“Community of Support” 4/2/2017


Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace:

We want to do what we can to make the world a better place.

Often we do not know what will come of what we do.

We act on a hope or a hunch, in boldness or in faith.

Sometimes we try something new, feeling out of our depth,

because we care – because we yearn to live out our values –

because we would live fully, deeply and with integrity –

and because we are called by conscience and the world.

Frayed by fear and stress, aching at heart and in gut,

we look for the knowledge, the deed,

and the hope, faith and love that will sustain us.

We know that this is what past generations have done.

We know that it is our turn now.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life:

May we show up in person where our neighbors most need us.

May we live in awareness of systemic injustices we have inherited

as well as our own capacities to abet injustice or do harm.

May we be ready at any moment to disarm our own hearts,

even at the risk of having them broken.

And may we be as true to the promptings of conscience

as to the call of justice and neighbor.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power, so may it be. Amen.

READING: from “Madly, Truly, Deeply Loving the Work” by Rebecca Parker

To love the work madly is to love it with passion borne from an ecstatic encounter with life’s beauty. You’ve seen the moon rise over the night ocean. You’ve watched an old man’s face soften into a radiant smile that holds worlds of memory and awareness. You’ve felt how this existence we are inexplicably given is shot through with … the glimmer of an incandescent presence. … [T]his earth, this universe, this multiverse has captured your heart and you answer with devotion. You will do anything so madly do you love it. No ritual of thanks, no life of committed service will ever fully satisfy your desire to make your whole life an act of praise.

To love the work truly is to love it stone cold sober, on the dullest day, when no mysterious fire burns at the core of things … To love the work truly is to know that it matters, even when it doesn’t feel like it matters, even when you can’t see that it matters, and you worry that you are involved in a different kind of madness. Not the ecstatic kind of madness, but the static kind that keeps on keeping on, nevertheless, even with no observable results. You do this because at some moment you did see clearly and said yes. In the full possession of your reason, you pledged yourself … and there was joy in that decision. Now, with fidelity to your own hour of high resolve, you labor [for] a religious community that is devoted to compassion and justice, even when it behaves badly, and forgets its own purpose, and is preoccupied with unimportant things. …

To love the work deeply is to love it knowing you are not alone. You … join hands with those who have gone before, who did the same things, for the sake of life, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of justice. Their work was not completed in their lifetime. Yours won’t be, either. … The stupidity that squanders life for unimportant gains, that sacrifices it for unworthy causes, that ignores it in anesthetized bitterness always threatens to prevail. Yet always, there is the communion of saints that pushes against the tide, insists that life be reverenced, and labors that it might be so. Always. … [L]et us be in that number when the saints go marching in.

SERMON: “Community of Support”

I was going to talk this morning about us, here, being a community of support and what that means. And I will still do that, after a fashion, but events this week in the wider Unitarian Universalist world call me to set that local message in a larger frame. Last Sunday John Collins gave us a very heartfelt, gutful message about how a community of faith is called to care for one another. My focus this morning will be on how we are called to be faithful to one another when what we have done together or to one another shakes our faith. How do we love someone we feel like giving up on? How do we healthily stay in a community that has given us both hope and hurt? How do we stand by our faith when its institutions act counter to its profession?

We here know something about staying in a community that has given us both hope and hurt. Our covenant of right relationship* is the product of our communal reflection on that very question. The end of my predecessor’s service here as your minister came amid a trial of hurts and division in this beloved community. The blessing of bruises and scars is that they teach us and remind us about tenderness and sensitivity. There used to be a thing called sensitivity training. That was very misguided. The dentists have it right: sensitivity is a disposition to feel pain. That’s not a skill you can be trained in, it’s a capacity that we all have. What we need instead is a reminder. Our covenant of right relationship is a reminder of the aspirations we rediscovered in a visceral way during a painful time. And the chief lesson was to stay connected, to work through the pain in ways that heal. And the chief requirements for that are to remember the tenderness, and to trust each other, and to treat each other in healing ways. This we know, because we have experienced it. We know the power of love.

From that place of knowing, I want to address the two blows we suffered this week as a national community of faith. And I will begin with the one you might not have heard about yet.

Two years ago last September we had as our pulpit guest the Rev. Ron Robinson, founder of A Third Place Community Foundation on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma – a missional church in a marginal neighborhood. When he spoke here, Ron told us how his original call to ministry, and his inspiration to pursue such a ministry as he made in Tulsa, happened here in New Orleans. He said:

“… I felt my life needed to go into ‘downward mobility’ with the poor and suffering and into the stories of others whom few were paying attention to and seemed in fact to be turning away from. For me the move into ministry also meant going deeper into the story of radical hospitality and missional living I found most gripping of my soul in the life of Jesus and the early communities that were planted in his spirit. … [In] New Orleans five months after … the federal flood [I met] community organizers who were living amid the abandonment and destruction, living in place of those who had lived here before amid the abandonment and destruction before the flood. … [I saw] the presence being created and re-created in what has come to be called, about many such places of poverty and inequality, an abandoned place of Empire. I was moved by the image I took away from the Ninth Ward, of kerosene lamps dotting the dark no-power landscape where people were staying in damaged houses in mainly empty neighborhoods in order to show the world that these houses were still homes, waiting for renewed life. … [In] those very uncool, unhip, under-resourced high-poverty low-life-expectancy zipcodes … where business investment and public investment flees, where people who remain often feel shame for their lives because if they were only rich enough, smart enough, had made better choices in their lives, hadn’t gotten sick and broke, they would be able to move to the places where the supposed American- dream good life happens[, in those places t]he point of … the missional church … is to let those people know that the American Dream might have left them behind, in a kind of worldly Rapture, but they are still and can be still a part of God’s Dream of lovingkindness and justice for all.”

The mad, true, deep passion Ron had for this vision of missional ministry, and the courage he showed in embracing “downward mobility” for the sake of it – for the sake of life, and love, and justice – was a great inspiration to his colleagues, a wonder to behold. We looked to him for leadership in this field. We were moved to awe and joy by his work. We were devastated to learn last month that the building where A Third Place operated its food pantry and housed its offices was destroyed by a fire caused by flaws in its electrical system. And then the scandal came.

This week, Ron was arrested in a federal sting operation fishing for consumers of child pornography. According to press reports, Ron “admitted to receiving child exploitation material on numerous occasions and further said he fantasizes about raping and hurting children.” The UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee announced Friday that they have voted to suspend Ron’s fellowship with the UUA. The UU Society for Community Ministries has also suspended his membership and involvement on their board.

How do we love someone we feel like giving up on?

I would like to think that our small congregation bought this big building with a similar missional intention, because that is what we have become to our marginalized and targeted neighbors: a safe and welcoming place to meet, to organize, to find courage, to stand up, to speak truth, to make a difference, and to find a sustaining joy. My path toward keeping on loving Ron takes me to a question I don’t yet have an answer for: if the confession reported in the press is true, how did he get to that place? This scandal raises a devastating fear – if we can but acknowledge it – in any of us who loved and admired Ron, who cannot imagine him having the fantasies and feelings he is reported to have confessed to: the fear that human nature is such that any of us might get to that horrible place, that there but for the grace of God go we all. What is the medicine, the spiritual discipline, that keeps us from it? and what is the cure? or is there one? How does trust bridge that chasm? And how does a community of faith – called to be a community of radical support – include someone who has made a confession like the one Ron is supposed to have made, and remain “a safe and loving one, a place where we acknowledge our fears and vulnerabilities, and share our authentic selves”? We’ve been working on our Safe Congregation Policy in recent weeks, trying to improve it in ways that acknowledge not only systemic oppressions but microaggressions, and that incorporate methods of restorative justice. And always before us is this question, whether we answer it or not: what and where is the boundary of safety?

Ron’s scandal dealt a hard blow to our core beliefs about religious community. We unite not around beliefs or doctrines, but around promises and covenants. We place our faith in the possibilities of human good, in the power of love to create justice. We draw the circle to include rather than exclude. And our faith is not different from any other faith, in that life will deal its foundations and structures hard blows. Ron’s scandal was one of those.

The other blow we suffered this week is, of course, the UUA hiring scandal, which late this week moved Peter Morales to resign as President of the Association. It began with the announcement that the Rev. Andy Burnette was hired to succeed the Rev. Kenn Hurto as Regional Lead in our Southern Region. Reaction across the country was immediate, because this was one more example of a white male minister being placed in a top UUA leadership position, despite our stated anti-racist policy of working toward equity in hiring, and – it was revealed – despite the fact that in this instance a qualified woman of color was a finalist for the position. She was told she is not “the right fit” for the team. For people of color, that’s business as usual in a white supremacist culture. For a lot of white people, it’s a crisis. But what it really is, is the institutional analog to the personal kind of failing represented in Ron’s case. Institutions, like people, can fail. And in both cases, there comes a point where failure means unacceptable harm is done to others. When it’s a personal failing, it raises doubt about placing trust in that person. When it’s institutional, it raises the same doubt about our institutions.

Peter led our Association into headquarters in a much superior, modern office space, and led us all into more active witness to justice issues concerning our national immigration policy. The changes to our election process for UUA President were put in place on Peter’s watch. Like every President of our Association, his legacy is a mixed one: important positive initiatives that moved us forward toward justice, and many other business-as-usual decisions that abetted ongoing systemic injustices. And then the scandal came.

Institutionalized white supremacy is a reality in our Association. Every person of color who has taken or aspired to leadership in our movement has a story about being labeled “not the right fit” or some other excuse. We are happier to have leaders of color in volunteer positions than we are to actually hire and compensate them. White male ministers – and usually straight ones – hold positions of real power in our institutions. How do we know this is white supremacy? Because we think it’s normal. And we notice a person of color in leadership because that’s a departure from white supremacist norms. Our institutions go far back into the nineteenth century, well before the Civil War. How could they not incorporate white supremacist norms? These norms permeate all the institutions of American life. Ours is just one more. And this permeating systemic injustice has done generations of real damage to millions of people, damage that can be measured in dollars and in blood and trauma. It is part and parcel of the violence and oppression we would like to flatter ourselves is done and over with, but which, of course, persists – despite our well-intentioned warnings and explanations of why it shouldn’t. Or doesn’t.

The centerpiece of Rebecca Parker’s address, from which this morning’s reading was taken, was a bold theological statement about the power of love, and our commitment to it as a community of faith and as a tradition; she said:

“[O]ur religious heritage … proclaims that violence does not save the world. Our hope, rather, is in the creative activity of love. Love is the active, creative force that repairs life’s injuries, and brings new possibilities into being. Love speaks out in the face of injustice and oppression, calling leaders to account when policies and practices are injuring people. Love tends the wounds created by injustice and evil and offers compassion in the presence of life’s suffering. Love builds communities of inclusiveness and friendship that break through the boundaries of prejudice and enmity. Love embraces the goodness of this world and seeks paradise on earth, a heaven of mutual respect. Love generates life – from the first moment of conception of a child, to the last moment when love creates a way for those who have died to be remembered with gratitude and tenderness. And in the deepest night, when our hearts are breaking, it is the discovery of a love that chooses unshakeable fidelity to our common humanity that renews us and redirects us to a life of generosity.”

Rebecca Parker served as President of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, for 25 years. When she was preparing to retire, about three years ago, the school formed a presidential search committee. When the committee had narrowed its search down to three candidates, it asked her for her thoughts about the three candidates. And then the scandal came.

Her input to the committee was supposed to be confidential. She was not the only person asked for input. The search committee put together a Survey Monkey survey and invited faculty, staff, trustees, and students to rate and comment on the three finalists. The survey results were compiled, and then leaked to a number of folks at Starr King and to the media. Parker’s confidential comments, now made public, were disputed as untrue. The school focused on finding out who leaked the survey results. Two accused students had their degrees withheld for 10 months. One lost an internship. Three faculty, four staff, and two trustees resigned in protest of the school’s handling of the scandal. The chairman of the school’s Board, by profession, was president of a firm in New York that handles damage control and crisis management for major corporations and the U.S. military. He chose to decry the ethics of whoever it was who leaked the documents, while steadfastly refusing to address the criticisms that Parker’s comments in the survey were untrue. She herself issued a response to the UU World’s reporting on the scandal, stating that because it was a personnel decision and therefore meant to be confidential, she could not defend herself from accusations that she lied in her input to the search committee. School trustee, the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, observed that institutions of all kinds “tend to close ranks in the name of loyalty when they feel leaders are being questioned in ways they feel are inappropriate or inaccurate or harsh.” He said: “I think that at the end of a long and very distinguished career, a much-beloved leader came under attack. Whether she did things that justified concerns or not, the reaction of the institution was to close ranks and say, ‘How dare you!’ I don’t think that’s healthy, but I think it’s understandable.” I know personally a lot of the people involved in the Starr King scandal, and they’re all people I respect and trust. It was as heartbreaking for me to watch that scandal unfold as it is to watch this current one about UUA hiring. In that case, the new President of the school was a woman of color: the Rev. Rosemary Bray-McNatt. Of her, Rob Eller-Isaacs said that while Starr King, like many other UU institutions, is deeply conflict-avoidant, Rosemary is comfortable with conflict and hopes to reshape the school’s culture. It’s hard to change a culture, but I know Rosemary and believe she is the right person for the job, well-skilled to lead in the aftermath of scandal.

How do we stand by our faith when its institutions act counter to its profession?

We have learned that it is necessary to cultivate trust and skillful communication, and to be aware that each of us is shaped by our experiences with privilege and oppression. Therefore we strive to be open to risk and vulnerability, and trust others to do the same; trust that others have good intentions; take responsibility for our actions and feelings; recognize that our intent can be different from our impact; resolve to act in ways that convey our good intent to others; listen with our whole hearts and speak from the heart; connect in a personal and genuine way; be honest, direct, and kind with each other; seek to stay in relationship, especially during conflict; acknowledge and celebrate our differences, and act in ways that promote justice and peace; resist the impacts of privilege, dismantle oppression, and build justice.

Through our Covenant of Right Relationship,* we have promised to call each other back as needed to these goals, and to help each other to be our best selves, recognizing that – because it is impossible – we do not covenant to be perfect.

None of us wants to be remembered for the worst things we have done. Neither does any of us want to deal with violence done to our reputations by false witness or planted doubts about us. Nor does any of us want it said that we blithely stood by while our neighbors suffered harm and injustice, or worse, that we remained willfully ignorant of generations of such suffering. None of us wants to profess a faith we do not practice.

Therefore, we stand by this faith. We stay in relationship, especially in conflict, and stay with the movement that has nurtured our hope, calling our companions in faith back to our covenants and values. And therefore we look for the love we have for those who, in this moment, have broken our hearts, but whom we remember have given such wisdom and inspiration, have given madly, truly, deeply of themselves for the sake of life and love and justice and all of us. We search our hearts for an understanding that can redeem all that they have meant to us, an understanding that human imperfection does indeed imply the possibility of deep flaws, sins, and a capacity for evil. And yet we affirm that these are not the core of our humanity, and that it is in our power to resist evil, to resist temptations to do the easier wrong, and to compensate for our flaws with the strengths we have and with the love and help of a community of support. For Ron, and Rebecca, and Peter, and all our other stumbling, imperfect companions in this faith we love, so may it be. Amen.

* First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans Covenant of Right Relationship

We want our faith community to be a safe and loving one, a place where we acknowledge our fears and vulnerabilities, and share our authentic selves. Each of us is an ever-changing river, always on the way to becoming our best selves.

We have learned that to create such a community, it is necessary to cultivate trust and skillful communication, and to be aware that each of us is shaped by our experiences with privilege and oppression. Reflecting on this wisdom,

We covenant to:

Be open to risk and vulnerability, and trust others to do the same,

Trust that others have good intentions,

Take responsibility for our actions and feelings,

Recognize that our intent can be different from our impact,

Resolve to act in ways that convey our good intent to others,

Learn and grow with one another,

Listen with our whole hearts and speak from the heart,

Endeavor to connect with people in a personal and genuine way,

Be honest, direct, and kind with each other,

Seek to stay in relationship, especially during conflict,

Acknowledge and celebrate our differences,

Act in a way that promotes justice and peace in relations with others,

Commit to continually resist the impacts of privileges we all have, and

Dismantle oppression and build justice.

We promise to call each other back into this covenant as needed and to help everyone be their best selves.

We do not covenant to be perfect.

We covenant that if you come here with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands, you are indeed welcome here.


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