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A while ago while the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans was in worship, during that most sacred time of prayer and meditation, visitors who had come in wearing jackets and button up shirts, tore off their shirts revealing that they were part of the anti-abortion fundamentalist group Operation Save America. Out of the sacred silence, they began yelling about how our church was a place of Satan, a church of murderers. For you see, just a few weeks before, the only planned parenthood clinic in New Orleans had used the church for its ground breaking ceremony since their building site was flooded by recent rains.
As the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, the church’s community minister who was leading worship that day told Rachel Maddow, the most amazing thing happened. In the midst of that violation, the youth, who had just spent the week being trained in leadership, made a circle around the congregation with their backs to the protestors and started singing. Over their voices, Rev. Deanna, asked the protestors to either join in singing or take their malice outside across the threshold of the church.
The protestors left and took their signs and went over to the religious education building a pushed their signs up against the glass windows of the nursery. Again, our young adults who were caring for the smallest ones acted quickly, simply picking up the kids and moving them to an interior classroom.
Operation Save America decried the invasion publicly but on its website congratulated the protestors for their ‘dynamic witness’. In the interview Rev. Deanna, said she was so grateful that her people were not willing to live in fear but were willing to stand on the side of love. They acted from a place of compassion and respect even though that was not what they were feeling. She went on to say that regardless of anyone’s belief about abortion to invade a church service was denying the fundamental right of our democracy, the right to peacefully practice our religion.
I am going to speak to day about what it would take to enlarge our civic circumference with the fire of our faith. Not the rights or failures of American Culture or the heart wrenching challenges of choosing an abortion. I want to speak about courage it takes to actually save lives. Listen carefully to what Rev. Deanna said, which she spoke so calmly. Despite what they were feeling they acted out of compassion and respect.
I believe that in order to live a fuller spiritual life – and let me say that by spiritual life, I mean any practice that leads us to peace and greater understanding – we must act in a way that goes beyond our feelings. Fear is the great Satan here. Fear drives people to kill, fear drives them to abandon their families, their principles, their communities, even this one. Courage rests in moving beyond fear and feelings towards the guiding principles of our free religion; compassion, trust and hope.
Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is reason over fear. That is what was happening in that church when our youth led the way. They took seriously what we teach them. They stood on the side of love.
By calming our fears of what will happen to us, and trusting a little more in the good will of people, we are able to open ourselves up to the Spirit of Life and Love. In fact, there is some outstanding evidence that suggests that if we act courageously or virtuously or kindly we will actually train our brains to look at the world in a different way. Dr. Jeffry Schwartz, (see The Mind and The Brain) UCLA Professor of Psychiatry recently finished research that shows by intentionally choosing to view your environment in new ways, rewrite your personal narrative, and step into action in the presence of your fears, you become more competent in whatever those actions may be, but also build your “courage muscles” so you can respond more effectively in other areas of your life. – http://margiewarrell.com/neuroplasticity-to-outsmart-your-brain/#sthash.ONIku3wM.dpufIn. In AA they call this “fake it to make it”, I am sure the UUs in that church were not feeling love but they acted as if they were, and I believe their depth of compassion towards others and themselves grew that day.
We here could do the same. We here could move beyond our fear of change, and trust in the love that is the spiritual center of this church and enlarge its civic circumference. Lighting that spark is believing in one another and the principles that our faith stand by on the front of that order of service. These are not just words, these are what we believe.
In his book A People So Bold my good friend and colleague John Millspaugh reminds us that it is not just the principles we live by but how we act on them that really deepens us. Finding the courage to light that flame has several dimensions. There is interior courage, the swallowing of our fear and the going on when you would rather just go away. Many years ago I stood before an angry assembly of citizens in my role as Chair of the Human Relations Commission, to introduce legislation to county commissioners protecting the rights of LGBT citizens to housing over the boos of the crowd. I can tell you standing there was the last thing I wanted to do. Run for the hills was more like it. But I stayed because of my faith, my spiritual center, which pushed at my civic circumference.
I am sure Rev. Deanna and her congregation wanted to just not deal with the haters. I am sure your trustees who are always dealing fantastically complex and hard issues around spending would just assume not do so. But our spiritual formation, our liberal religion, calls on us to proclaim our principles over the fear, in fact the light of our faith, represented in this chalice is the very embodiment of those principles.. the inherent worth and dignity of every one, the use of the democratic process such as you are about to exercise in your vote to call me as your minister, the interconnectedness of all life, even those people you don’t particularly like. This is the fire that burns at the center of all of us that allows us to stretch out into the world.
However, another dimension to lighting this fire is not so evident. We are not alone. We are not alone here. Not alone in our families. Not alone in our faith. We are part of a faith of 1100 congregations in North America, we are part of interfaith and action coalitions, we have friends who are not UUs but who share our passion for justice, all of whom I hope will be our partners in our work in the world. We are part of a movement of faith. A large part of why I feel called here is to help us re-connect seriously with that faith. To become partners with such UUs as Allies for Racial Equity, ….. I was not alone at that podium, half my congregation was there, all my fellow commissioners were there. Rev. Deanna had a congregation, a youth group was there. Our faith, our courage, our circumference, our fire does not burn alone. Either in the face of injustice or in the face of uncertainty and change.
It’s tempting in the midst of all this change and the insanity of the world – the crisis in Gaza, children dying, thousands of children coming across the border to think that evil has conquered us. But take courage my friends, the world, while suffering, is also blessed. And more blessed than we might imagine. As a free faith it might be tempting to retreat into the safety of our own beliefs. But we are called beyond that, we are called to become courage. To help. To sing out the hatred. To gather up the children and take them to an interior room.
We have two impulses that make up our reason for being as a liberal religion, especially because we depend on one another to help us discern meaning. The first which I spoke about last Sunday is the need of every single one of us to find that spiritual center which holds us in spite time and death and the space between the stars. That is the interior journey we all crave. But faith without works is dead. Which is why we must extend our light beyond these walls. I commend to you the three laws of geese. Canadian Geese make the perilous journey from north to south and back each year. Thousands of miles with nothing more than instinct. How do they survive and manage to keep going? First, they care for the fallen. If a goose falls the entire flock goes down to help. That was what happened in New Orleans, the congregation supported their minister and the most vulnerable among them. Second, they take turns being the leader. Shared leadership is the sign of a liberal and progressive faith. Finally they honk encouragement from behind. No one of us is courageous alone. All of us need one another. Whether in a church in New Orleans, or on the front lines of Afghanistan or providing water to those children wandering in the desert. We are courageous by simply coming here. Invite your friends to church. Invite them to stand for justice outside of church.
As Rev. Jason Sheldon, who wrote our hymn the “Fire of Commitment” has commented: Our forebears were burned at the stake for what they believed. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 for proposing that Jesus was a man who gave his life for a saving message and that we would do well to follow him. Jon Hus a forbearer to our Universalist heritage was burned at the stake for the audacity to propose we are all the same in the eyes of God. The Rev. James Reeb who was martyred 49 years ago during the march from Selma by white thugs for standing with his African American sisters and brothers in the cause of justice. Viola Liuzzo, one of our most active lay people who was shot by the KKK as she drove to Montgomery to pick up weary marchers. Our people have died to bring a saving message of hope to the hopeless. The Rev. Jason Sheldon asks: “What would we be persecuted for today? What would we surrender our lives for? How can we save the lives we are called to save?” (Preached at the Orange Coast UU Congregation, Feb. 2014)
I believe we are here to literally save lives, perhaps starting with your own. We need light and heat to do this work and it is right here among you. To start this fire we may not have to go far. One of my students and soon to be colleague in Concord, NH told us about how she and her senior colleague were walking in the woods behind the church a few weeks ago only to come upon a makeshift shelter. A homeless man was living on church property. The ministers were a bit perplexed. How should they handle this situation? They talked the situation over with the board and they decided to let the man know he was invited to stay. They then told the congregation. They were quite worried that this would blow up in their faces; what about the liability, others coming to camp on their land, would they be in violation of town codes? You know what happened. Just the opposite. The congregation decided to welcome the man warmly. He became a member of the congregation. And now? The congregation has started a cold weather shelter and outreach to the rural homeless of NH. Somebody lit a match and started a fire.
A few years ago a middle aged man started coming as an aide to one of our elders. His name was Roland. He was Haitian and was always impeccably dressed. When I would speak to him his diction was perfect, even though English was clearly his second language. He would listen to the sermons and sing. After some time he asked for an appointment. He came to tell me that he would be leaving his work as an aide and going to law school. I realized I knew almost nothing about him. Where had he gone to college? Boston University, then MIT. He was actually an electrical engineer. I am asked him how this came to be. He became very quiet. “I need you to know Reverend, that this church saved my life. I grew up in Haiti. My father was a colonel in Papa Docs army. One night, a band of armed men came to our house. They dragged my father out and shot him. Then they killed my older brother. My mother and I managed to escape. We traveled day and night to get to the Dominican Republic and from there to the United States. I worked hard, supported my mother and went to school. I did well. I moved to Southern California to work in aerospace. I married but then my wife died of cancer. I decided to leave electrical engineering and take care of elders. The man I have been caring for would have been my father’s age. But for many years I have had nightmares. Terrifying nightmares about my father and brother’s murders. I went to see doctors, I took drugs, and I changed careers. I came close to suicide. But since coming here and learning that we have the power of God within us, the nightmares have stopped. Stopped. So I decided that this is a sign that I should move on. I want to become a lawyer to defend the rights of the politically persecuted. I need to go on. But I want you to know that you Unitarians saved my life. Don’t stop.”
My friends, you don’t get to see how this faith in the power of each other change lives very often. What do we burn for to change? We are tender for the world. Anybody have a match? Amen.