Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
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Last year, I spent every Tuesday talking with undergraduate students, delving into the intersection of spirituality, religion, and queer identity. In those one-on-one conversations, I heard story after story of the flaws of religious institutions: banishment, shame, violence.
We engaged the suffering the church, in its many expressions, has caused. It was sometimes wrenching, sometimes hilarious.
But the common refrain I heard from this diverse group of young people is this: They sent me away, but I still want to believe.
These students yearn for the personal connections, vibrant music, spiritual growth, and perhaps most of all, the communal space to make meaning together.
What brought me back to church, and then to seminary, was this very thing. I finished several years of Catholic schooling, came out as queer, dropped religion all together -- my atheist phase, as my parents like to call it -- and then I slowly, cautiously, anxiously crawled my way back as a young adult.
To be frank, I wasn’t quite sure what was driving me to seek church out again. But I knew with certainty that what I had been doing up to that point was not working.
So one Saturday, I opened my laptop, hit enter on my Google search, and found myself taking a Buzzfeed-style quiz to determine where I belonged on Sunday mornings. And after that first service in this new church that offered a stronger sense of belonging than I had had in any other place in my life, I cried. I cried tears of relief, of surprise, of joy.
I cried because I entered that space fully as myself -- with all my gifts and my flaws and my pieces of identity -- and I was met with a welcome that had no caveats to it. A welcome that was full and complete and unabashed in its enthusiasm and reach.
The wholeness that is me was treated as holy and sacred. My coming out had returned me to myself. And in that return, I also made my way back to that holiness buried deep within. That holiness that I had learned was not supposed to be there, that holiness that I had forced so far away that I could barely recover it.
And, yet, there it was. There I was. There God was.
Of course, church isn’t easy. Religious institutions, as we know, are deeply flawed, including my own. I struggle with the daily challenges that we all face as leaders in these institutions.
But then there are days I remember that first sermon in that new church, and I remember how it made me feel. And I remember the looks on the faces of the students when I tell them that, yes, I’m going to be a minister, too, and that their choice to leave faith all together, or to reimagine what it means to them is theirs to make -- and any choice is going to be OK.
Because their wholeness and holiness is theirs. It was never meant to be hidden or banished or stolen. We remind one another that wherever we go, that holiness remains. God remains.
As I look to what’s next, I’m focused on ministering from a starting point that church is neither good nor bad, but that it can be good-enough. My relationships with these young people have been a much-needed reminder that sometimes a loving starting point, a welcome with reckless abandon is really all you need.
Thank you and amen.
Sermon: "As the World Begins Again"
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So we’re only 12 days into a new decade, and I already feel like the world is ending. Are some of you feeling that way, too? Raise of hands…
I don’t say this to be hyperbolic or a negative Nancy -- there is plenty of that flying around already. But I say it because it feels like there is a kernel of truth behind that sentence right now: Puerto Ricans are again experiencing the devastating effects of a natural disaster; Australia and its vibrant ecosystem of wildlife is dealing with untold death and destruction because of unprecedented wildfires; this presidential regime continues to flame the fires of conflict and discord between the United States and Iran, setting off a blaze of violence and hatred.
And those are just some of the most recent headlines. Police violence against communities of color, rising rents, inhumane border policies, anti-queer and trans violence, and many other issues remain in our shared backdrop. And there are the many, many additional pains and indignities and conflicts that arise in our lives and the lives of our neighbors every day. I know the beginning of 2020 has dealt me some personal turbulence and upheaval -- perhaps some of you are dealing with something similar, too.
With each of these new and growing developments around the world and in within our own backyards, it feels like we’re gesturing toward that end. In a way, we can think about each of those moments as a sort of hitting the end of the world -- we’ve reached that end so many times already in the last few weeks.
This new decade has begun with a tinge of sorrow, of anger, of defeat.
Now what? Now what, my friends?
This month, we are considering how we are known and called in the world. Some of us are known and called by God or spirit or a grand oneness; others feel known and called by personal conviction and sacred experience; others still feel known and called by community and loving bonds between people and places.
Today, I want us to consider how we might live into our calling as Unitarian Universalists, as Throop UU, as church, to imagine new worlds together in community, known by one another and the wider world as agents of change and as a people of care and love.
As Rev. Richardson wrote in her poem: as the world begins again, we must gather the light around us.
And to gather that light of one another, we are called to our imaginations. To imagine a world in which the earthquakes and fires and missiles and violence have disappeared. Where those things have been replaced with justice and care and love and connection. Replaced with our potential for a shared humanity with all beings in this world.
And, I know, I know. Some of you may be rolling your eyes and waiting for “Imagine” by John Lennon to start playing. I get it -- that sort of imagination feels, for some of us, out of touch. That may be true, but only if it’s an exercise in imagination that leads to no further action.
For most of us, our imaginations have been tainted and stunted from years of being told “that’s just the way it is” and “this is the world we live in -- deal with it.” But imagination is also the one thing that has ever brought about life-saving innovations, new ways of understanding and being with one another, creations that have allowed us to all feel a little less alone in the world.
This call to imagination brings us to a sort of sacred anarchy. A sacred anarchy. This is a term that was coined by theologian John Caputo, whose work forces us to turn everything we’ve ever understood about God, about the universe, about community, on its head. Caputo’s work is so revolutionary for me because it reconnects me with an understanding of the things that create meaning in my life, and the things that I feel called to be and do in the world that respond to something higher, bigger than the trappings of this world.
He zeroes in on eschatology -- which is the theological study of the end of the world, of the final destiny of our souls. We are living in times that urge us to consider what our eschatology of this world might be. If this world as we know it ends, what might something new, something different look like?
Caputo encourages people in faith communities to create a “divine disturbance” in this world. “Rather than identifying the highest entity or nominating the supreme governor who everywhere brings order, my anarchic suggestion is to think of the name of God as the name of a disturbance or a holy disarray.”
Caputo urges us to consider the ways we’ve been programmed to accept and never question the ways of the world as they are -- to accept a ruthless hierarchy, to accept empire and a capitalism that dominates, to accept the ways we mistreat, malform, and belittle one another.
But what if we respond to that which we are called -- we respond to that call to imagine together in loving community a world that is otherwise from this one.
That work of sacred anarchy, Caputo writes, brings about “the rule of so-called weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for an offense, release and let go. [This new world] is found whenever war and aggression are met with an offer of peace. It is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time, a way of living without why, living for the day, like the lilies of the field as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, containing and managing risk. [It] reigns wherever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful are put on the defensive. The powerless power of this place prevails whenever the one is preferred to the ninety-nine, whenever one loves one's enemies and hates one's father and mother while the world, which believes in power, counsels us to fend off our enemies and keeps the circle of kin and kind, of family and friends, fortified and tightly drawn.”
“This higher place obeys the law of reversals in virtue of which whatever is first is last, whatever is out is in, whatever is lost is saved, where even death has a certain power over the living, all of which confounds the dynamics of strong forces.”
These words from Caputo provide a powerful road map and inspirational call to all of us to imagine this otherwise world in the here and now. To upend the ways of being that dominate, that violate, that cause pain. And to instead instill a new way of being with one another, one that is founded on caring, on showing up for one another, on forgiveness, and on love. How might we live into this as Unitarian Universalists? How might we lead the charge in committing acts of sacred anarchy?
This new place we imagine together in community calls us, ultimately, toward Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a greek word that is often translated into English as human flourishing. It’s an ancient concept, one that’s attributed to Plato and has been made foundational for many philosophical and spiritual traditions.
I love the concept of Eudaimonia because it’s not prescriptive, it’s not a blanket solution. It’s a space that allows for the full range of human emotion, sometimes we will feel sorrow and anger and worry. And sometimes we will feel happiness and loved and worthy. But all of these emotions, as lovely as many of them are, are temporary states of being.
What is lasting, what is a continuously worthwhile aim, is eudaimonia -- flourishing. Your or I can’t determine the best path forward for any one person -- the beauty of our differences teaches us that that is something we must decide for ourselves. But in community, we can advocate for and encourage one another toward a communal flourishing of human beings and of all that surrounds us. Church, how might we imagine this new place that we’re called to create so that it centers our communal flourishing, our communal eudiamonia?
Just this week, I participated in something that provided to me a glimmer of communal flourishing, of sacred anarchy.
In one of my final classes at seminary, we sat together lamenting the ways the world feels like its ending all around us. Assembled together as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as Hindus, as Unitarian Universalists -- all from many different cultures and backgrounds and expressions of faith, and with many different hopes and dreams -- we shared our sorrow over these ends. We were together as anti-war activists, veterans, active duty service members, pastors, imams, chaplains. Just like our story for all ages today, we had many, many different 3D glasses represented in that room -- many different ways of understanding the world.
But with Australia and Puerto Rico and Iran and the many, many other daily pains on our hearts and minds, we decided to head outside and stand in a circle, together.
And then we prayed. We held one another’s hands, closed our eyes, and felt the Earth beneath us. We stood in silence, and then slowly, one-by-one, each of us began to utter the words bubbling up from our souls. These words were our blessing for the end of the world -- our prayers for something new, for a shared eudaimonia among us all.
They were words that we needed to hear uttered aloud into the world, the words that connected us to one another.
Resilience, Sorrow, Hope, Patience, Strength, Forgiveness, Humility, Resolve, Leadership, Acceptance, Protection, Love. Love. Love.
Amidst all our many differences, we shared together in our humanity in one unbroken circle, feeling the sun and the wind on our skin and the ground beneath our feet.
We were doing the reflective work of imagination, of sacred anarchy. We were ushering in the end of a world that pacifies and protects these ills, and we were speaking aloud the birth of something new.
As Rev. Richardson writes, we could all use a “blessing when the world is ending.” And it’s this blessing by which we are all known that will “simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
May it be so. Amen.