Love Will Not Be Sacrificed – Easter Sermon 2014

Love Will Not Be Sacrificed

An Easter Sermon by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

UU Church of Columbia, MO

April 20, 2014

 

Easter sermon preached, miraculously, in a voice that only minutes before had been lost to upper respiratory infection.

Easter sermon preached, miraculously, in a voice that only minutes before had been lost to upper respiratory infection.

I have a personal history of confusion about Jesus.

When I was four, I went to a Birthday Party for Jesus at Christmastime (as one does, when one is growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma) and I was dismayed and disturbed to find out that the birthday boy would not be there to blow out the candles himself!

When I was probably seven or eight, I was told for the first time by a solemn classmate that God sent his only son Jesus to die for my sins. As the classmate waited for me to react to this wonderful, happy news, my reaction was confusion. Why would he do that? Couldn’t he come up with a better way than killing someone?

Though some of the theological twistings and turnings around him still confound me, over the years I have come to love the stories of Jesus. I have never been able to say they will be my only sacred text, but I find in them deepest wisdom about the struggle to love this world.

In Jesus, I encounter a teacher who embodied a standard of love so high it makes me dizzy; a radical prophetic who demanded that his followers give up everything but love, and who defined that love not as a warm feeling but as an uncompromising position of compassion and mercy and justice in this world. I believe that Jesus was a child of God in the way that we all hope to be.

This is important when we approach the Easter story of sacrifice, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Theologian and minister Rebecca Parker, who is ordained in both the Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist traditions, remembers a conversation with her Methodist preacher father when she was around the age of 12. With some trepidation, she confessed that she believed that Jesus was only the son of God in the way that we are all children of God.

Her father calmly told her that made her a Unitarian. “But don’t worry,” he said… he was a little bit Unitarian too, and they could both still be United Methodists.[1]

As she grew into adulthood and into her calling as a minister, Parker began to encounter things in the ministry that led her to believe that there was, indeed, confusion around Jesus. Confusion that needed clearing up, if the Christian faith was to be a life-giving enterprise.

Particularly, she began to encounter individuals, mostly women, who were taught by their church that real love is self-sacrificing love, and that bravely bearing the cross of suffering, and even of violence, was somehow an exercise of their faith.

This, too, is important when we approach the Easter story of sacrifice, crucifixion, and resurrection.

In her book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Parker (along with co-writer Rita Nakashima Brock) points out that the pervasive Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement – the claim that God sent Jesus specifically to die, as a blood sacrifice in substitution for all of humanity – is a theological claim that puts violence at the center of faith.

Parker writes, “The actual historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion was neither sweet nor saving. In Jesus’ time, the Romans occupied all of Palestine. […] The Romans suppressed resistance by terrorizing the local population. Crucifixion was their most brutal form of capital punishment. It took place in full public view, to teach a lesson through terror.

To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.”[2]

Parker continues: “Atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3]

Any theology that finds the crucifixion to be somehow necessary for salvation, she argues, is a life-denying position that reifies and justifies brutality, and that even commands us to suffer it willingly, as a sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course most UUs don’t uphold this particular strain of theology. You may even congratulating yourself, as you hear this, for never having believed such craziness in the first place, or for long since discovering the errors of your ways.

But we cannot ignore this worldview, because it lives among us.

In our most honest moments, we probably recognize that it even lives within us somewhere dark, where it has been carefully planted by our addicted culture.

We are all members of a society drunk on violence, and we cannot ignore the narrative of violent sacrifice and redemptive violence that infects our culture.

On a personal level, it often manifests as shame – that niggling suspicion that we deserve or have earned our suffering through some deep failure.

On a larger scale, well, we crucify people all the time. We name them “other,” deem them without worth, and murder their voice or body.

And, as Parker points out, along with countless feminist and liberationist theologians… when sacrifices are made, from time in memoriam, it is rarely the rich and powerful who are sacrificed. More often, it is the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable whose lives are forfeit.

We see this on our street corners when we sacrifice our teens to the Gods of drugs and money. We see this in our state budgets when we sacrifice health care for our most vulnerable citizens to the Gods of personal political gain. We see this in our own lives when our tender vulnerabilities are exploited.

But it’s time we preach the truth: that sacrifice will not save us, until we put down our crosses and nails and guns, and we instead take up one another’s hands in gentle and fierce love.

We will not saved by giving up life, but by dedicating our lives to holy things – beauty and dignity; compassion and liberation; flourishing for all.

This is the sacrifice Jesus made: not the forfeit of his life, but rather his uncompromising position of love, which he held even unto death. Not a necessary death, though certainly a tragic one… and perhaps a predictable one: Radical love threatens the power of tyranny.

And the thing is, there are many peace-making traditions that have always sought the good news of compassion in the Christian narrative. There have always been followers of Jesus who have found justice and kindness and mercy in their humble walk with the teacher who commanded us above all else to love each other.

Indeed, it would seem that the earliest Christians; those closest to events we recount on Easter week, pinned their faith not on Jesus’ death, but on his life, and on the resurrection power of his love.

In their most recent book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rebecca Parker and her writing partner Rita Nakashima Brock discover that the focus on the violent Crucifixion as the center of the Christian narrative did not occur until about a thousand years into Christian practice.

Indeed, on a journey through both written and visual history, they found that the first visual image of Jesus’ death did not appear until around 950 in the common era.

What they found instead, in the earliest churches and most ancient holy sites, were countless images of Paradise, as a fertile, flourishing, and peaceful garden here on this Earth, an Eden among us.

What they found in the theology of the time was the faith claim that the gates to Paradise on this earth were opened not through Jesus’ death, but through his Resurrection.

Indeed, the frescos of the earliest churches had no panel showing the crucifixion, but skipped right to the image of the Risen Christ in a this-earthly paradise, open at once for all people.

Musing upon this discovery, Parker and Brock write: “As the paradise of early Christianity entered our vision and seeped into our consciousness, Crucifixion-centered Christianity seemed increasingly strange to us. We wondered what had happened to the understanding of this world as paradise. When and why did Christianity shift to an obsession with atoning death and redemption through violence? What led Western Christianity to replace resurrection and life with a Crucifixion-centered salvation and to relegate paradise to a distant afterlife?”[4]

They found their answer right about the time of the religious Crusades of the 11th century, when the Crucifixion began its theological rise, images of Jesus’ gruesome death proliferated, and the violent sacrifice of self or other became a valid means for atonement and redemption.

“In short,” write Parker and Brock, “the needs of empire—and theologies that justified and then sanctified violence and war—transformed Christianity and alienated Western Christians from a world they had once perceived as paradise.”[5]

In their book, they issue a call to us… that it is time; it is past time, to reclaim paradise as our dominant cultural narrative. We have been sick with justifications for violence for far too long.

We must open the gates of paradise to each other once more.

And we do it by telling that same Easter story once more, but telling it fresh. As one of my colleagues has been known to say, with a twinkle in her eye, perhaps we needn’t throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater.

In our Universalist tradition, we believe in a force of love at work in this world that is all-encompassing and irresistible, a fierce love that sacrifices none, but holds all.

Our Unitarian tradition identifies our capacity and responsibility to embody that Love ever more fully, as Jesus himself did when he fed the hungry, healed the sick, and spent his days with society’s least and last.

The forces of capital and empire will always be threatened by this kind of Love, which cannot be monetized or oppressed. This is the Love that rises up even in the ghetto and the slum. This is the Love that springs up as wildflowers in the most barren land. The Love that lives even through war and famine, desolation and despair.

That kind of Love is a threat, because it is wild and irresistible. It is impossible to control.

Through a historic lens, the arrest, torture, and execution of Jesus is, sadly, the most logically believable part of the Easter story. We are not surprised when empire executes those whom it cannot control.

But as Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the power of irresistible and wild Love, and we believe in resisting the dominion and violence of empire the way that Jesus himself did.

Thus, ironically, given our usual skepticism, the truly Unitarian Universalist approach to the story of Easter may be to lift up as paramount the story’s final and most unbelievable claim – the resurrection.

The resurrection – the claim of Jesus’ followers that crucifixion would not, could not be the final word. The claim that you can kill Love incarnate, and roll a stone across its tomb, but Love will not be defeated. It will rise up again and again.

This is the story slanted toward paradise, the story removed from the hands of empire and placed in the service of a kingdom of love – a Paradise here on earth.

As Unitarian Universalists, we do not glorify the blood sacrifice of Jesus’ life. Instead we make the improbable claim that Love will not be sacrificed. That even when faced with the horrors of terror and violence in this world, even when faced with systems that are indifferent to suffering… Love wins. Improbably and always – Love wins.

This is not just a claim we make, but a reality we see and name.

Yes, violence and suffering abound. Yes, the brokenness of this world rends our hearts just as the temple banner was rent as Jesus breathed his last.

And yet, for every hand raised in anger, there is another reaching out in solidarity and compassion.

For every anti-Semitic madman opening fire at a community center there are a thousand more human souls who reach out to their Jewish neighbors in love and concern.

For every indifferent act in our legislature, a thousand people pour into the capitol advocating for their neighbors’ access to health care and the vote.

As Unitarian Universalists, we attempt always to see our world clearly, and so we know that this world will crucify people.

But experience and our faith in the redeeming power of Love tell us that crucifixion is never the final word. Love is.

Violence, suffering, and even death, are never the final word. Love is.

King Solomon said it this way in the beautiful love song of the Hebrew Bible known as the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs:

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,

as a seal upon your arm;

for love is strong as death,

passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

neither can floods drown it.”
This is our Unitarian Universalist Eastertide proclamation:

That only love prevails.It is strong as death. It will not be sacrificed.

Always, Love wins.

 

 

[1] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. Page 34.

[2] Proverbs of Ashes, page 48.

[3] Proverbs of Ashes, page 49.

[4] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Parker. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008. Page XIX.

[5] Ibid.

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Big Data Service

Wonder what a church service about Big Data would look like? Wonder no more! Best impact if you follow the links to listen to the song and read the Psalm before reading the homily.

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Song – The Hymn of Axciom by Vienna Tang – (This song was written by a former intern from a multi-million dollar corporation called Acxiom. Headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas, Axciom collects, organizes and sells demographic and consumer data. It is safe to say that Axciom owns at least some data on most adults in America. They probably know where you live, what you buy, and more. If you are curious, you can visit aboutthedata.com to see the information they have about you.)

lyrics -

Somebody hears you. you know that. you know that.

Somebody hears you. you know that inside.

Someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to

(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.

Here you’re known.

 

Leave your life open. you don’t have. you don’t have.

Leave your life open. you don’t have to hide.

Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these

(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.

Keep them all.

 

Let our formulas find your soul.

We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),

Marshal feed and force (our machines will)

To design you a perfect love—

Or (better still) a perfect lust.

O how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.

 

Now we possess you. you’ll own that. you’ll own that.

Now we possess you. you’ll own that in time.

Now we will build you an endlessly upward world,

(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.

 

Is that wrong?

Isn’t this what you want?

Amen.

 

Reading – Psalm 139: 1-12

 

Homily – “Seen, Known, Understood?” by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon and James Gordon

What’s the difference between big data and religion? 

One tells you that there is a vast, intangible omniscience in The Cloud that can guide you in all life’s decisions…

The other is religion.

So what is big data, and how does it impact our lives?

By way of answer, let me ask you a few questions…

How many of you post regularly on Twitter?

How many of you post regularly on Facebook?

How many of you have bought items on Amazon.com?

How many of you own a cell phone?

How many of you have bought anything at all in the last ten years using a credit card or a checking account?

You are a part of a massive collection of information and a corresponding multi-billion dollar industry called Big Data.

Most of what we do today has some link to the digital realm and leaves some record out there on the web. So now, businesses, researchers, campaigns, and other entities are making it their business to analyze and interpret the data we leave behind. They do this by seeking out patterns and creating consumer profiles used to market to us more effectively.

Simply put, the goal of Big Data is to categorize, predict, and influence human behavior, most often in pursuit of money or power.

Collectively, the American people have assented to this process and even aided in its growth. We have essentially entered into covenant with countless organizations and corporate entities by agreeing to largely unread terms and conditions and volunteering personal information in exchange for goods and services. 

We also contribute to our own consumer profiles by posting on facebook, having and using an email address, and simply searching the web.

The ability to share of ourselves through digital communication and social media has exponentially increased our ability to connect with others across time and across great distance. These interactions exist permanently in the digital record and in connections that Facebook and other companies monetize through corporate sponsorship and consumer-aided advertising.

Big Data in its most fully realized form even makes it possible for retailers to anticipate our needs. Amazon can guess when you’ll be needing to reorder toilet paper, and, if you’ve set it up to do so, they will send you some, automatically.

Famously, Target has developed a formula by which they can accurately predict whether one of their shoppers is pregnant – often before that woman has informed others in her life – and they will adjust their coupons and special offers to her accordingly. (There was a fascinating New York Times article about how they do this in February of last year called “How Do Companies Learn Your Secrets?”)

This kind of targeted advertising seems a bit invasive, but if one will inevitably encounter countless advertisements throughout one’s day, wouldn’t it be nice if they were for things one was actually looking for? That’s the argument of an industry that seeks to convert large amounts of information into behavioral predictions, and behavioral predictions into profit margins.

So why do we throw our lot in with those who seek to understand us mostly in order to sell something to us? Why do we give little pieces of ourselves as data to those who would see it as nothing more?

The simple answer is that it is nearly impossible to opt out of the system that has grown up around the collection and organization of human data. Try living in today’s world without an e-mail address or a bank account, both of which leave permanent footprints mapping your communications and purchases.

The longer answer is more complex.

There is something deep within us that longs to be seen, known, and understood; Something in us praying that nothing is lost; Something in us that longs to echo on eternally.

At a macro-level, this is what Big Data promises us in a very literal way. There is someone out there picking up every digital crumb we drop, so that none are lost. In this system we are known. In this system someone at least attempts to understand us. In this system we live on in memory, for as long as there is disk space.

Isn’t this the longing of the Psalmist in one of the most beloved pieces of poetry in the Hebrew Bible? “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from far away.” It is a prayer that nothing we do be outside of God’s care, nothing outside of the attention of something beyond us, nothing lost in God’s eternal sight.

Here, you’re known.

There is something deep with in us, as well, that longs to know and understand life itself; something in us always seeking meaning; questioning our place and purpose here on earth.

Especially in a fragmented world where coherence and capital T-truth seem so very far from our grasp, we long for understanding. Especially in a global marketplace where our choices seem nearly infinite, we long for certainty and guidance.

Big Data attempts to fulfill this promise as well – it’s very existence based on the premise that better decisions are made with more information, and that all will be revealed in time, given enough data and enough computing power to interpret it.

We see this in data-driven study after study claiming just the right way to do “fill in the blank.” We see this in common websearch terms about various facts and perceptions of life. When in doubt Google it. 

We long to know, to make the right choice, to be sure.

Isn’t this what you want?

But, certainty eludes us, thank God, and our lives, not to mention life itself, defy reduction, datafication, searchification, and categorization.

To know our purchases is not to know our innermost selves, and to search on Google is not to pursue a search for meaning.

We who contemplate matters of faith recognize, instead, the impenetrable depth of the human spirit and the vast and ever-changing mystery at the center of life. We recognize the beautiful complexity of the human heart, and we celebrate the humility, wisdom, and imagination that come from the cloud of our unknowing. 

We know our longings to know and be known will drive us even on into the search that is spiritual life – longings never fully met, always guiding our steps.

Yet, it is important to our spiritual health that we recognize these longings at play in our daily lives as we interact with our tech-enhanced culture. It is important that we name them for what they are, lest they be subverted into baser pursuits… for there are many agents in the digital data realm whose sole purpose is to guide our human longings into the market in ever more sophisticated ways – using technological advance to convert our desires into dollars. 

It is our job to recall that these longings are powerful and hold the potential to be converted into so much more.

As people who long to be known and understood, we have a powerful capacity and drive to reach out to others in curiosity and compassion – our own longings the very impetus to meet the longings of others in mutual growth and connection.

As people who long to know and understand the heart of mystery, we have a powerful capacity to enter into a humble and lifelong search, our longings driving us, if we will let them, deep into the heart of a spiritual and meaningful life.

Desiring to be known, seen, and understood, and desiring to understand this life we lead, it is in our nature to enter into covenant with each other and with something greater than ourselves. But big data is not big enough. Only the “Love that Will Not Let Us Go,” the center of our faith, is deep and wide enough to hold us all.

That is the covenant we seek here as we focus our hearts on that which is worthy of us – that which transcends, transforms, and makes whole. Here in this church, we seek to loosen our grip on certainty and instead open ourselves to complexity and to one another. That is the only way we will be truly seen. The only way we are truly known.

So this morning, and every morning, may we renew our covenant with that Holy Source, and so doing, renew our deep engagement with a life which sees us in glimpses and knows us still, a life which we may understand but dimly, but which we live and love fully, courageously, and well.

Here, in this community, in this world, you are mysterious, and you are seen clearly, held with love.

Here, in the sight of Love Eternal, you are known.

Amen.

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Labor Day Homily – Inherent Worth and the Living Wage

Inherent Worth and the Living Wage

A Homily by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, MO

Labor Day Sunday, September 1, 2013

 

We are worth more.

Two weeks ago, organizers from the national movement of striking fast food workers came to visit the justice-oriented clergy group that I recently helped found here in Columbia.

They told us about a call to national action – one day strikes across the country on August 29 to raise awareness about the indignity of poverty wages and the injustice of highly profitable corporations paying them. They told us they’d heard from workers here in Columbia who wanted to stand up.

Then they showed us footage of strike actions in Kansas City the month before, and it was a slogan on the back of the workers’ t-shirts that finally hit me in the heart.

The shirts said: We are worth more.

The video ended, and I spoke immediately. “I’m in.”

The organizers had lots of facts to share with us –

that the average fastfood worker in today’s economy is between the ages of 27 and 35 and has at least one child to support –

that fast food corporations are pocketing record profits while paying their workers poverty wages that taxpayers are forced to supplement through burgeoning public assistance programs—

that low wage workers across many industries make only half what would be considered a basic living wage that would allow them to pay rent, afford utilities and healthcare, and put good, healthy food on the table.

The facts were certainly compelling.

But it was that simple statement on the back of a t-shirt that called to my spirit and my Unitarian Universalist faith.

We are worth more.

The injustices of our current economic system are overwhelming. Clear solutions to the growing wealth gap are not close at hand. One could feel paralyzed by the interlocking issues of poverty wages, educational disadvantage, hopelessness, violence, and more.

But here was something I could do. I could stand beside low-wage workers, and with the weight of my faith and the power of community behind me, I could say: We believe that you are worth more.

I could join with them as they declared their own worth and dignity and assure them that we’ve got their back.

So… I was in. 100%.

And with the courage of at least 20 workers, the creative partnership of a coalition of community supporters, the participation of 7 local clergy, and the enthusiastic work of our own social action team, Columbia quickly pulled together something amazing.

On a day when 60 or more cities across the country stood up and spoke out for the economic dignity of all workers and all work, Columbia was one of the smallest municipalities adding our voice to that nation-wide clarion call. Small but mighty.

The day began with a breakfast and rally here at the church, hosted with warm radical welcome by members of our social action team. Over bagels and juice, I talked with a man who told me about his daughters, ages 4 and 5, who love Disney princesses and Xbox spaceship games, and who sounded full of spunk and spirit. He told me he worked two different fast food jobs to try and provide for his girls, and some days, he didn’t even get to see them, leaving the house before they woke up and returning home after their bedtime. He told me he was standing up today for his daughters.

Talk about human dignity, right? That man was dignified.

Economic models developed by scholars at MIT put a living wage for an adult with one child at $16.47 an hour, with full time hours. The median fast food worker wage in Columbia is $8.53 an hour, and few fast food workers are able to cobble together full-time hours. When we pay hard working people only half of what it takes for them to survive, what are we telling them about their worth and dignity?

After our first public witness at Hardee’s, we spent an hour in the air-conditioning, drinking water and cooling off, and making signs for the next action. I talked with a woman who had made a sign saying: “Jesus was a Low Wage Worker.” Her three daughters were with her, the baby strapped to her chest all day as we moved from action to action. She told me she worked full time at minimum wage, but she couldn’t afford an apartment. She and her girls were staying with a friend. Sleeping on a couch and the floor. That’s not right, she said.

Talk about human dignity, huh? That woman was dignified.

So many low wage workers have to turn to public assistance, that a study has shown that a single Wal-Mart store, paying its employees anywhere from $7.35-$9 an hour, will cost taxpayers $900,000 in necessary public assistance programs for those same workers. One store, $900,000 needed in food stamps, subsidized housing, Medicaid, and more. What does that say about Wal-Mart’s attitude to human worth and dignity?

For our second action, we moved to the Taco Bell on Nifong. I held up the woman’s sign; the one that said “Jesus was a Low Wage Worgker.” There, as we chanted “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Poverty Wages have got to go,” a man began berating us – “Go home, burger flippers. My wife makes $17 an hour as a nurse, and you want $15 dollars to flip a burger? Get a real job!”

We responded with a new chant: “Nurses need a raise! Nurses need a raise!”

This is an argument you see a lot from skilled workers of many fields who are making below or barely a living wage themselves. Why should less-skilled workers make a higher wage when I went through years of training to barely scrape by?

And I can see why this feels like a zero sum game to some middle class workers.

Currently one percent of our population holds 40 percent of our country’s wealth. The bottom 80% share only 7% of the nation’s wealth, so of course it feels like a lot of people are scrabbling over a relatively small pot of money. Right now, we are.

We must remember that these corporate CEOs at the top are dignified and worthy people too… but I can just imagine how very safe their vast fortunes feel when those who make $17 and those who make $8 are quibbling over better pay while ignoring the staggering, exponential gap between themselves and that top 1%, who make up to $8,000 an hour.

There are economic arguments about how wages for working people across the board have stayed flat for decades while inflation marches on. Economic arguments for why raising our lowest wages grows the economy and helps move wages up across the board.

But the true response that I have for the man at Taco Bell, and for the CEOs is theological. We are all in this together, bound up in one single garment of destiny. We rise and fall together, 100% of us, and all of our spirits are impoverished by a system that keeps millions of people in poverty.

Furthermore, human worth and dignity is not a zero sum game. Your worth does not diminish mine. Rather, dignity builds upon dignity in abundance, and when we live that truth, we are ALL WORTH MORE.

Our connection yields our calling – bound together, we must proclaim the dignity of our neighbor.

But our connection to one another is also where we find our power.

At the end of the strike day, workers and supporters alike returned here to the church for lunch. We were hot, sweaty, tired, and hungry, but the room was alive with energy. As we shared our thoughts on the experience a leader from the Taco Bell workers stood up and gave us a word.

“I don’t know when I’ve been in a room with so many different kinds of people. Across faith and ethnicity and so many other things, we stood together today. It was AWEsome. I am feeling joyful and powerful, and next time, it will only get bigger.”

I thought, “Preach!”

When we join together across divides, we are living what people of Christian faith have called the Kingdom of Heaven, here on Earth.

When we proclaim the inherent worth of our neighbors and ourselves, we are embodying what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community.


On Thursday I caught a glimpse of the promised land. I saw what it means to heal our world. Nobody got a raise (yet). Nobody got a union (yet). But we stood together, dignified, worthy, and connected, and I do believe, it made all the difference.

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Homily – The Universe in You

The Universe in You

A Homily by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia

April 7, 2013

 

Now that we have celebrated the precious gift of young life and reverenty dedicated ourselves to its care and nurture, I’m going to get irreverent for a minute.

Sometimes when I read Kenneth Patton’s words, which we heard as our opening words this morning, about welcoming the child as a visitor, with star dust in his hair and the pulse of time in her heart, I think…

Yes! Children ARE just like alien invaders!

First they abduct their hosts’ bodies for their own uses, feeding on them as parasitic alien beings would.

Then they  make their way into the world more painfully than any extra-terrestrial probe I’ve heard of.

They arrive, looking rather like ET, though sadly devoid of dayglo fingers. And they attempt to make contact using some alien dialect of squawks and cries that we try frantically to decode.

Do they come in peace? Or are they here for world domination?

And even if these children are the heart of your heart or the flesh of your flesh, is there not something about them that remains so totally foreign and mysterious?

Think of a tiny infant – how they arrive looking like little old men or baby buddhas and you can tell by watching the light and movement in their eyes that they aren’t missing a thing. What’s going on inside those bald little heads? We have no idea – we don’t remember what went on in our heads at that age.

Or a young toddler just learning to walk – how they look like little drunks – stumbling around exploring the world, and you can tell they are awash in discovery. What is going on in their heads? We have no idea – if we remember that age it is in hazy washes of color and feeling.

Or a verbal child learning to stay No! or telling halucinatory stories about robot fairies and zombie whales. Perhaps we know what is going on inside their heads because they will talk and talk and talk until they are sure we do… but where in the world is it coming from? We might remember those days; but probably not the creative source that moved through us in make believe stories and songs and play.

Then just when we think we’ve acclimated our young to earthly living; they’ve picked our language, sobered up and learned to walk straight… the teenage years arrive, and suddenly we seem to be living once again on different planets, the void of space stretching between us.

Even though we don’t remember being Buddha babies or drunken toddlers or tripping tots, we each know or remember the opening of that chasm, the moments of alienation we have felt, growing into our selves. It can be a painful or invigorating tear in space and time, this feeling.

But the good news is this: as we enter into new galaxies of adulthood, we realize that the space between was not a void – but rather the very site of our connection, all of us caught up in this web of stars and planets and dark energy and spirit.

We are all born of mystery, into mystery, and so remain simultaneously alien and connected to one another, our whole lives long.

We are both alien and familiar – both strangers and family.

We are made of the same star dust, the same electrons bouncing between us in the ongoing unfolding of the quantum universe. Yet we are each in some way distinctly unknowable, a fact that is equally wondrous and frustrating.

I remember when James and I were first falling in love, and we would sit staring at each other in the goopy way that lovers do – meaning positively radiating from our eyeballs.

And I so wanted to get into his head and walk around, that once I found myself yelling in exasperation – I don’t know what your eyes are saying! Use your words!

But of course, there were no words for him to let me into his experience. Just as there are none for me to let you into mine, even as I stand here before you – trying my darndest. Poetry helps, but even so.

On a planet full of people, in a universe full of bouncing particles, our individual unknowability can make us feel small and isolated.

But it can also make us feel big and connected, when we understand the mystery within and the mystery without as one in the same.

That mystery extends all the way down and all the way out – always there is something unknowable in our bodies and brains and cells, mystery all the way down to the ever-changing sub-atomic level  – and that same mystery moves at the heart of the universe – stretching out 47 light years around us in every direction and full of the same creative possibility that centers us.

Unknowability itself is not just a limitation of human language or thought. Rather it seems to be the deep way of the universe itself and the connective material between us all.

It is our very alien-ness that marks us as most at home in an unknowable universe; it is our mutual speechlessness that connects us to one another in the human and cosmic stories.

We are far from our origin in the seed of everything, but always at home in the universe, because the rhythm of its mysterious unfolding pulses too in each of us – the light of the very stars waiting to shine in us – the same sub-atomic particles vibrating in and between us in a perpetual exchange of creative possibility and mystery.

And so we sit together in the spirit of wonder, and with wonder comes a profound sense of recognition. This is who we are, together – children of mystery, with star dust in our hair, unknowable yet deeply understood – and always bound together, connected, in the web of stars and planets and dark energy and spirit.

We are in the universe, and of the universe. And the universe is in us. How wondrous. How true.

 

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Homily – Wholeness Rising

Wholeness Rising

An Easter Homily by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia

March 31, 2013

 

He is not here, said the angel, for he is risen.

Can you imagine?! It is shocking! It is blasphemous! It is unbelievable!

It is resurrection. The radical claim that we believe, or doubt, or reject, but nonetheless ponder every year.

Resurrection — the incredible declaration that life and love, hope and joy are stronger than fear and hatred, stronger than violent injustice, stronger, even, than death.

This morning, as I watched the sun rise, I imagined Jesus’ women friends, in the depth of their sorrow, gathering oils and perfumes in order to tend to his body.

I imagined them walking slowly to his tomb, too weary and heartbroken to speak.

And in that moment between dark and light, as the sun rose and the sky changed, I could feel the depth of the miracle –

the way the world would turn on end, to encounter one so loved, thought dead, returned in the flesh.

I could imagine the hope and fear of seeing the stone rolled away. The utter joy and terror of seeing his beloved face once more, of meeting his injured hands with their own.

The story of Jesus was always an embodied one. One of body and blood, hunger and thirst, a kiss of peace and a healing touch. It seems right that the story should end in a bodily victory.

But in the end, it is not the claim of bodily resurrection that moves me. The miracle of resurrection, for me, is its radical set of faith claims about human life and our ability to find wholeness with broken hearts in a broken world. These radical claims about the power of hope, love, and joy are written into the story – suffusing the resurrection event.

He is risen, says the angel… The man who loved his neighbor, who fed the hungry and healed the sick, who ministered to the least of these, is not here in his tomb, says the angel. That kind of love does not die so easily.

The man who brought hope to the oppressed, who drove the merchants from the temple, who proclaimed a radical, just Kingdom of God? That man is not here in his tomb, says the angel. That kind of hope does not die so easily.

And what about the man who placed his faith in a God of grace and love, who laughed and cried, who told stories and sang songs. The man who knew life to be a precious gift? That man is not here in his tomb, says the angel. That kind of joy does not die so easily.

These life-sustaining powers have risen, says the angel.

If the resurrection is unbelievable to us, it should not be because of literal interpretation, but because of the awesomeness of its symbolic claim.

Because the power of the love that binds us together IS beyond belief.

The power of hope that guides our steps toward justice IS beyond belief.

The buoyant joy we find in gratitude for the gifts of life even when broken IS beyond belief.

The word resurrection comes from the latin meaning to rise again. And the radical claim of the Easter story is that love will always rise again; hope will always rise again; joy will always rise again.

You may pronounce them dead, roll a stone across their tomb, but they will rise up, because they are irresistible and powerful in ways that can only be explained by unbelievable stories and incredible truths.

These are not just claims of long ago, but rather statements of faith about the human condition, our connection and agency, and our capacity for wholeness and joy.

The events of holy week mirror on a grand scale the patterns of our lives.

We each find reason for hope, like the shouting crowds of Palm Sunday.

We put our faith in people and things, and many times they fail us or are defeated. Good Friday comes, and we mourn our loss. For always there is loss.

We keep vigil by many tombs, heartbroken for our selves, for our loved ones, for our world. In the Holy Saturday spirit, we despair and grieve and weep.

And then something happens to bring the Eastertide of joy back to us: something small, or large; something normal or totally unbelievable. Something happens to restore wholeness.

The Jesus story takes brokenness seriously. For forty days of Lent, Christians fast and contemplate mortality.

The week before Easter, we tell the story once more, start to finish. We linger, Friday night, on the human body, broken in the horrible suffering of the crucifixion. We linger in the dark, with broken hearts.

But then, Easter comes, and our hearts are made whole. Joy returns, love lives on, and hope rises up. We see the possibility of wholeness with every turn of the wheel of seasons. We see the return of joy every spring as the light gets longer and the flowers burst forth and the cold long winter ends.

We see it eventually every time we grieve. Sorrow stays; God knows that sorrow stays. But then there is a moment, and who knows what it is, and a flash of joy breaks through. Something shifts, and there is room for joy too. There is room for the joy and the sorrow both, and with them both swirling inside, we are whole.

We see the power of hope and joy every Easter as we celebrate a man whose teachings of peace and love have lived on for thousands of years beyond that day he was hung upon the cross.

Every year, his message of love is resurrected, lifted up above every argument for fear and hate.

God knows, we need that Resurrection claim.

In a broken world with so much mixed up beauty and horror,

in a society that teaches us fear before love,

in a time that fills our hands with plastic possessions while trying to empty our hearts,

we need the resurrection claim.

 

We need to know that love is powerful beyond belief,

and that it is in us and among us, ready to rise again.

We need to know that wholeness is possible.

 

Let us roll aside every stone,

cast away every fear and doubt,

and make way for the power of love,

which heals our souls and makes us whole.

 

Hallelujah. Amen.

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Homily – Broken Hearts

Broken Hearts

A Homily by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

Delivered at the UU Church of Columbia, MO

On Sunday, March 3, 2013

Spoiler alert: In case you couldn’t tell, I’m getting ready to talk about the poignancy of our broken hearts.

But before I do, I want to begin with a note about bad theology, acknowledging the extreme care we must take when talking about the strength we find in the broken places.

Too often the relationship between our suffering and our strength is used to support a shallow vision of a cruel puppet-master God who doles out suffering to us ‘for our own good.’

That is not the theology we promote here.

Yet this bad theology makes its way into secular and religious language both, with platitudes that seem to imply you should welcome your suffering as a gift; statements like: “God never gives you more than you can handle” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

When spoken in this way, I reject these statements. Suffering is no gift, and we are not called to be cheery about our pain. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you almost kills you. Sometimes God gives you a sack of garbage too heavy to lift and you can’t handle it and your survival is a miracle gained by human resilience and a lot of help.

Sometimes you grow immensely from an experience and if you were offered that experience again you would still say emphatically No, thanks. No way.

Our growth does not justify our suffering or explain it away.

Rather, as the Buddhists teach, suffering is simply a fact of existence in this paradoxical life of beauty and tragedy. Brokenness is what happens when we open our hearts to the world.

And we fight it valiantly because we are human.

And sometimes we accept it.

And miraculously, so often, we grow. It is the growth we admire, not the pain.  It is our growth amidst brokenness that is a miracle worthy of celebration and praise – a sacred testament to the resilience and forgiveness and love hidden deep in the human soul.

So it is yet another paradox of life that we would not wish brokenness on anyone, but we celebrate the incredible beauty and strength made manifest in every broken place.

Which is why I like the way this morning’s story “The Mish-Mash Heart” tells us that our hearts are beautiful even as they are crumpled up and torn by living and loving.

I even appreciate the image of tearing off bits of our hearts to share with others.

But let’s keep it real. Heartbreak rarely feels like such a gentle tear. More often, it feels something like this…

(Ministers Smashes Coffee Mug with hammer – no photo available, but it shattered everywhere)

Don’t you think?

God, in that moment how desperately we wish to go back to how we were before. How we long to be like this again.

photo-16

 

Uninjured, unblemished, unmarked.

And yet, as CS Lewis reminds us, the effort to make our way through life with hearts uninjured, unblemished and unmarked all too often leads instead to hearts that are unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable.

He writes: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

And so it is that we move through the world, loving people, animals, and places, loving the world even as its tragedy chips away at our hearts. So it is that our hearts are broken again and again, and repaired just as often.

And just as the knitting together of broken flesh is painful and itchy and often slower than we would like, so too is the healing of the heart.

I don’t know about you, but after a period of healing, my heart usually feels much less like this:

photo-16

And a lot more like this.

photo-15

 

Jagged, ugly, and malformed. Molly the franken-hearted monster.

Though perhaps this view is skewed. Perhaps, just as we look to photographs for our own flaws and others’ beauty, we also fail to see our own strength even as it grows through the bitter and the sweet events of our lives.

I imagine, if we could see our own hearts the same way we recognize the resilience and courage of those around us – we might see our scarred hearts a little more like this:

photo-17

 

Whole though cracked, and repaired with substance as precious as gold.

So – what if our deepest wish amid the inevitability of heartbreak were not a return to perfection, but to recognize in ourselves a beautiful repair like this, shot through with veins of gold?

What if our task is to integrate the heart-break that is sure to find us into a full-bodied, open hearted life – to wear our cracks as proudly as gold, understanding the beauty that comes from complexity; understanding the inestimable value of our humanness, which is breakable and resilient and real.

In Japanese culture, there is an art-form called kintsugi, which literally translates as “golden joinery.” In traditional Japanese tea ceremony culture, inevitably the precious china tea bowls would be broken and would have to be discarded. As the story goes, sometime in the 15th century, a famously beautiful bowl was broken, and its owner found it to be so precious that he could not discard it as trash. Instead, he commissioned an artisan to make it more beautiful in it’s repair. In doing so, the artisan replaced the usual thick paste and staples with a fine laquer tinted with powdered gold.

These pieces look like a 100x more delicate and beautiful version of our golden repaired mug.

tumblr_mg2rj9ZbxO1s1sj9yo1_1280 (image from http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/kintsugi)

The fragile beauty of these pieces, broken and made more precious in their repair, became so compelling that the art form grew and grew. Anecdotes claim that people found such beauty in these bowls, that some were accused of smashing their china themselves, just so they could have it repaired with golden seams.

I would not encourage this. It creates quite a mess.

A Washington Post review of a kintsugi exibit at the Smithsonian notes: “Because the repairs are done with such immaculate craft, and in precious metal, it’s hard to read them as a record of violence and damage.”[1]

A crack repaired with gold becomes a record of compassion and dignity, rather than one of violence and damage. And the addition of precious metal to an object that might otherwise be thrown away as damaged or defective is a testament to the object’s inherent value.

The symbolism is clear. No matter what your heartbreak may be, it is worthy of repair in gold – every broken piece too precious to be discarded.

Further, every helping hand and every act of strength from deep within is another drop of gold – over time transforming a painful, violent crack into precious evidence of compassion, dignity, and love.

So the invitation beckons us to engage in the “golden joinery” of the soul – to treat every broken place within us and around us with tenderness and wonder – to see and marvel at our own strength and the strength of others. There is none among us whose heart has not been broken and healed a hundred times, yet here we are – beautiful, nuanced, and streaked with gold.

We are miraculously whole though cracked, and repaired with substance as beautiful and precious as gold. Joined together again with the golden gifts of the human soul – resilience and courage, and love beyond belief.

May it be so.


[1] “At Freer, Aesthetic is Simply Smashing,” by Blake Gopnik for The Washington Post,  March 3, 2009. Accessed on March 1, 2013 at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2009-03-03/opinions/36878173_1_japanese-art-repair-ceramics.

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Sermon — The Theology of Desire

The Theology of Desire

A sermon by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon

Delivered at the UU Church of Columbia, Missouri

February 3, 2013

The theology of desire…

Are y’all ready for this?

Are you sure?

Well then, I’m going to start with scripture.

 (Song of Solomon 7:6-9)

How fair and pleasant you are,

  O loved one, delectable maiden!

You are stately as a palm tree,

  and your breasts are like its clusters.

I say I will climb the palm tree

  and lay hold of its branches.

O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,

  and the scent of your breath like apples,

and your kisses the best wine

  that goes down smoothly,

  gliding over lips and teeth.

 

Hoo!

It’s in the bible y’all. Climbing the palm tree. Kisses like wine.

What you’ve just heard is a passage from the Song of Songs, also called the Song of Solomon – in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a glorious love song, beautiful and sensual and earthy, which the ancient Jews read as a love story between humans and God,

which contemporary scholars read as an erotic encounter between two people,

and which I’d like to read as both, because how can we separate our experience of the holy from our experience of one another and this world: this world that caresses our skin through wind and water and earth and other skin?

Do you remember your first big crush? That first time of wanting, even though you were not sure what, exactly, it was that you wanted?

I remember in 9th grade sitting in front of a Very Cute Boy in my history class, and I had memorized every plane of his face, and the way that he slouched, just so, in his desk, until I could just feel him sitting behind me.

The back of my neck was hyper aware of his presence. The room felt bright, the world exciting, and my blood felt close to my skin. It was that alive, giddy longing, before longing got complicated.

I was crushin’ hard.

Incedentally, he did not feel the same way. But it almost didn’t matter, (almost), because wanting him made me feel so very alive and in love with the world.

Do you remember that feeling? Newly awakened by desire and so totally alive.

It’s a powerful feeling. Though sometimes scary. And often made scarier by our culture’s conflicting messages and hang-ups regarding our desire.

But no matter who you are and what or whom you’ve wanted and how – I hope you have felt that moment of unadulterated longing, lighting up your soul and your skin.

As I began to prepare last week for a month of worshipping Love, I was reflecting upon how often I have said already this year that what the world needs is simply us, come alive.

And as I read Sufi poems last week and remembered that first unrequited love, I realized something more about what “coming alive” means… that the world needs us crushin’ hard. The world needs us wanting, longing – living with our blood close to our skin.

And further more, the world doesn’t need us only crushing on holy, worthy, sacred things – because the whole world is worthy of our desire. God is worthy of our desire, and so is the Very Cute Boy in history class by virtue of the spark of God that lives in him. The sacrament of really good dark chocolate is worthy of desire, and so are you. Yes, you, who are young or old; gay, straight, bi, trans, clear or confused, happy or hurting.

The holy is hungry for us and through us. And when we embody love in the world it is with our minds and souls and our bodies that hunger.

And when we live love, it is not just by feeding the poor or healing the sick – it is also by wanting and longing, it is by finding pleasure and taking delight in the world.

Our religious lives call us into awareness of our desire.

It has always been so for some – particularly for the mystics – those ecstatic lovers of God of every faith – like the poets we have heard this morning.

But of course, it has often been otherwise, as well. The denial of desire in mainstream Christian theology has also been passed down along the ages and has caused much heartache, injustice, and despair.

The early Christians were heavily influenced by Greek philosophic traditions, which separated the material body from the ideal spirit – labeling matters of the spirit holy and matters of the body debased. Further, the Greek Stoic traditions advocated apatheia, the careful and rational separation from one’s passions.

These assumptions have echoed down the ages, alienating us from our desire and our bodily experience, fragmenting our souls.

The Greeks distinguished between three kinds of love: agape – unconditional, selfless love; philia – devoted familial love; and eros – passionate, earthy love. These loves were ranked in exactly that order.

Indeed, communities of faith often point us, as I have many times done myself, to agape love as the highest ideal – that love we give freely, asking nothing in return.

But in truth, if we are to embody love fully, its forms will be intertwined. Our giving freely of ourselves will ring hollow if it is not fuelled by our desire, even as our desire unchecked by true concern for others will be a force of harm.

Postmodern philosopher Paul Ricouer points out that eros love without agape can be a brutal chaotic force, but that agape love without eros can be overly cerebral and moralistic and uncompelling.

And Feminist and Queer theologians have been working for years now to reclaim eros as a core part of our beings and our religious lives.

As Hebrew Bible Scholar David Carr writes in his book The Erotic Word, with the help of these movements in theology, we can now speak of “an eros that encompasses the myriad of ways people live out their deepest selves.”

 He points out: “One part of the past repression of sex has been restriction of it to a small part of life – closeted, heterosexual, exclusive.”

“In contrast,” he continues “some thinkers are urging a wider concept of eros that would embrace not only sexual passion, but work, play, deep friendship, art, and many other sorts of profound pleasure.

Such an eros would include the passion of lovers’ desire, and also the sensual joy of a shared meal or an abiding thirst for justice.”

Reclaiming eros in this way is a powerful countercultural message…

Given the message in popular culture that your desire is a casual commodity to be bought and sold.

And given the message in many religious communities that your desire is shameful or wrong.

It feels all the more important for me to say this, here, in this pulpit,

(just as we teach in our Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education class):

Your body is a very good gift, and made to delight in the world.

Your sexuality, that kernel of desire in your soul, is a very good gift, a gift of connection, creativity, and pleasure.

And anyone, anyone, including yourself, who irresponsibly violates that truth, whether physically or spiritually, has wandered far, far away from the divine source of love that hungers in and through us.

Anyone who harms that kernel of desire does violence too, against the heart of God, who desires us as we are.

I want you to hear that sexuality is a good great gift and a part of our spiritual being AND that it is not only about attraction or some particular physical act. A healthy sexuality exists in our core as a driving life force of passion.

Womanist thinker Audre Lorde defines “the erotic” as “those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared.”

Deepest, strongest, and richest.

She writes: “We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.”

Our Unitarian Universalist theology of desire proclaims that we are created Good, and we are created wanting and longing for Good.

Our theology of desire calls us into connection, to live out that which is deepest, and strongest, and richest within us.

It calls us to fall in lust with the world, in love with the holy.

What a very good gift. What a delight.

I’d like to close as I began, with scripture, from the Song of Songs Chapter 8, verses 6 and 7.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

 As a seal upon your arm;

For love is strong as death,

 passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

 a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

 neither can floods drown it.

If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house,

 it would be utterly scorned.

May your life be one of love stronger than death, and passion fierce as the grave. And in it may you rejoice and be glad.

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