Rev. Jill Cowie
Sermons
 Sermon:  "Laughter of the Heart"
LM Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables once  said   “Sometimes a good laugh is a as good as a prayer.”     I think she is onto something.  I am remembering  the day years ago I interviewed   for a chaplaincy  position at the Brigham and womens Hospital.     My father had just died   after two weeks in hospice, (profound experience) and when I mentioned this I was asked if I could envision a career in hospice.  “No,” I blurted out “too much death.” (this was an interview to be a chaplain.)      Afterwards I was leaning against the wall waiting for the elevator in the parking garage lobby totally convinced that I  botched the interview.   I must have looked pretty glum for out of the blue a man came up and asked, “What do Wall Street analysts and pigeons have in common?”  Startled, I said, “I don’t know.”  He said, “they both make large deposits on BMWs.”  I laughed and my internal grew quiet.  I have thought about this man since then wondering if he walked around seeking miserable looking people and if offering a laugh in the form of a prayer was a kind of ministry for him.
This morning I invite you to ponder this question as well.  To consider perhaps humor as both a ministry  and a spiritual practice to  inspire your faith, lift  the generosity of your spirit and build  this faith community. A colleague recently mentioned to me   Karl Barth’s theology of humor. Barth was a Christian theologian known as the Father of the Confessional church which actively opposed Hitler.    His theology suggests  humor has three spiritual elements.  The first is humility, which of course starts with oneself.    One of my favorite stories to tell by way of laughing at myself is the breezy April day during college I went out to Bar Island just off Bar Harbor Maine where I was attending college for a late afternoon study break.  My favorite field was on the ocean side of the Island, and  my house mate   told me tide was going out, so I fell asleep in my field to the sound of surf.  Awaking to the setting sun, I started home, only to find the bar completely covered with over 10 feet of bone chilling water.  Back in those days it was fashionable at my college to wear long underwear under wrap around skirts.  I took off my skirt, and used it as a flag while standing on a rock, trying to someone’s attention in the harbor. Long story later, the Coast Guard rescued me, and an embarrassing column in the newspaper followed.  
      I was  comforted to find  a story from another UU minister, who shall of course remain anonymous,  and I don’t remember their name, who has similar troubles in the getting stranded realm.  This minister had gotten locked inside a botanical garden after closing time. The walls surrounding the garden were topped with barbed wire, this being in a big city, so she couldn’t get out that way. But she found a tree near the wall that had a sturdy thick branch overhanging both the wall and the barbed wire and curving down slightly toward the ground on the far side. She figured she could climb the tree, shimmy out on the branch and drop down to the ground on the outside of the wall. However, the fact that she was wearing a skirt was not taken into full consideration and what happened was she somehow ended up hanging practically upside down from the branch, like a large sloth perhaps, with her skirt hopelessly caught in the barbed wire, wondering how she could have ever thought this was a good plan.  I am sorry to say I’ll have to leave you hanging,  I don’t know how she got out of her predicament . But I do know laughing at oneself is a good spiritual practice. I wonder how we as Unitarian Universalist can laugh at ourselves to inspire humility, and nourish   our spirits?  Maybe you have a humility story to share during coffee hour.  Well, I waded through hundreds of UU jokes and finally found one that speaks to our inclusive search for meaning, our celebration of theological diversity and our openness to new truths and understanding   A joke perhaps to help introduce new comers to our faith.  Amy newcomers here?  You can tell me later if you find it illuminating.   It’s  a lightbulb joke.  Once a worship committee was asked: How many members of a UU worship committee does it take to change a light bulb?  Here’s the official reply: “We chose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a light bulb.  However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work that is fine.  You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service in which we will explore a number of light bulbs traditions, including   LED, Incandescent, halogen, three way and long life, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.  
After humility, the second aspect of Barth’s spiritual theology of humor is resilience, the recognition that humor acknowledges and does not avoid suffering.  That humor takes suffering seriously, and thought they often come together, humor refuses to give suffering the last word.
  I remember waiting for a family at the cemetery to officiate a committal ceremony for their wife/mother.   The husband and his adult children had just picked up her ashes at the funeral home, and as they got out of the car they were still all chucking.   They told me that they had   asked the funeral director for some of their mothers ashes to be separated  so that they could bring  them to her special places.  The moment was awkward as he unwrapped the box and poured some of her ashes into a smaller one.  To break the tension    started humming, (hum) the hip bone connected to the bone.   They all started to laugh, and their humore blessed their final goodbye  with both joy and sorrow.   
The third aspect of Barth’s theology of humor is the joy found in the spaciousness of  love that humor invites.   
All three, humility, resilience and joy come to life in the story Rev Scott Taylor shares.  Rev Scott is the Director of Congregation Services for the UUA.  He begins, “It’s not the call I was expecting. Kaaren, my wife, was taking her dad on one of his first trips for chemo treatment. The day started off anxious, heavy, and sad. This kind of thing is hard stuff. I asked her to check in mid- day to let me know how things were going. She called a bit after lunch. I said hello. There was silence on the other end of the phone. She couldn’t speak. It was clear she was trying to find her breath. I worried. Then... she laughed! Couldn’t stop laughing actually. In between gasps of laughter, she explained: “We...[deep breath]... are...[deep breath]... reading... David... Sadaris... The... one... about... him... not... being... able... to... flush... his... _____(poop) down... the... toilet... at... the... fancy... dinner... party... and... not... being... able... to... leave... the... restroom... because... of... it!”Ok, that’s all I am going to give you. This is, after all, church. Leave it to say that David Sadaris is one of the funniest writers you will ever read.  “ His wife Kaaren went on, “ but we don’t care. We’ve been laughing for a half hour straight! And, god, does it feel good to laugh together.” God, does it feel good to laugh together. Amen to that. Especially in the midst of pain, worry or fear. Kaaren and Scott talked about it later. “I love laughing with my dad,” she said. “I just feel so close to him when we are laughing.” But she also talked about distance. And how laughter somehow helps her step back--get a slightly different view. There’s nothing funny about cancer, but the laughter helped them see that the cancer isn’t the only thing there. In addition to the illness, there’s also a daughter who loves her father very much. And a father that loves his daughter very much. And they enjoy each other. Which is no small thing. And they get some more days to laugh and connect. Which is also no small thing. Laughter says look at that. Laughter says, how dare you let that gift out of your sight! Their story reminds me of the love and connection we shared with my dad while he was in hospice and no longer able to speak.  One day the men   of his Friday   sailing club visited and surrounded his bed, talking to each other over him across the bed.  Not to be outdone, with a twinkle in his eye, he raised his hand like a slender neck of a goose, which reached just about to their face level, and opened and closed his fingers, just to be in the conversation.   Of course we all laughed. How about you, can you think of a time laughter butted in and pulled you out of sorrow and into joy?  A time when humor helped overcome fear and connect you once again with the gift of life?  A time when laughter came to you in the form of a prayer?
      I have share a clergy joke that lifts up the nourishing power of our theology. “Three clergy were discussing death, and one of them said if you were in your casket, and friends and family were gathered, what would you like to hear them say?"
The Baptist preacher said, “I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man."The Catholic priest said, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of God who made a huge difference in people's lives."
The Unitarian Universalist minister said, "I would like to hear them say, 'Look, he's moving!" I love this joke because it speaks to our UU value and focus on this life, and because it speaks to movement, an unstuckness that invites an expanded way of being that connects people with each other to hold together both the sorrow and the joy.  “God is the community forming power in this world,” and laughter as a ministry of humility, resilience and joy, has that power to blend the harmonious with the pain and lift up the divine. Let us engage in a ministry of laughter, moving among others with the intention of offering a laugh as good as a prayer, for there is so much in life still moving.  In our joy let us reach within with a sense of abundance  to support this church  and let us reach outward to those who need our faith, and say Alo e ha ha ha…
​Sermon: For-give-ness
 
What does it mean to be a person of risk?  That is the worship question we are asking this month.  I immediately think of forgiveness for a forgiving person risks the struggle of facing pain and loss.  No easy task.  I think of the people I met in retreat last fall at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham.  We spent a weekend together to figure out forgiveness.   One woman’s father had been murdered, another was suffering a traumatic divorce, a couple had lost their college age son in a car accident during his first visit home and another had been abused by her father.  We wondered what is forgiveness and what is it not?  Who needs my forgiveness? Myself? Another? An institution? God?   Who are my role models for forgiveness and how do I become a forgiving person? For guidance we looked at the life and ministry of Jesus and the Buddha’s twelve principles of forgiveness.   By the end of the weekend we knew two things; Forgiveness was too big a topic for one retreat and that we and we knew we live in a world where forgiveness works.   Forgiveness is too big a topic for one sermon too, but my hope for this morning is that you become more comfortable taking risks in a world where forgiveness for you works.
So what is forgiveness?   Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says its is the process by which we liberate ourselves from fear and repression to live fully the life ahead of us. [1]  But how?  When I asked a friend about his experience of forgiveness he told me with pain in his voice that when he was in ninth grade the brother of his best friend came up to him in the middle of the busy high school hall and asked him to hold out his hand.  My friend did thinking he was going to receive a gift and the boy in front of his friends, took his cigarette lighter still hot from use and pressed it into my friend’s palm.  After that my friend said he changed schools and tried to forget. My friend is 50 years old and still holds the pain.  Forgiveness isn’t forgetting.  Do you go to a place of pain when you think about forgiveness?  If yes, you are on the right track.
The Buddha’s first and second principle of forgiveness is that you must feel the pain, and know the weight of not forgiving.    Only then do you realize you are prolonging the hurt.  Forgiveness begins with self-compassion. The third principle is to reflect on the benefits a loving heart; a practice that helps your dreams become sweeter, and your thoughts become more pleasant.  It’s like learning to put out a love vibe.      I think of Jesus’s response to   the crowd when they presented to him the woman accused of adultery. For a while he said nothing, crouching down fingering the sand.  Then he asked people to look within their hearts for their own transgressions and he waited.  Finally looking up, they were gone.  The woman went home forgiven.    
     The fourth principle of forgiveness is not to let your suffering define you.   This is a biggy.  I remember when a fellow student came to me in seminary upset because the committee responsible for clearing her way to ministry had denied her application after her first interview.   She told me that in response to the first and only question, she talked for an hour about the loss of her 10-year-old daughter after her former spouse, the girls’ birth mother moved her out of state and out of this woman’s life forever.   In the committee’s eyes, she was so loyal to her suffering she had become her betrayal.     
Release the pain says the Buddha, live in love among the inflicted, and live in peace among the troubled.   This is the instruction.  Start with where you may have betrayed your own sense of self.     Peter denied Jesus the teacher he loves three times as he is dying. He denies this man he loves    three times.  The moment of resurrection comes when his disciples meet Jesus days later by the lake. They recognize him only when he starts to feed them.  When Jesus asks them, “do you love me?” Peter is the first to say “yes.”  Jesus replies, “then tend my sheep,” live your love and serve.[2]  It’s never to late to   yes to love and yes to life.
     The fifth principle is that forgiveness is a process; you go do over and over again.    Peter asked Jesus “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times should I forgive him?  Seven times?  Jesus said to Peter, “No, not seven, but seventy-times seven” I don’t think he meant for us to count 490 time of forgiveness and then get mad.  Jesus meant that forgiveness is a life-long practice. Jack Kornfield tells of a man who wrote the IRS a letter that said “I feel so bad about failing to fully disclose my earning last year that I can’t sleep.  So I am enclosing a check for $2,000.  If I still can’t sleep I will send a check for the rest.”  That’s how it works, step-by-step psyche and body together, evolving,     
The sixth principle is to define your intention. With intention you gain the power to overcome obstacles that get in the way. Whether it’s in a business or in a love relationship, intention is powerful. It is the compass setting of your heart.
     The seventh principle is learning both inner and outer forms of practice.  The inner forms include the meditation and mindfulness we did earlier.   The outer forms involve confession and making amends.   This is one of my favorites because it invites me to be accountable to the possibility I may have hurt someone.  Jesus uses the metaphor of an altar to do this.  He says to his disciples “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and remember that your brother has something against you…first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”[3]   He is saying if someone has something against you, it is your responsibility to take the initiative to make things right.  This teaching helps me regularly with my siblings.   I imagine the altar as the reality of their love, and my gift gratitude.  As I approach, their center becomes mine, and I get a sense of what might be amiss in our relationship. Sometimes I imagine the altar as earth, and as I approach with gratitude, I become aware of how I can better live in balance.  Imagine standing before your alar, what must you do before you offer your gift?
       The eighth principle is start the easiest way, start with the person you most love and can forgive. Maybe your child.  When your heart is open bring in someone who is a little more difficult to forgive.  If you feel your heart constrict, make it your intention to forgive that person to the extent that you can.  The ninth principle is learning to grieve, learning to let go.  Which means being with your anger, your fear, your bargaining, and your loss.  The poet Rumi writes “don’t reject your grief and loneliness, let it season you like few ingredients can.”    Over weeks and months and years, grief work helps things that are difficult become digested, workable, transformed.  Eventually there comes a trust.
     The tenth principle is that forgiveness includes all the dimensions of our life; it is the work of our body, our emotions and our minds.     Kornfield says 98 percent of the thoughts you have today are the same as yesterday.  With practice, you can learn to abandon old thoughts and skillfully develop knew ones.   
One teaching of Jesus comes to my mind here, a teaching that helped me forgive myself.  I was in seminary, taking a course on the Parables. I was assigned the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee where the Pharisee, the Jewish priest and the tax collector, go to the temple to pray.[4]  The Pharisee prays, God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.   The tax collector who everyone despises because he implements the Roman’s corrupt system of taxation, kneels outside of the temple, eyes on the ground, beating his chest and prays “God have mercy on me.”     For three months we talked about this one parable, and our last assignment was to narrate our own story based on the parable. That’s when forgiveness clicked.  My story was true. I was 28, just married to my husband and starting a new job in DC.  We were living in a basement apartment off of DuPont Circle.  I was working for the federal government while Ben looked for a job.  And I got pregnant.  Way to early.  So we decided not to carry the pregnancy to term.
Our decision was right for us but there was no safe place   that affirmed our decision and honored our grief.   George Bush was in office, and I remember the day he signed a bill limiting abortion rights saying, “God will bless our efforts to preserve life in this land.”  Reverend Jerry Falwell told the press that Bush’s prayer speaks for 200,000 pastors and 80 million Christians in this country. Their words were in the newspaper, on the airwaves, on roadside placards, bumper stickers, everywhere.
In my story, I see Bush, Falwell standing in prominence at the Temple or on the steps of the Supreme Court, like the Pharisee in the parable thanking God that they are pro-life and not like the sinful women who have had abortions.     I see the tax collector kneeling in the temple, knowing he does what he does to survive.   And I become him.  His prayer for mercy becomes mine and in that place where God and the human spirit meet, I find forgiveness. I know myself whole.  
      The eleventh principle of forgiveness is a shift of identity to include a sense of self that transcends the limits of time and space.  Juan Ramon Jimenez speaks of this shift in his poem “I Am Not I”
I am not I. 
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
 whom at times I manage to visit,
and who at other times I forget; 
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.
There is in us an undying capacity for love and freedom that is untouched by what happens to you, and to come back to this true nature,  O noble born, is the invitation of forgiveness.”
      The twelfth principle  is perspective.  This moment comes when you realize that our stories are part of a greater story that it’s not just your hurt but also the hurt of humanity, not just our pain but the pain of being alive.     Jesus teaches that our experience of being forgiven enables us to forgive, and when we do we constitute the kingdom. [5]  Who in your life can you simply not forgive though you have tried again and again?  You may have discovered how  impossible it is to forgive by an act of will.    Forgiveness is an act of faith.  We pray or meditate for those we have hurt and for those that have hurt us.    And when forgiveness when it comes, it feels like sudden gift.   You feel the shift in your heart, your mind, and your spirit.  And you know suddenly that you live in a world where forgiveness works.   May you in the weeks to come practice forgiveness setting a course of healing for yourselves, your families and for the communities in which you serve.   May the forgiven, the forgiving and we together constitute the kingdom.   
[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-RBTd23RN0
[2] John 21:15-17
[3] Matthew 5:21-24   
[4] Luke 18: 9-14
[5] Matthew 18:21-35
"Practically Imperfect"  encourages you to claim your gifts of imperfection and cultivate kindness, compassion and spiritual growth.  The video clip below the text offers a three minute introduction and the full audio is below as well.  The readings before the sermon was "Perfect" from Kathleen Norris's  book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith​, and a quote from UU Minister Elea Kemler
 
Sermon "Practically Imperfect"
 Sometimes I forget that the most important things I have learned in my seven years of the Unitarian Universalist ministry comes down to what I predicted I needed to learn six weeks into the ministry of my first congregation – that our mistakes are not the most important part of us, that kindness and compassion matter more than anything. So basically everything I have learned comes down to love because love covers the vast array of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities, love allows for healing, for transformation, love allows for grace to rush in and carry us through -which is the stuff of which our work is made.   A reminder of this lesson of love came to me metaphorically in the shape of an apple, a brown bag of apples actually left on my desk in my office during my time in Cohasset. No note.   These apples were different, odd shaped, with indents, and browns spots and soft parts.     It had been so long since I had seen an apple without a quality approved sticker, polished and perfect that I wondered if these were even edible.   The next morning I learned they were from a tree in the yard of Martha, an elderly woman in the congregation who had just lost her husband Arne.  A tree I had stood under the day I said goodbye to him. I remember how during that visit Martha's face lit up as she pointed to the apples, then just beginning to ripen.   I looked at the apples again on my desk, and they suddenly looked different, not more round or less blemished but more nourishing.     Arne, was Norwegian, and as a teenager he and his brother and father were active in the resistance movement against the Nazis.   At the age of 16 his father and brother were imprisoned and with his mother dead, Arne was left alone to fend for himself for two years. He continued his resistance by delivering illegal newspapers.  He was eventually reunited with his father and brother and they fled to Sweden.  He carried this experience into his adult life, valuing the democratic process, and participating in local politics.  A passion he shared with Martha who is still a selectwoman  at the age of 90. Looking at the apples again, I knew they   were truly perfect in the way the Gospel was written, made full and ripe by the lives and love of Arne and Martha. Apples that I had dismissed and the metaphor was not lost on me, that this is how perfection works in people, how we try to look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly to avoid judgment. And how when we fail, we perceive ourselves as less worthy.  
I know I am a bit of perfectionist. In grade school, I worked hard for those check pluses on a report card, smile (check plus) polite (check plus) gets along with others (check plus).  As an adult, I am a pleaser too because perfectionism is at is core about approval. But because we can’t control people’s perceptions, it is an unattainable goal, an illusion.  Our Unitarian forbears may bear a particular responsibility for this illusion of perfectionism.  In the mid 19th century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke proclaimed the five points of the Unitarian faith. The last two of those five points were Salvation by Character and The Progress of Mankind, onward and upward forever.    In other words our very salvation depends upon the constant improvement of our character and it is not only our own salvation that is at stake, because our individual progress contributes to the progress of all humankind or lack thereof.   Just a little pressure. Taken in historical context these points were of course radical and empowering – it matters what we do; we have the capacity to impact our own eternal destiny, God’s mercy is not completely arbitrary. But the message today, of onward and upward forever, one my father held dear, is a grueling one to try to live out because in truth we do have limits and limitations of all kinds.  Accepting our limitations with compassion may be our more challenging struggle because where perfectionism exist, shame is always lurking.
      Brene Brown, Author of The Gifts of Imperfection shares this story about perfection and shame.  She writes, A couple of years ago, Steven and I went to a dinner party at an acquaintance's house.  These were new, "fancy friends" and I was anxious to make a good impression.  When we got there, they offered us an appetizer-a big silver bowl of beans.  When I first saw them I thought they were beans that needed to be shucked for dinner, so when they offered them to us an appetizer, I'm sure I looked shocked.  I said, "Really, what is it?"  I'll never forget the look on their faces.  They were absolutely floored.  "What do you mean "what is it?"  I immediately felt the warm wave of shame.  I apologetically asked, "Are they beans?" The host replied, "Of course.  It's edamame.  Don't tell me you've never had edamame.  Don't you eat sushi?  Then as if it were both unbelievable and fascinating, she started turning to other dinner guests and announcing, "They have never had edamame-can you believe it?"  I desperately wanted to turn right around and go home. I was filled with shame.” She goes on:  “A couple of weeks later, I was in my office working and eating some beans, (I ended up really loving edamame).  A student knocked on the door and asked if she could come in to talk to me about a paper.  I'm not sure why this student pushed my buttons, but she did.  It was probably because she reminded me of myself when I was in my late twenties-smart, but at times painfully insecure and trying harder than necessary. She looked at my bag of beans and said what are those?"  In that split second, I felt the dinner party shame all over again.  In what must have been an attempt to "shift shame" by putting some of my shame on to her, I said "Edamame, of course. Haven't you had them?"  She looked embarrassed, "No I don't think so.  Are they good?"
And then in a very Joan Crawford way, I said, " I can't believe you haven't tried them.  They're super food.  They are fab-u-lous."
Brene goes on to say, "by the time the student left my office, I was numb. I couldn't believe it.  Why had I done that? I have no stake in soybeans.    Then it hit me, not knowing about Japanese food is a culture and class issue, and for me class was a trigger of shame." A few months later, Brene’s good friend from her working class childhood home came for a visit, and Brene chose this time to demystify knowledge and heal her shame.  She said "hey, I am going to make some edamame, have you tried it?"  When her friend said “no, what is it?”  Brene smiled, "I think it is Japanese for soy bean, you boil them and sprinkle with salt, they are really good, I just had them for the first time a few weeks ago." (end of story)
 As you can see, shame has a way repeating itself unless you break the cycle like she did with her friend.   After seven years of research Brene figured out four steps we can take to become resilient to shame and become practically and beautifully imperfect.
First she says we have to figure out our shame triggers.  Shame happens when you are assigned an unwanted identity.  First, figure out your ideal identities by finishing this sentence:  “I want to be perceived as _________(for me smart, fair, principled come to mind).  Then figure out your unwanted identities by finishing this sentence: "I don't want to be perceived as___. (For me uneducated,  and not relevant comes to mind) For clues, tune into  your body.  When does your face feel flushed, your stomach tighten? Listen to your mind as it spins the same moment over and over again.  Ninety percent of us experience shame around body image.  Other biggies are mothering, addiction, and affairs.   The second step is too zoom out and make a connection between your personal experience and a larger social system.  For Jillian, a 40 years old mom, her ideal identities were thin, sexy and confident.  Her unwanted identities were tired, old and frumpy.   Her kids treated her like she was old and frumpy, and when they did she yelled and screamed in her shame.  To become shame resilient Jillian did some research on the media messages about body images.  She found 80    percent of ten year olds have already dieted once because they feel they are unattractive, and among woman over eighteen years of age,  80 percent who look in the mirror are unhappy with what they see.  So she   decided to support organizations working for healthy body imaging for women and girls.  She let go of her ideal identities and now she says to friends, her family;  with pride, this is what 40 looks like.”  (for me, 56) The third step is to reach out and talk about your shame, and stop giving it the secrecy it craves.  Create your networks of connection.   Sometimes it takes a few strikeouts before you find the right people.  You may even get what Brene Brown calls a vulnerability hangover, when you feel you've thrown up vulnerability on someone and can't believe you actually put those words into the air.   It takes courage and compassion to receive someone’s’ shame when our first instinct might be to run, or be judgmental.  Empathy is essential.   And the fourth step is to create shame resilience by talking openly about the experience of shame with those who trigger you, express how you feel and ask for what you need.     Use the language of growth:  "I'd like to get better at… I’d like to improve at... Four steps, knowing your shame triggers, connecting your experience to larger systems, reaching out, and using the language of growth. Maybe our religious ancestors were right about the idea of perfection as growth, we just need to add the kindness, and compassion to help us get to where we want to go.  All this means giving voice to love.  Brene suggests before you speak write, or do anything, ask yourself, “Is this coming from a place of love?”  The answer is often in your body.  If you are tense, (then no), is your face relaxed, (then probably yes.)    My spiritual friends, as you celebrate valentines day this week, chose to be practically imperfect, by being kind to yourself and others and  letting love carry you through the vast array of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities.  Love for healing, for transformation, love for grace to rush in and carry us through which is the stuff of which our work is made.  Love for what makes us ripe for the giving, love for what makes us human.
 
 Below is a video of the sermon's intro and a full audio recording.

"Speak to Me of God" is an inauguration weekend sermon preached in the context of the worship theme "Prophecy."  Before the sermon we read "Circle of Life" by Reverend Rebecca Parker
Eight years ago, I began the Sunday service after the inaugural with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words ,     “We have  come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now...  For Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.” He spoke them in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in his “I have a Dream” speech. I told my congregation then that since 1963 we have moved at a speed of seven and one quarter inches  per day to travel the almost two miles from where MLK proclaimed his dream, to the steps of the capitol, the place where many felt then the dream had just been realized.   I talked about Amos that day, the Hebrew prophet who predicted that justice would roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  That day felt like an Amos moment. I believed we lived in a morally right world.   I urged us all to stay engaged to make sure righteousness flowed.  And it did, a little bit, the Affordable Care Act   benefits one-third of African Americans, a revitalized U.S. Justice Department dismantles racist police policies, Pell grant funding expanded, and drug sentencing by race is now more equitable.  Amos, was an outsider, was not a member of a court, or the kings elite.  He was found of saying, “be not comfortable in Zion.” And here we are eight years later uncomfortable in Zion.

Atlantic magazine editor Ta Nehisi Coates says to us who thought we lived in a moral world we have forgotten one thing.  We have forgotten “That a black president would always be a contradiction for a government that throughout most of its history had oppressed black people.  The attempt,” says Ta Nehisi, “to resolve this contradiction through Obama, a black man with deep roots in the white world was remarkable, the price it exacted incredible, the world it gave way to unthinkable.” We live now in an unthinkable world, one prophet new well.   A world in which the danger to the differently abled, immigrants, African Americans, Muslim, and the many beings of the earth has reach a new level.  How can we as Unitarian Universalists, do anything else but live our lives as prophets?  Prophets are the people who tell the story through the eyes of the victim. The people feel in their heart the fullness of God’s love and who find a way out of the violence. This is what the Lord calls us to do says the prophet Micah, to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”   

 James Forbes, minister emeritus of the Riverside congregation in New York City breaks this down into three easy to remember steps; “Yo, Go, and Lo. “  “Yo” I got your attention stage,  “Go” do my work, and “Lo,” I will always be with you.   He says the “Yo” I got your attention step is when you see through the illusion that rationalizes the status of one group at the expense of violence against another.  Today, the illusion you have to see through, says Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington, is that the new president won not because of the empty factories and defunct union halls, but because a large swath of this country did not like that their now former president was black, -a movement led by powerful and frightened white capitalists who lifted the political prominence of a man peddling the racist myth the former president wasn’t American, just the beginning of his long line of hurtful, hateful remarks.  How many of you, because of the change of political leadership, find yourself in the “Yo, I got your attention” step of being a prophet?

The next step “go do my work” is for me hard.  I traveled out west the week after the election and was frequently drawn almost unwillingly into conversations with supporters of our new president who assumed I was one too.   This was hard because I was heartbroken and I felt so raw.  In the midst of these conversations, I found myself thinking of St Francis for inspiration, remembering how in his moment of challenge he walked up to an almond tree and asked of it “speak to me of God?”  As he waited, the almond tree blossomed.    “Speak to me of God” helped to open my heart and stay present and hear what people had to say, and to feel their pain.     I listened to the ranch owner’s pain over the loss of his land, the heart break of the veteran who had escorted the coffins of colleagues home from too many war torn lands, an insurance broker whose experience of Obamacare was the reality of making once self sufficient people dependent on government subsidies.   And always after the listening, came a pause, an invite to share my pain.  And I shared the stories my colleagues and people in our pews have shared with me.  I told them of how Muslim children in our congregations had been told to go back to their country at school, and how a lesbian couple, was forced to move at the sudden vitriol from their long time neighbors. I told them of racism and bigotry, which they by their own admission they had not believed, thinking it all propaganda.  They believed because people of faith had told the story through the eyes and hearts of the victims.  I felt their hearts open.     
 
But there is more to the “go do my work step.”  Toni Morrison, the ultimate present day prophet to me says, “yes its important not to ignore the pain, but we must also refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”    Unfortunately I have had practice.    The other day, I was on the subway, and a white woman was making frantic and silent gestures at her cell phone. Only when the Chinese woman next to her crossed the train to be closer to her friend who was sitting next to me, did I realize that this white women was miming their animated conversation in Chinese, while they consulted their cell phones.  She continued her mockery and looked to me, inviting me in my whiteness to join her.  My heart had to override my brain’s denial that someone could act this way, and I refused to meet her eyes.  As my subway stop approached I offered my seat to the Chinese woman who had crossed the train to ignore the women’s mockery.  It was the only thing I could think of to counteract the cruelty and ally myself with the Chinese women.
 
Sometimes when this kind of stuff happens, its hard for me to feel the “Lo, I am always with you part of being a prophet.”  I find myself paralyzed by the bigotry in our political process, the violence in our public square.  I am also angry with myself for not doing more.   Because of all this fear and anger, I escape.  I say I am not the right person to do this work. Or I don’t know how.   Any of you ever feel this way? I was relieved to read Toni Morrison felt the same way once.   In last months Brain Pickings blog Tony writes, “Its new years day after the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.   “I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy New Year. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine — and you?” I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed.   I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” Her friend, could no longer listen, he interrupts her  “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” And as people of faith, as artists, as prophets, as co creators of our world, it is our job as well.    But how, when we are paralyzed by anger and fear?    Two years ago, I read a special Time edition on Hillary Clinton and in the section that described her religion, she said her favorite theologian was Henri Nouwen and she mentions a particular book “Return of the Prodigal Son.” In it Henri describes how he would spend hours in a museum staring at Rembrandt’s painting of the same title whenever he felt he had lost his way.  He even got permission from the museum to stay after hours. “All the gospel is found in this painting,” says Nouwen.  When he first looked at the painting early in his career he was for years the lost son in God’s arms.  Later in his life, he knew himself as the older brother standing apart in the red cape, resenting his Fathers embrace of his brother as unrequited love for all his years of service.  Henri would look at the painting until he felt restored to God’s embrace.  Sometimes when that happened he would catch glimpses of the Father, and he wanted more than anything to embody that love for others.
I ask you now to look below at the painting to center yourself in the embrace of what you hold holy, the most high, the most beloved?  To be prophets we need to be centered in our relationship with the divine, so  we can look at the world through the eyes of  victims  without any of our “stuff” getting in the way.  Please look at the painting, notice   the hands of God have both a feminine and masculine character.  Is there someone in the painting who speaks to your relationship with the divine now?  Are you now, or have you been the lost one, do you feel or long for the embrace of your beloved?    Do you feel more connected to the brother in the cape, standing apart, resenting his younger brother, feeling unworthy, and separate?  What does God’s embrace feel like, look like, for you?   What do you need now from that embrace?  Trust, intimacy, forgiveness, patience, strength… love? Take a moment to close your eyes and look inside the sanctuary of your hearts, what does your spirit need?  Whisper it aloud if you like.
 Prayer: God of creation, source of all blessings, help us listen to the parts within us that ache until we feel your loving embrace .  Restored to the fullness of your love, help us to see and honor the dignity of those most in harms way. Help us to see and act as prophets.  Let your love and their truths guide our work.  Amen 

This is precisely the time when healers, truth sayers, justice makers, people of faith go to work.  This is our job!  A job we do in the hopes of creating Rembrandt's embrace. The last night of my trip out West I was waiting in the hotel lobby for the shuttle to the airport    I had hours for I was catching the red eye.  I started a conversation with a women next to me from Atlanta.    After a few minutes she sought my consolation at the injustice experienced by her granddaughter when her college’s administration admonished her for an editorial she wrote in defense of all lives matter.  The grandmother felt a bit betrayed by my response and asked me “You mean you agree with the college?”  I explained to her that the college was being accountable to the national Black lives Matter movement, and how her granddaughter had misused their message.   Clearly perplexed by my logic, she blurted “but all lives DO matter.” With gentle firmness I spoke of how black bodies, not white bodies, are the most threatened and vulnerable in this country today.       Usually in these conversations I get tongue tied and often shut down in frustration.  This time I sensed a compassionate presence  that came through us, but was not of us, a presence that carried our words with a note of kindness, ones that seemed to be asking  “speak to me of God.”   To be honest, there was no conversion moment, no joyful meeting of the heart.  She eventually left to engage with another group from our conference. All I know was that I was touched and I am remembering this as a Rembrandt moment. Thomas Merton writes, “in the end it’s the reality of personal relationship that saves everything…the big results are not in your hands or mine, they suddenly happen, and we can share them, as we speak, write, and do language in relationship.”  This is how civilizations heal, and this is our job as people of faith and as prophets.  May we be so blessed.