Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Call to Humanity

Your silence will not protect you. If you didn't hear my sermon on Sunday, please listen here.

On Sunday, at my congregation, one member shared her experience attending the Washington DC Women's March. Two Rohingya women refugees spoke along with a member of our Refugee Resettlement team. And then I gave this sermon addressing the current national crisis of leadership drawing from the wisdom of Audre Lorde and calling us to live into James Luther Adams' vision of the prophetic liberal church. 

I think the sermon is better heard than read, but for those of you who prefer to read, the text is below.

May we cultivate a wide and expansive Community of Prophecy.

Love with Courage,

A Call to Humanity
a sermon by Rev. Alan Taylor
January 29, 2017
Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation 
(while meeting at United Lutheran Church)

A self-described “black lesbian mother warrior poet” shaped my development as a minister. I was in seminary when a fellow student shared with me the poetry and essays of Audre Lorde. In her writing I discovered a human being with radical self-determination that led her to face profound pain and despair and move powerfully from within and to speak up making her voice heard. 

Audre Lorde wrote prophetically: “Your silence will not protect you.” 

She wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” 

She wrote: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” 

She wrote: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

And she asks, “What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language."

This month, here at Unity Temple, we have been exploring what it means to be a community of prophecy. As we’ve noted, prophecy doesn’t mean predicting the future as much as seeing what needs to be seen and naming what needs to be named, even though it can bring great pain to see and name what is really going on. 

The Jewish prophets of old read the signs of their times and spoke clearly about what they learned, but as they spoke truth to power they often risked their own lives. As they compared the realities of their time with sacred teachings about justice, many tried to flee or deny their assignments yet most responded to a loyalty to something larger than their individual lives, larger than the systems of injustice, larger than their fears.  

The role of the prophet today is also no easy task. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for courageous language. 

James Luther Adams “The prophetic liberal church is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to the few. The prophetic liberal church is the church where persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in light of their faith… The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional) with the intention of making history, in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through the prophethood of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.”

There have always been a number of people who agree to an ample amount of risk-taking in the name truth, justice, drawing the curtain back on transgressions of power, oppression, knowing that one’s perishing or jailing could be the ultimate end. We must grapple with to what degree will we be claimed by our fears or by our loyalty to greater than each of us. What are we willing to sacrifice for our own convictions? How shall we create a community that supports those drawn to the front lines?

A member here asked me, “How do you reconcile prophecy in a post-truth world?” When society turns entirely postmodern, truth becomes entirely relative and situated, and the claim to have legitimacy gets completely shattered. How do we pursue truth and justice, when these terms become irrelevant and meaningless to those with economic and political power?

The president of the United States of America spent his first week in office obsessed with convincing people that his inauguration was the most highly attended in history. His spokeswoman defended his sharing of what she called “Alternative facts.” Over the last several months facts have become shadowy politicized relative suggestions. Over the last week, President Trump claimed that he lost the popular vote because of people voting illegally and signed executive orders that will needlessly tear apart families, increase the suffering of refugees, profile and vastly discriminate against Muslims, ignore the signs of climate change, and prevent many women and poor Americans from getting adequate health care. 

During the election, I spoke out against the rhetoric of hate and fear that filled Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. When he was elected, I quietly hoped he would move to a more unifying stance. I told myself, “Don’t be premature in getting upset. Judge the man on his actions when he becomes president.” My friends, our faith tradition holds sacred seven principles--they are written each week on the back of your order of service. This morning I feel compelled to urge you to consider whether our very core values and convictions are under attack.

Have we reached a post-fact, post-enlightenment world? I’m here to tell you: No, we are not in a post-fact world but we are living in an era where the post-fact constituency is in power, and this has tremendous repercussions. With faith in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and a dark view of both the rest of the world that justifies literally getting rid of people who are in the way of their understanding of progress, the current administration threatens the very democratic institutions on which this country was founded. The question at this moment is to what extent will the rest of the country let the current leaders achieve their vision. It is critical to remember: our silences will not protect us or anyone else.

Last weekend, I was at home with a sick child while my wife took the Green Line downtown to join the Chicago women’s protest. That evening, Angie and I looked for television news at 9pm but WGN was showing a basketball game. The only channel with news was FOX. So we turned on Fox news and there on the screen were members  of our congregation Karen Sullivan and Tina Lewis and their daughters speaking to why they traveled to Washington DC for the women’s march. But what was especially noteworthy was that during the clip of President Trump announcing his inauguration was better attended than Obama’s, Fox News put up photographs of the Washington mall, both taken at 11am of Obama’s first inaugural and Trump’s eight years later. The photos spoke a million words. 

Last night, several members of this congregation joined the protest rally at the international terminal at O’Hare. I was buoyed by images sent to me. One of our fifth graders that was at the airport last night is today wearing a t-shirt that says “We the People are greater than fear.” That is what America at its best is about. At a time so many Syrians seek asylum, It is ludicrous our government would completely turn its back. You can’t look honestly at Syria without thinking of climate change and the drought that brought on the civil war in that country. And now with millions of Syrians seeking refuge, human beings no different than you and me are facing famine, exploitation, and devastation. 

As our Unitarian Universalist principles are so blatantly violated, if we don’t take a strong stand then we’re not putting our values into action. We as Unitarian Universalists, at our best, resist retreating to a reactionary stance where we view the world as us vs them. But it is hard not doing so, especially when hoards of post-truthers respond to individuals who take issue with the president. We have entered a very scary time. 

During the campaign when Trump had only 5 million Twitter followers, 18 year old Lauren Batchelder addressed Trump at a campaign rally, saying, “I might be wrong, but it seems to me that you are no friend to women” and then after hearing Trump’s response, she took the microphone and said, “I want to get paid the same as a man, and I think you understand that, so if you become president, will a woman make the same as a man, and do I get to choose what to do with my body?” That night Trump tweeted his outrage that this 18 year old challenged him. And Lauren Batchelder received over 10,000 messages on her voicemail, her Facebook page, and other social media, calling her the most vulgar names, many of the messages threatening her safety. 

I can’t but wonder what rage will be poured on Judge Ann Donnelly who last night issued a temporary stay of President Trump’s executive order to prevent even green card carrying residents of this country from entering if they happen to be Muslim or from certain countries. This kind of bullying must be highlighted for what it is: mean, cowardly, truly uncivil, and unpatriotic. 

This new cultural reality and facade of an administration relies on a reality tv paradigm and the technology to funnel rage and loathing against those they disagree with. There’s probably never been a veracity crisis as great as we’re facing now. If there is ever a call for prophetic community, it is now.

Let me close with a passage from Audre Lorde, the black lesbian mother warrior poet whose words I find both a balm and a prophetic call for the prophethood of all believers:

I began to ask each time: "What's the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?" Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, "disappeared" or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Next time, ask: What's the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it's personal. And the world won't end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don't miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.

My friends, our silences will not save us. There is only one thing more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking. May we individually and collectively live into the call of being a community of prophecy.

Blessed be. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Call to Unity and Resilience

This past Sunday, I began my sermon describing this video of Karim Sulayman who engaged in a powerful trust experiment. I encourage you to watch it. Below is a part of the sermon.

As my colleague Rev. Galen Guengrich from New York City notes, “The entire video hinges on a single moment — the moment when someone went first. Someone responded to fear with a gesture of trust. Someone responded to loneliness with a sign of friendship. Someone responded to pain with an offer of comfort. Someone went first.”

My friends, in the coming weeks, months and years, there shall be all sorts of opportunities for each of us to respond to pain, suffering, oppression, and cruelty. Most people who step forward will be people of conviction, compassion, and community. Yes, community. The call for unity and resilience requires community. 

This month, we are exploring in my congregation at Unity Temple what it means to be a Community of Prophecy. Prophecy may sound like an odd theme. But in religious discourse, prophecy is all about naming truth that is uncomfortable to those who benefit from the way things are. Prophecy is about naming what corrupts and oppresses, what is cruel and inhumane.

Over 25 hundred years ago, the Jewish prophets of old spoke out against the cruelty, ignorance and inhumanity of their day, calling upon those in power to mend their ways and urging ordinary people to ban together in solidarity. For prophets stand in the gap between the way the world is and the world as it could be, if we human beings were to change our ways. Those who stay the course of sharing hard but real truths despite the consequences, these people are called prophets. 

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King continued this tradition in a powerful way. When Dr. King spoke at the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists fifty years ago, he entitled his address “Don’t sleep through the revolution.” He called on the church to lead. "When the church is true to its nature, it stands as the moral guardian of society." He called on the church to be maladjusted to the structures of society that corrupt and oppress. And he finished with a ringing call to commit to building the beloved community. 

In his book Strength to Love, Dr. King says, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of humankind, put your faith in the nonconformists.” The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. This is essentially a paraphrase of our third Unitarian Universalist principle which calls us to promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. So it falls to us to hold a vision for the beloved community. That is our religious work. 

When I saw that video of Karim Sulayman standing, silent and unseeing, in New York City with that sign in his arms, four words especially jumped out at me: "I am very scared." 

My friends, so many people are so very scared, no matter their political affiliation. Truth be told, I am scared. It is important to admit and to share, for fear shared is fear lessened. Fear too often guides us but it need not if we participate in a community, a community of prophecy. Prophets at all times and places knew fear, but they navigated their fear in relationship with others. Prophets manage to step forward despite their fear.

Dr. King said very early in his ministry, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”

The first task of a community of prophecy is to build trust, to build trust among its members and to build trust with people who are different. A part of this is to step forward  when we see the need. In this era when social media segregates people ever further along ideological lines, we must put down our screens and take the opportunity to talk one on one with others with different life experience.

The central role of a community of prophecy is to cultivate the strength to love, the kind of love that looks like resistance in the face of hate, the kind of love that calls for unity and for resilience. 

May we live ever into being a community of prophecy.

Blessed be. Amen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Take Courage

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, 
the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
--Wayne Arnasan

As we approach Martin Luther King weekend, it seems appropriate that my congregation, Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, is exploring what it means to be a Community of Prophecy. We are entering an era when we especially need to tend to the building of trust, the building of community, and the building of connections that both sustain us and call us to stand with those who share our values. 

I believe in the transformational power of love. The bedrock of my faith is that we as human beings have the capacity to change and grow, and it is love--love within us, love among us, and love beyond us--that calls us forward. I am a minister because I believe that congregational life is where we as human beings may cultivate this transforming love. It is agape love, love of the dignity of human beings that is key. When our lives are aligned with this kind of love, we hold the keys to our dignity and we are the authors of our actions. 

As we enter an era of uncertainty and anxiety, our faith and heritage are essential. We as Unitarian Universalists have long held a voice for tending the vulnerable, promoting the respect and dignity of every individual, and speaking up to resist inhumane policies. Rebecca Parker, the former president of the seminary I attended says, "Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness, by Prophetic Witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening, to say what is happening and to act in accordance with what we know…. Prophetic witness …is the ability to name those places where we resist knowing what needs to be known.” 

The tradition of religious prophecy goes back thousands of years to the Jewish Prophets: human beings who came out of a cultural milieu, recognized where injustice and inhumanity was rampant, spoke out vociferously for changing the ways society is run to be more equitable and humane, and lived in and among that cultural milieu.

Indeed, all the world religions have begun with a teacher or set of teachers recognizing the need for people to come around a life-giving principle or way of life. At the heart of each of these traditions is the call to compassion, the call to treat other human beings with dignity and respect, the call to tend the most vulnerable and challenge those with power and wealth whose way of life causes suffering. Those who hew to those teachings in times get called prophets. 

Whether in the days of old or in the 21st century, there are three essential qualities that make a prophet. First, a prophet comes out of a particular culture and grapples with its social norms. Second, social injustice and the resulting suffering and sorrow compels the prophet to distinguish the values that are life-giving and those that are life-denying ; and third, the prophet calls upon all who buy into and reinforce the dehumanizing cultural norms--the status quo--to change their ways so as to alleviate human sorrow and suffering. 

This month we celebrate the vision and call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we also shall witness the inauguration of President Donald Trump whose rhetoric and cabinet nominations suggest he wants to dismantle many of our cherished institutions of democracy. If we are committed to the transformational power of love, we shall grow in our prophetic witness as we explore where love is calling us as individuals, as a congregation, as a wider society.  

This Sunday I will preach on "A Call for Unity, A Call for Resistance." If you are in the Chicago area, come join us. We are in temporary space during our building's restoration at United Lutheran Church, located at 429 Greenfield St (at Ridgeland) in Oak Park. 

On Monday, join me and members of 85+ congregations working on racial & economic justice, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day at St. Mark United Methodist, 8441 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Chicago. We will gather at the 805 South Blvd. office in Oak Park at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and prayer; buses and carpools depart at 8 a.m. sharp.  Bus fee is $10; pay as you are able.

May blessings multiply as we cultivate a Community of Prophecy in our congregations and beyond.

Rev. Alan Taylor

Here are some readings to reflect on:

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. 
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Avoid the bad habit of domesticating the prophet of your choice, turning him into a cheerleader for your way of thinking and way of life. Remember that all the great prophets were courageous and outrageous folks who railed against the powers-that-be, challenged self-satisfied posit, threatened the prevailing social order, and would find you falling short in some significant ways. 
--Parker Palmer

Behind the lone prophet who speaks up, there is a group. …it is always a mistake to imagine that lone prophets are really alone. … We should think of Jesus this way as well. It is a mistake to see him as an isolated, heroic individual. It is better to see him as the crest of a wave, the sparkling foam breaking brightly from the force of a whole ocean moving and swelling up from underneath. I sense among Unitarian Universalists these days a deep desire to affirm the ocean that is within and beneath the voices of individual conscience that we celebrate. 
--Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker