that Mary belts out when she meets her sister Elizabeth and they celebrate their pregnancies – when Mary thinks about this new life she’s giving birth to,
she sings out about how God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, care for the hungry, and send the rich away.

See, Mary herself was one of the lowly, the hungry, the powerless. Yet through her, love would be born anew, and through her all people would be brought into the transforming, healing, relentless power of this love. As Universalists we do mean to say all when we talk about the power of this love, as we affirm that there is nothing anyone could do that would alienate them from the presence and pull of this healing, transforming love.

Through this young woman who was required to be counted but whose life didn’t really count, the whole world would change.

All of this has to be in our minds when we hear this story of these young unmarried parents to be, and this story of their child’s birth. So that, for example – at the end of the scripture when it says “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart,”
you might get the sense that this is a sweet contemplation – the way that mothers often ponder their children and how lovely they are – how many people adore them – but when you put this line in context with the preceding fierce proclamation – “from this day all generations will call me blessed” and “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”
suddenly you can hear how she was pondering these things in her heart not in such a quaint, saccharine sort of way, but in a powerful, prophetic imaginative contemplation, as she, and we begin to realize just how much the world is being turned upside down.

It is ironic that so many of us believe we know this story, that its telling has become almost boring – because it is a story that is supposed to turn our world upside down, shock us with a total reversal, offering a vision of a world that is perpetually and powerfully subversive. The lowly become the powerful, the outcast becomes king, and the social rejects – which is what shepherds were considered at the time – the bottom of the social ladder, rejected as liars and thieves….these are the types of people chosen to first receive this good news…by way of God’s messengers singing in the sky, meeting them right where they were, inviting them to become themselves messengers, hope-bringers, bearers of great joy.

Later we are told, that all of these lowly outcasts drew the attention of the truly wise and wealthy by way of the magi who willingly traveled far just to kneel at the feet of a family
that according to the world powers, didn’t count at all.

Cast down the mighty, lift the lowly, turn everything upside down.

It’s this combination of encountering in the most familiar story of Christmas the most surprising and subversive story that had me thinking about jazz as we started our Christmas service planning.  Because jazz has all the same components as every regular, traditional sort of music – and yet it takes all of this and has the potential to go in a whole different direction- depending on the musicians, and the ways they come together,
their openness to respond to the moment, their willingness to be vulnerable, to make mistakes and to be present for one another, and to the creative forces moving through and among them.

Like the Christmas story, jazz repeats itself – and yet each time it does so with revision –
retelling through a rewrite – it is an expression of both memory and hope, tradition and transformation. Since its inception and throughout its history, jazz has been, a site for subversive collaboration – bringing together white and black musicians and listeners in ways that upended long-standing traditions of racial segregation in music. And along the way created music that had never yet been imagined or heard, something profoundly unexpected, and even upside down.

I’ve heard about Christmas Eve jazz services for a while, but in asking around I struggled to find a Unitarian Universalist example – we tend to do the traditional, the reflective, and the contemplative – less so the improvisational and energetic. But this year I kept thinking about how relevant the surprising upside down parts of this story is for our world today – in this time when the extremely-wealthy have a seemingly unstoppable grip on power and influence, when violence grows and division reigns, when yet again we are talking about who counts, and who matters, where we turn away from the immigrant, the refugee, the young and vulnerable seeking shelter, turn away from our neighbors, our family, ourselves…..

Maybe in other years we might not realize just what good news this story is, and so it could remain for us safe, traditional, distant and theoretical. But this year, this story – in all of its powerful unexpected, risky reversal is for us. This year we need the good news that something new is happening, here among us, even in the most invisible and unglamorous parts of our lives, those parts that society might reject, those places where we feel most outcast that even here a new and transforming love is struggling to be born – and we are the ones who can prepare it room.

Our lives – like the rooms of Bethlehem are often overly full. Filled up with cynicism and debt; busy-ness and bitterness –with all sorts of things that only we know about, that keep our hearts closed off and that get in the way of the love that would heal us, and connect us, upend and transform us and make whole the whole world round.

But this year we need to make the room, prepare the space because we need this Christmas story – in all of its radical vision, we need to clear the way in our lives, in our hearts for a love this powerful, this transformational – to release ourselves from those things that keep us busy yet unsatisfied – getting by, yet still longing for more –
isolated out in the fields believing all hope is lost – Christmas asks us to be this brave –
that we might hear the call breaking through the cold dark night: whispering, be not afraid.
That we might respond to the call of love arriving in all those places that the world says doesn’t count.  In the face and lives of the most vulnerable.  In the places of our lives
we believe are unseen and unheard, in those people who have been cast out, there the holy calls us to risk making the way, risk stepping out into the night, to gather with others,
imagining a whole new world, to say it is possible, to proclaim the good news of its birth.

There is much in the world and in life today that would have us despair, feeling powerlessness. But this two thousand year old familiar story still comes, and challenges us to be radically surprised – to imagine an entirely different world, to see in the darkest coldest night a bright bold light still arriving, to play not the standard melody but to risk a new note and a syncopated rhythm, a brave new story possible when people leave their familiar fields and set out on behalf of strangers and outcasts, on behalf of a love big enough to save the whole world.

This is the promise of Christmas worthy of being shouted from the mountain top
Don’t give up, love is just getting started.
Let us prepare it room – joining our voices in a great and glorious: alleluia!
Amen, and blessed be.

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