Rev. Julie Kain
We sometimes hear Unitarian Universalism referred to as “our chosen faith” because so many of us have found ourselves here after having been in other traditions that didn’t entirely suit us. Many of us have been drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it affirms our right of conscience. We are encouraged to pursue a path in the discernment of truth that relies heavily on the faculties of our own minds and hearts. Our own direct experience in this world is actually considered to be one of the sources from which our Living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws. In our stated Principles and Purposes, it is articulated this way: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”. I think that is really beautifully said.
One of the things I’m looking forward to most in my being a part of this community at UUCP is the opportunity that we have to share with each other our own faith journeys through life, our own stories.
I have been asked several times to talk about my own theological orientation, to define it, so to speak. But really we are all operating out of our own theological orientations, whether we are aware of it or not, and each of our theological experiences have been formed throughout the course of our own unique lives.
Unfortunately, many people come to Unitarian Universalism after having very difficult experiences in other traditions. As a minister, I can’t tell you how painful it has been to hear some of the stories that are shared. Stories of harsh judgment, stories of denied viewpoints, stories of abandonment and rejection.
Unitarian Universalist communities are not perfect, by any means. Whenever we are wounded within the trusted boundaries of our faith community, we are vulnerable to a deep inner pain.
Things happen that are hard to get past, and yet a part of us continues to try, in search of healing, in search of some peace.
I consider myself fortunate to have had a very positive experience in my previous faith tradition, actively participating in a Presbyterian church during my youth. The departure I made was an intellectual and spiritual one, not an emotionally difficult one, as many of our fellow UU’s have endured. I do also believe that I had the advantage of growing up in an era where my secular education allowed me the privilege of critical and independent thought, so that the natural questioning I did as a youth was not discouraged, not in my school or my church or my home.
I like to tell the story of how I became a Unitarian Universalist at the age of eleven in my Presbyterian confirmation class. It was there that I questioned that Jesus was the only way to salvation for all people and it was there that I discovered on the library shelves the book The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. A doorway to the other religious traditions of the world was opened for me.
Once I had read The Religions of Man, which is now called The World’s Religions, I went on to read one of the sacred texts recommended in the chapter on Hinduism, considered the world’s oldest religion. I read the Upanishads, which are a compilation of texts written from 800 to 400 BCE to the fifteenth century. They are older than the Bhagavad Gita but not quite as old as the Vedas.
The Upanishads are distinct in that their composers who were thinkers and poets were reacting against the external religion founded in the Vedas. They articulate a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Hinduism, much as Taoism is a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Buddhism.
The philosophy of the Upanishads, known as Vedanta, was brought eventually to the West and had a place at the first Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It met with a warm reception by Unitarians, even Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists were influenced by these Eastern works and their embedded- ness in the natural world and our direct experience of it.
I want to share with you one of the passages that I feel introduced me to Unitarian Universalism.“There is a spirit that is mind and life, light and truth and vast spaces. It contains all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. It enfolds the whole universe, and in silence is loving to all.”
When I actually found Unitarian Universalism in 1991 at the age of 29, I knew I had found a people who believed that Jesus was not the only way. I was impressed by its openness to other religious traditions and by both its spiritual and intellectual depth.
But one thing about Unitarian Universalism that took longer for me to appreciate, perhaps because of its subtler implications, is the absence of Original Sin at the core of its philosophy. Actually is wasn’t until I had a number of people come up to me after the child dedications and memorial services I have led, to tell me just how refreshing it is to simply celebrate the dignity and integrity of a person’s life, whether young or old, without imposing a lot of guilt and need for salvation upon these particular people.
Some of you here today may recognize the title Original Blessing as a book written by Matthew Fox. For those of you who are not familiar with him, Matthew Fox falls, no pun intended, into a category that he shares with John Shelby Spong. Both men come from years of affiliation with their “traditional” traditions and both have been criticized and rejected due to their supposedly radical interpretations of the Bible.
For example, Matthew Fox wrote this in his book titled Original Blessing, “Let us take a closer look at this pivotal doctrine of original sin. The concept is not a Jewish one. Even though the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christianity, they do not read original sin into it. As the twentieth century Jewish prophet Elie Wiesel points out, Fox quotes “The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition. This is strong language,” he writes, “to call a doctrine ‘alien’ that Christians believe they found in Jewish scriptures.”
Fox goes on to say, “But today biblical scholars who are themselves Christian agree that original sin is not found in the Bible.”
By the way, we know there is such a thing as Jewish guilt,… but evidently it does not originate with the Bible!
But Matthew Fox was a Dominican priest for 34 years before he was forced out of his order in 1991. The institutes he establishes in Chicago and Oakland were criticized because they encouraged the full exploration of spirituality in all cultures, honoring the world’s indigenous religious traditions, right along with the traditional Christian mystics. Fox was ousted because of his rejection of the notion of original sin and his embrace of Original Blessing as its natural corollary. Despite the fact he has written 28 books and his Institute of Creation Spirituality continues to expand, now enjoying an alliance with the Buddhist Naropa Institute, Fox was rejected by his own church for being a feminist theologian.
Likewise, John Shelby Spong is criticized by his conservative peers; Spong put forth these three New Year’s resolutions for the church not long ago –
- The church should move away from fear of maturity and stop encouraging the childlike dependence of its worshipers
- The church should cease from its concentration on evil and begin to see the beauty in life. Spong asserts that a vision of Original Goodness needs to balance the church’s concentration on original sin
- The church should give up its idolatrous claims to be the sole possessors of God’s ultimate truth. Beyond that the church should surrender the claim that its leaders are infallible and the sacred text is literally true.
Matthew Fox in his book Original Blessing proposes that not only do blessings permeate the story of Israel; it permeates creation from the very beginning. Fox says “original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is.” He quotes Rabbi Heschel in saying “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy”.
This week the Jewish High Holy days have begun with Rosh Hashanah. With the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, Jewish people are called to reflect upon the blessing of all creation.
In a universe that is around 20 billion years old, at least it’s only been in the last 4 billion years that we’ve projected the possibility of human sin screwing it up for everyone and everything!
Of course, there is human frailty, limitations and, yes, even the capacity for evil behavior, but the brokenness that we know as humans will never fully contradict the many gifts we have to offer.
The fact that we are part of nature and every single thing in nature is entirely unique in both its properties and its perspectives, it is nothing short of a miracle, on a literally, universal magnitude.
This means that in the big picture of all creation, we – you and I, my friends, have our own part to play.
The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said it this way – “There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
Sometime the expression of our particular gifts and passions has to overcome a lot of internalized resistance. There are all these voices inside us that want to tell us why we can’t do what is genuinely in our heart to do. They say we are not good enough. They say we are not ready, or we’re being selfish. They say we shouldn’t draw too much attention to ourselves, or grow too big for our own shoes.
Whether it’s the cumulative impact of the notion of original sin or a whole host of other reasons, it can be hard indeed to claim our birthright of Original Blessing in this life.
When I was a little girl, I would spend hours listening and singing along with the radio, learning all the words to the songs. So when I was asked to sing in school and in church, it felt as natural as breathing to me. But some folks are not so lucky. I knew a young man who worked in the restaurant I managed. He refused to sing along when we did “Happy Birthday” for a fellow employee but when we would be cleaning up at the end of his shift and he thought everyone else was gone, he’d sing joyfully at the top of his lungs to the country music station on the radio.
We all have our songs to sing, whether or not they happen to be in any key!
I’ve learned that the troubles of this world are best met with a regular practice of pursuing our own individual passions and gifts, whatever they may be…Call it a spiritual practice, if you will. It may be digging in the garden, putting on a play with the kids, solving a mathematical problem, or taking a walk in the woods. Our gifts and passions are calling out to us all the time, if we but stop a moment to listen. And then heed their pervasive call…
As Rabbi Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing, just too live is holy.”
Rev. Julie Kain
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and we are a community of hope.
In our world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche. Some are singular personal transformations such as the death of a loved one or the birth of a child – others are events of such social magnitude that they become markers in our collective psyche.
Those of us who are familiar with the various impacts of grief in our personal lives will instantly recognize the phenomenon of anniversaries. It’s almost as if we have a subconscious internal calendar at times. We’re going about our lives and little things happen that start to remind us. It could be as simple as hearing a song or seeing a particular flower. We are reminded of a loss and a period of grief that we’ve experienced in our lives. It can be bittersweet.
There is this psychic marker but it’s hard to pin down in one place – kind of like how when something traumatic is happening and a lot is going on in a short amount of time but to us it feels like slow motion. I had that experience when I was in a car accident on a freeway in the metropolitan San Francisco bay area of California. I don’t remember the exact date but it was the first Sunday in March. It was during my parish internship year at the UU Church of Berkeley and I had just finished working a couple of months of straight Sundays and finally got to take one off.
I was on my way to Muir Woods when I found myself in a tangle with three other cars on the relatively empty freeway – it being Sunday morning and all.
The accident totaled my car and led to a year of intense sciatic pain in the following year but really it was a near miss. I was incredibly fortunate to have walked away from it with only a gouge under my chin and a cut lip. And although my car was totaled, it was strange that afterwards I felt like my whole life had suddenly changed and had shaken me to the very core of my being but there were no external signs to express the depth of the event’s impact on me.
Grief is like that. An intensity of feeling that is difficult to pin down in one time or place or thing. Somehow we still need that – a remembering site, and so anniversaries are important and so are grave sites. We need a place to go to remember and be present again with our grief and loss. It’s a part of healing, a part of coming to terms with our lives and with the impact of loss on us.
In a world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche.
If I were to ask each of you – where were you and what were you doing when the news came about the World Trade Center towers, I bet you could tell me without hesitation. September 11th will be for many, many years to come one such marker in our collective psyche.
I got a phone call from my mother as I was about to walk out the door in my first week of that parish internship in Berkeley. I knew as soon as I heard her voice on the phone that something must be wrong because she wouldn’t ordinarily call me at this time from the other side of the country. In my efforts to prepare myself for my new position I had not had the TV or radio on yet in the day.
I went on to the church and then later had a meeting at my seminary. Every person I encountered was dazed and distraught. We didn’t know what to do and could not bring ourselves to do the things that were planned for the day.
We were drawn magnetically to the TV sets and radio stations. I will never forget walking into my school to find a crowded fireside room with students, faculty and school employees huddled around the TV. And there, front and center, were the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker and the then president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations, Rev. John Buehrens. The two of them, among the most brilliant and articulate of our denomination, sat speechless next to the rest of us.
So it is five years later now and frankly it’s still hard to know just what to say about September 11.
Yes – there is a deeply uncomfortable silence that accompanies our grief and the shock that is still present to this day. It’s painful to remember. It’s painful and overwhelming still to recall, but we need to.
How can we forget, though we may unconsciously try? When the fabric of our universe is torn, it cannot be undone. If there ever is to be a healing, it is from the knitting back together of what was once torn apart and we, my friends, are still on the mend.
Five years ago on September 11, on the morning when I was just starting my parish internship at the UU Church of Berkeley, my daughter was just starting her first year in college. I was pleased and relieved that even though she had moved out from living with me (my baby!) she was just across the bay from Berkeley in San Francisco. After my meeting at the school I returned to the Berkeley Church.
I kept looking across the bay at the beautiful San Francisco skyline and I was thinking for the first time what a great target it would be. Major city, major port, contained on a slim peninsula. I felt a terror rising within me for the city before my eyes and my daughter there. I felt panicked to get back to the TV to find out what had happened next.
The fact that not one but two towers were impacted left this incredible sensation – what’s next?
It’s a fear we still have on a variety of levels and one that has fueled a fevered preoccupation with terrorism, not unlike our major preoccupation with countering the stated evil of communism in recent decades past.
“The enemy is out there and they want to get us. They will stop at nothing to destroy us – our way of life, our homes, and our families. “
The heart of terror is a very dark place filled with fear. Although I have never lived in New York City, I can imagine how strange it must still be for its residents to see the altered city skyline and the very real space of emptiness and debris left behind from a single day’s events. A space of tragic loss and utter insecurity. It is painful to remember and yet…how can we forget?
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and a community of hope.
Well what does that mean exactly?
Let me tell you.
For one, it means that this community, years after the tragic death of one of its members at a local women’s health clinic, continues to faithfully provide escorts and move forward in hope for women’s rights. We are a community of memory and we are a community of hope.
I am proud to serve you as your newly settled minister. You inspire me with your dedication to each other and to the larger community of which we are part, including the global community.
Every Sunday when we say the names of the fallen young people who are serving our country, and as we remember the lives – military and civilian – of men, women and children – who have died in Iraq, we are remembering. And we are keeping hope alive for an end to this ill-fated encounter.
Yes, it is painful to remember and even to keep hope, but we must as people of faith.
Today and tomorrow – as we join with people all over the country and around the world to remember the lives lost on September 11, we form a community of memory.
But beyond our remembering, beyond the grief and despair and the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, many of us feel today – how do we form a community of hope? How do we transform the fear we have seen in the heart of terror into something with promise?
Today and in the coming weeks as the holy seasons of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah approach, may we join with people of all faiths around the world to affirm our birthright desire of safety and self-determination for our families and our communities. May we affirm in every way we can the inherent worth and dignity of religious, cultural and political expression by all peoples of good will.
By affirming our common humanity, as Americans we can extend a hand of fellowship, of human sympathy and common understanding around the world to all peoples who experience the fear of life-threatening circumstance, the insecurity of terrorism and the uncertainty of social instabilities of all kinds.
We can build a new community of hope as Americans, by resisting the political, economic and cultural arrogance with which we frequently present to our world neighbors. We can support the vital work of the United Nations and many other non- governmental organizations who promote conflict resolution and the development of human rights in all countries. We can focus on a spirit of generosity rather than individual entitlement and work toward an equitable standard of living for all people, which is the essence of the democratic ideal. We don’t necessarily need to impose our own political and economic agendas in other parts of the world that we view as a threat.
We can build a community of hope by acknowledging our common humanity, despite the terrors committed by extremists, and despite real differences in religious, political and cultural ways of being. We are, after all, fellow humans on the planet, cherishing the safety of our families and communities and “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality”, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently pointed out.
Let us be a strong community of memory and hope as we stand with people of faith and good will around the world to remember September 11.
Please join with me, if you will, in a closing prayer.
# 470 Affirmation
We affirm the unfailing renewal of life.
Rising from the earth, and reaching for the sun, all living creatures shall fulfill themselves.
We affirm the steady growth of human companionship.
Rising from ancient cradles and reaching for the stars, people the world over shall seek the ways of understanding.
We affirm a continuing hope.
That out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world.
Rev. Julie Kain
Let’s face it, people everywhere just love a good story. We are drawn in by a story line being played out with an unfolding plot and through the interactions of characters we can identify and identify with. We just can’t help ourselves – it’s human nature! On one level we are entertained and at a deeper level the stories in our lives that we engage with help us to process our own stories, our own relationship and life journeys. We are always growing and stretching to come to terms with the meaning and directions of our lives.
I typically am “out of the loop” when it comes to what’s popular and timely.
I must admit I don’t really keep track of the New York Times bestseller list. But occasionally I do join in on a widespread phenomenon.
Summer before last I broke down and read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed it and was happy to see that a page-turning mystery novel was incorporating elements of art and religion. I couldn’t help but be drawn in.
Now I know at least some of you here today have read the novel and I’m also sure some of you haven’t. I’m not actually going to work with the story line or even with any of it’s controversial propositions, though that might be fun. Instead I am going to share with you some of the surprising connections to my own life that I made as the story in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code unfolded.
Okay, so we have to set the scene here a little. The story begins with a mysterious death that happens within the famous Louvre museum in Paris and the protagonist Robert Langdon is brought in to help solve the mystery because of his shared interest with the murder victim in symbolism in art.
The strange layout and circumstance around the death in the Louvre left a series of intentional clues by the murder victim to be discovered, and as the reader turns the page we vicariously join the revelations revealed.
The protagonist Robert Langdon is about to release the manuscript of his most recent book when he is pulled into the murder scene. The book is titled “Symbols of the Lost Sacred Feminine” and its author Langdon was nervous about the response it would provoke due to some very unconventional interpretations he had made of established religious iconography.
Beginning with the first clue that presents itself in trying to solve the mystery of the death in the Louvre, Langdon finds himself in familiar intellectual territory. As a professor he had lectured many years on the symbols left as clues.
The first clue is a symbol the victim had drawn himself on his stomach with his own blood from a gunshot wound. It is five straight lines that form a five pointed star, otherwise known as a “pentacle”.
The French detective with Langdon immediately associated the star with devil worship, but Langdon knows from his field of study that the ancient pagan sign is part of pre-Christian nature worship. Our early ancestors saw the natural world with both masculine and feminine energies at work to form a balance of harmony. But when the energies are unbalanced we experience chaos. Langdon tells the French detective that the pentacle represents the female half of all things – what religious historians refer to as the “sacred feminine” or the “divine feminine”.
Langdon goes on to say that the early Roman Catholic Church systematically countered ancient symbology with escalating smear campaigns; eventually replacing the original meanings with demonized misconceptions – hence the association of the pentacle with devil worship.
A little later in the book, a previously invisible circle is revealed around the outstretched corpse. The victim has drawn it himself with a black light pen often used in museums today to identify with wall marks the paintings in need of restorative work.
The combination of the pentacle within the circle reveals a new dimension to the set of clues left behind by the murder victim.
Langdon immediately recognized the reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of The Vitruvian Man. It is considered the most anatomically correct drawing of a nude male in its day and the drawing can be seen on posters and t-shirts as a modern-day icon, as well.
The circle around the pentacle, according to Langdon, represents the harmony of both female and male energies combined.
Before too long in the novel another clue is added into the mix. A numeric sequence and once it was recognized as a significant code, I, in turn, made a fascinating discovery. This numeric code was beginning to sound familiar to me. I’d heard about it before. It’s also called the Divine Proportion or the Fibonacci sequence. I’d heard about it before but it wasn’t in school and it wasn’t from some public television show I’d seen. No….I recalled as I was reading the book that I’d heard about this from – my daughter!
And even more surprising than that was that she had told me about the Fibonacci sequence in reference to …of all things…her new tattoo!
Now some of you, I bet, had already forgotten that I have a daughter. And here I am in the pulpit talking about her tattoos but just stay with me on this…okay?
Next week my daughter is starting her last year at San Francisco State University working on her Bachelors of Science degree, Pre-Med. She has been a self-identified “science geek” since high school when she had an excellent biology teacher and an unusual magnet school class bringing together environmental science and photography. But from a young age my daughter was not just a “science geek”, she’s been a fashionable one. In addition to being an excellent photographer herself, she is particularly photogenic and has done a limited amount of modeling for several years now.
I remember how she used to ask my permission for one after another crazy hair color or style when she was in junior high school and how when she get to high school – it was her desire to get a tattoo. I held her off on almost every request until she convinced me otherwise and strangely enough – almost every one of her decisions worked for her at the time.
Her first tattoos are small stars, or pentacles, on her ankles. And the latest one when I read the Da Vinci Code, summer before last, was what I knew as the nautilus spiral on her upper arm.
As I read the book I recalled how my daughter Caroline had explained that her new tattoo symbolized her love of science. It was a single picture of the Golden Mean, the Divine Proportion also known as the Fibonacci sequence. Her spiral indicated the building block of nature discovered in the most beautiful number in the universe. The number called Phi 1.618. The number that shows the proportionally balanced ratios found everywhere in nature from the seashell to the honeycomb and sunflower, to the human body itself. It is recognized as a formula for beauty and so has been embraced by artists for centuries, including Leonardo.
The sequence of numbers is such that it is equal to the sum of the first two preceding terms. This is the divine recipe for life itself and the basic pattern of growth within all natural things.
The surprising discovery that I made about my own life in the course of reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was connected to the precious presence of my daughter in my life story and an appreciation for her spiritual path of growth. The stars on her ankles reflect the earth-centered spiritually she had shared with her junior high girlfriends. The nautilus shell on her shoulder reflected her love of nature’s beautiful design on this earth turned toward the noble pursuit of scientific knowledge, another kind of spiritual path of practice and devotion.
Beyond my commitment to model for her the possibilities available to her as young women located within the United Stated in the 21st century, my daughter Caroline is finding her own way in life and continuing to be a teacher for me.
I consider myself fortunate and blessed to be among the women clergy of our country and among the majority of clergy within the Unitarian Universalism as a woman in the pulpit.
I am indebted to the women and men who came before me – some of whom are in this room right now – who have made it possible for me to be serving in the ministry as a woman, while we know other denominations and faiths are not places where this is possible today.
As Unitarian Universalists, we benefit from the successful work of our denomination’s Women’s Federation who established the norms of gender inclusive language in our congregations and in our hymnals. The same group facilitated the denomination-wide effort to articulate what we know as our Principles and Purposes – and this was accomplished just within the last twenty years of our movement’s history.
Regardless of whether or not there was a goddess centered culture that preceded the patriarchy of the last 2000 years, we doknow that women, and the earth itself, have been and continue to be subjugated. And at the same time the sacred feminine, the divine goddess, what is identified as female energy is present, ever present, in our world and has been through all the ages.
A reading in our hymnal by Starhawk says it’s this way – “Earth mother, star mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may we remember we are cells in your body and dance together”.
Whether it’s Mother Mary or the Magdalene, or even the Buddhist Kwan Yin whose variety of faces grace the cultures of the east, we are as humans drawn into a good story and the female figures hold a powerful place in our psyche, even when they are hidden from plain view.
Whether or not, Mary Magdalene sat at Jesus’ side in the painting of The Last Supper or not, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has challenged millions of readers to think in new ways about the relationship that Jesus may have had with the women of his life. It has challenged many readers world-wide to consider the historical and religious figure of Jesus in new ways – as an extraordinary man, but still as a man. This book has also brought to light the many political forces at work behind the doctrines of the established church.
For those whose religious sensibilities are not insulted by the concepts presented in the book, there may be a wider space that has been created to explore the many questions provoked. And we, as Unitarian Universalists, welcome the asking of such questions,
We welcome the multiple views, and the voice that has been silenced. We welcome the application of both imagination andreason in the interpretation and application of religious thought.
We are a people that love a good story.
Rev. Julie Kain
Wow, this has really been a whirlwind of a week with you. I want to take a moment and express my deep appreciation to everyone who has participated in one or more of the many church gatherings that have taken place in the last few days. Every setting in which we’ve gotten together has been distinctively different from the last. Your true southern hospitality has been shining at full strength this week and on behalf of my husband Rudy and myself, I want to say a big “thank you” to you all.
As many of you know, especially the family members of your search committee – the search committee you selected many months ago has been putting in hours and hours and hours of their time to fulfill the charge that you invested in them – to represent the heart of your community, the UU Church of Pensacola, and to seek out the best possible match in ministerial leadership for supporting your current needs and desires, and equally important – to collaborate with you in creating a future of exciting possibilities as the church community approaches it’s 50th anniversary in the next two years.
I have been truly impressed by the depth of commitment I have witnessed in your church leadership. You are a group with enthusiasm, dedication and a genuine fun-loving spirit. The bonds of deep caring that you have with each other is quite apparent, even in the short time Rudy and I have been among you. I hope that you can also take a moment with me to acknowledge your own sense of gratitude for the precious sense of community that you have created here. Bravo.
This week I have met with longtime members and friends of this church and quite a few of you who are fairly new to this community and some of you fairly new to Unitarian Universalism. Each and every one of you bring a rich life history to this particular moment in time as we come together this morning and consider our futures.
Each of us has come to the UU Church of Pensacola and to Unitarian Universalism with our own unique longings and expectations. Each of us has our own stories and I’ve heard many of yours in this past week and I have shared some of mine with you.
My path to ministry began with my active involvement in a Presbyterian church during my youth, as I had shared with you all last week. Between the important sense of community I experienced in my youth group, the musical training and enjoyment I received by singing in the various church choirs, and the intellectual exploration for world religious and spiritual studies that began in my 6th grade confirmation class, my early life was blessed with a positive influence of being in a religious community
I stayed in Indiana, the state of my birth after high school and attended a Quaker college. During high school I had participated in an American Friends Service Committee summer youth campaign in California. There we were helping to renovate what had been previously army barracks and a Japanese detention center into permanent housing for a cooperative of farmworker families. The summer before I had gone to Jamaica with a large group of Disciples of Christ youth on a cultural exchange and so had the brief experience at a young age of being in a racial minority and immersed in a third world culture.
What was added to my appreciation of community and religious study, was a curiosity for other cultures and a thirst for justice-making. My individually designed major in Community Development with an interdisciplinary approach of education, psychology and cultural anthropology also has prepared me for my current work in ministry.
The next portion of my life was dedicated to raising my daughter in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was where I discovered Unitarian Universalism, fueled by a desire for a place to take my daughter and for me to reconnect with my earlier experiences of being in community. For the thirteen years we lived in Chapel Hill, I was a dining room manager for an independently owned northern Italian restaurant – a business I had learned from my family. I was fortunate to work with an excellent staff team, many of whom were there the entire time I was and some are still there after these eight years that I’ve been gone.
My restaurant job was unique in that it gave me time to be involved with my daughter’s life as she was growing up, and to become progressively more involved in my UU church in Durham, North Carolina.
It was there that I was asked by our new associate minister, if I’d ever considered professional ministry. I told her I had thought about it bud didn’t think it was possible because I was the single parent of a 15 year old girl.
The surprising turn of events was that when I mentioned the conversation to my daughter, she exclaimed that it was an excellent idea and she was not only willing but excited to move across the country with me so that I could attend seminary.
That was eight years ago and now after three years of classes and five years of serving three churches that have ranged in size from 100 to 550 members, and the current count in San Diego at 850, I am ready to settle into a church home of my own and to put down roots in a community once again.
I always wanted to return to the Southeast when I went west for my schooling and the area of the Gulf Coast region has caught my fancy these past few years.
Music lover that I am – when I read about a highly rated international music festival in Lafayette Louisiana, four years ago, I decided to treat myself to the first vacation that didn’t have any family obligations tied to it. I returned the following three years, and last year Rudy and I had the pleasure of going from the international festival in Lafayette on to the Jazz Fest in New Orleans, pre-Katrina.
When Rudy and I met, one of our very first shared interests was a love of the South and it has been our intention to return when the time and place was right. Again, it’s hard to say how much we have enjoyed our time with you and in this beautiful region of the country. We’re hoping to stop by the Crawfish Creole festival later today before heading back to San Diego tonight.
My experience this week with you – the good people of UUCP – confirms what my good friends and ministry colleagues in the South had told me about ya’ll – Eunice Benton the Midsouth District Executive and Dick Creswell, your Healthy Congregation consultant, who has visited and talked with you about church visioning and the role of generosity as a practice of celebrating abundance. Eunice and Dick both told me that what was reflected in your congregational search materials, was in fact true, – as a community you are poised on the threshold of new growth.
Despite the fact that you are located firmly within the proverbial Bible Belt, the greater Pensacola area offers an abundance of culture, arts and industry, and a population that has yet to be fully recognized in it’s resonance with our Unitarian Universalist free-thinking, justice-making faith values.
I believe this community has been built on a firm foundation of commitment and responsibility and that the sky is the limit in what we might achieve together. It’s a matter of putting our dreams into action with a common vision of moving forward – boldly into the future.
Here are just a few of the areas that I know you have a passion for cultivating. One is music in worship. This community is just filled with people who are talented musically.
In addition to the wide spectrum of styles we can hear in individual and ensemble pieces, wouldn’t it be great to have a choir?Music is such a powerful part of our human experience, I just know there are lots of exciting possibilities we might offer to each other and to the larger community.
Another area for potential growth is one that we share with countless congregations across the country, the desire for our church community to meet the needs of families, children and young people. Our lifestyles these days are full of so many options and demands on our time that it is challenging for many of our UU churches to do that extra amount of outreach so that younger people have a place where their needs and interests are addressed and respected in the realm of religious study, reflection and community. Whenever we are talking about the future, we cannot forget to include young people, tomorrow’s leaders and recipients of our legacies.
The last area I want to mention briefly today is one of our core values as Unitarian Universalists , the religious practice of justice-making. As UU’s , we are called to be visible and present in our larger communities – advocating for the worth and dignity of all people, regardless of the issue and the risk in taking a stand.
This congregation has a proud and painful part of its history in this regard, with the shameful murder of one of its members – Jim Barrett and the wounding of his wife while taking action to protect women’s health rights. As UU’s we must prepare ourselves to be ready to engage in the public square with both those who share our values and concerns, and with those who firmly oppose them
When we commit ourselves to each other and to the causes of justice in our midst that demands our response, even a small number of people can make a significant difference.
Many of us believe that Unitarian Universalism has a message and values that are badly needed in our world today. We are a faith based in lofty ideals and in action. We are a faith that has changed and grown over time and we are still growing and changing.
May we continue to be a home to seekers of all kinds, welcoming the critical mind and the open heart, and encouraging spiritual growth among the many paths that we are walking.
May the depth of our community together, the quality of the relationships between us – sustain us through the adversities life may have in store for us.
May those same bonds of friendship and fellowship make this church home a special place of celebration and joy as we help each other to live out the brightest blessings of our dreams.
May it be so. Amen!
Rev. Julie Kain
Now I know that we’re just starting to get to know each other here, so to appeal to the natural curiosity you must have about me, I’m going to start off right away with a little confession.
When I was in the seminary-part of my preparations for Unitarian Universalist ministry, there was one subject that I put off taking until last because…frankly I was avoiding it.
I’m pretty familiar with the way UU’s think having been one now for 15 years and in the context of being in close relationship with 4 different congregations so far. And so I bet you just might be thinking right about now that the one subject I wanted to put off until the last of my seminary education was – studying the Bible. Was that what some of you were thinking?
Well I hate to disappoint you this early on in our budding relationship, but no – I didn’t put off the study of the Bible until last. I actually had a fascinating biblical scholar as a teacher who I think could probably make just about any subject interesting for his students.
No, the subject I put off until last was….drum roll, please – Unitarian Universalist history.
As is the case with so many things in life where we experience a change of heart about something, when I look back it’s not easy to recall exactly why I was wanting to avoid UU history, only that I did. I mean, in general, I don’t have anything against history.
And before some of you start getting nervous, let me assure you I’m not about to launch into a UU history lesson!
I do want to confess that despite the fact that I had been avoiding my expected complement of UU history, I actually ended upreally enjoying it, mainly because I learned about a lot of great people who stand in our Unitarian and Universalist traditions, people with great ideas and very impressive actions to their names and credit.
What I want to share with you today is this wonderful thing I learned about our roots as Unitarian Universalists, finding our way from England, by way of the Mayflower. You know right there at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims, otherwise referred to as “Puritans”.
Despite the fact that these folks wore strange clothes, had repressive attitudes about many things and were not very nice to women and Indians, they did develop a revolutionary idea and put it into practice. The revolutionary idea the Puritans put into practice was a new interpretation of an ancient biblical concept called “covenant”. Their new interpretation forever changed the world and is at the heart of our religious tradition, as is reflected in the recitation of your church covenant this morning.
The word covenant most simply means “to come together” but more specifically it means to come together by making a promise as when two people promise to love and care for one another in a committed relationship or marriage.
The revolution that took place said that churches should come together, not through a common assent to a religious doctrine, or through sacraments administered by priests identified through church hierarchy and apostolic succession. Instead the revolutionary idea was that people should join themselves freely by a mutual agreement to walk together, to live out the highest truth that we know, to choose our own ministers and teachers of all kinds and to engage in an active process to determine the truth in new situations. This was an arrangement that actually encouraged the voice or protest, complaint and dissent.
The covenant that we share as Unitarian Universalists asks us to be ready at all times to receive whatever truth shall be made known to us, regardless of the source of that truth.
I am the kind of person who loves to go on walks. I prefer walks in nature but sometimes I also enjoy walks through town, or even walks in shopping malls and airports. There’s always so much to see and I am always noticing new things, things I’ve never seen before.
I am the kind of person who enjoys quiet and solitude. My husband Rudy will attest to that. But I’m also the kind of person who loves to take walks in the company of another. My husband Rudy is one of my very favorite people to take a walk with. And besides enjoying each other’s company, one main reason I like to walk with another person is I get to see even more than when I walk alone.
I found Unitarian Universalism due to the same reason many people find us. I wanted a place to bring my daughter and to feel as if I was not walking alone in trying to show her the many ways of thinking and being religious in our world today. And so after her best friend’s vacation Bible school had come to a close, I took my daughter Caroline to the local Unitarian Universalist church, which I happened to find in the Yellow Pages. She was nine years old then and I’m proud to say that she is now studying to become a neuroscientist at San Francisco State University.
I feel very fortunate that as a young person I experienced a strong sense of community and a place for learning and growth. When I fell in with the Presbyterians at the age of nine, I was very active in that church throughout my high school years.
It was there in my sixth grade, Presbyterian confirmation class that I actually became a Unitarian Universalist long before I’d ever heard of it. You see our confirmation class met in the church library and when I began to question that Jesus was “the one and only way” to salvation I took it upon myself to read a book that I found there on the church library shelf. The book was called The Religions of Manby Huston Smith and now is considered a classic under its new and politically correct title – The World’s Religions. This began my lifelong study of various faith traditions, and other ways of learning about myself, Life, and the rest of humanity.
I left the Presbyterian church after high school when I attended a Quaker college, a place whose religious philosophy resonated with my own – aspiring to recognize the divine spark within all people. But I never joined a Quaker religious community and it wasn’t until I found the UU church and its rich liturgy of religious and secular texts that I felt at home. And it was great to have music in worship which is something I deeply missed in the silent Quaker meeting.
I believe as Unitarian Universalists we are an unusual group in that the vast majority of us have freely chosen this as our faith community. Most of us have some kind of background with another tradition. Some of us were raised without any church affiliation. Andsome of us were raised as either Unitarian or Universalist or both and have decided to stay, because it still feels right to us.
As Unitarian Universalists, our choice to be together in covenant is not just a one time verbal agreement – it is meant to be an ongoing practice. By our own power to choose, we each bring our communities into being and we sustain them.
I know that the UU Church of Pensacola has a long history of dedicated people working and playing in community with each other and that has sustained you. I know how important it is for you to have created this welcoming place and a legitimate presence of free religious thought for the larger community of Pensacola. I can see that you have created a place where you want to bring your children and invite other families into our ongoing quest for growth and learning. I know how proud you must be of this beautiful church home.
I also know that the UU Church of Pensacola has had a series of relationships with UU ministers – of varying degrees of satisfaction and effectiveness, and that you are now poised in anticipation for a new and expanded level of commitment – both from the minister you are seeking and from yourselves.
This is a lofty and daring aim, and you have struggled long and hard to nurture these dreams of an even brighter future for the UU Church of Pensacola. I am feeling privileged this morning for the opportunity to walk with you during this transformative time. We have much to learn from and with each other.
Our feisty and free-spirited ancestors, the Pilgrims, were advocating for the gift we enjoy today – freedom of religious conscience. They can inspire us in our own resistance to the remaining oppressive powers of church and state in our time.
Our Pilgrim forebears were inspired to daring action by a new interpretation of their relationships to each other and to the source of all life. They dearly loved their Bible but in a natural development from the time of the Reformation, they were able to entrust their faith in the belief that the Bible was still not the full revelation of God in the world. They believed that revelation is not sealed but continues to break forth into human consciousness and conscience as truth.
What these Puritans practiced in their congregational way has actually helped to transform nations, not just ours. And that is truly revolutionary.
Puritan scholar A.S.P. Woodhouse wrote this: “The congregation was the school of democracy. There the humblest member might hear, and join in the debate, might witness the discovery of the natural leader, and participate in that curious process by which there emerges from the clash of many minds – a vision clearer and a determination wiser than any single mind could achieve.”
Today we are standing in a rich tradition of transformative faith and action.
When we walk together, we are learning from each other, we are seeing more than we could possibly see alone and we are joining our powers together to make our world a better place.
When we walk together, we are deeply caring for one another. Each of us is held in the loving arms of community. We are accepted, encouraged and supported in our own growth as the precious human beings that we are.
And when we walk together we are able to form a clearer vision of the future and entrust ourselves to a wiser determination than any of us could achieve alone.
I look forward to the future possibilities for growth and enrichment at the UU Church of Pensacola. You are already a fine community!
Today may we join our hearts and mind with gratitude for our religious ancestors and their powerful words and example of promise. “We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, speaking to the world in words and actions of peace and goodwill.”
May it be so.
Rev. Julie Kain
Today as we count ourselves among the people of faith who gather regularly as a community on Sunday morning, there are Muslims around the world who are concluding a month long commitment of fasting and spiritual discipline required by their faith and known as Ramadan.
We happen to live in a part of the world where our understanding and even our very awareness of practicing Muslims is largely, conspicuously absent from our thoughts and conversation. This reflects a longstanding tension and deep seated mistrust between what we know as the West and the parts of the world that have been historically Islamic nations. Especially for those of us who have not had the privilege of experiencing Islamic culture and religion firsthand, we are faced with a very limited perception of Muslims that is largely veiled in a shroud of mystery but accentuated by our constant reminder of extremist activities through the news media.
Now it would simply be impossible for me to attempt to rectify in a few minutes the absence of the Islamic faith on our Western mental radar screens, but today we can take a few steps toward recognizing the powerful faith held by one out of every 5 or 6 people on our planet, and grow a little bit in our understanding of it.
To include a brief excursion into the world of Islam is also fitting to our main topic today: Politics with Spirit. I will begin to explore with you the connection between personal values, sometimes considered religious values, and people’s motivations and actions in the public square.
Isn’t it interesting that those two words are basically interchangeable but they describe radically different shapes?!
The lunar month of the Islamic calendar known as Ramadan commemorates two significant events in the life of Muhammad. One is the only miracle attributed to the prophet. Ramadan falls at the beginning of the 23 years in which Muhammad received the elaborate and poetic messages from God that he recorded and is recognized as sacred text, the “Koran”, which literally means “recitation”.
Ramadan also commemorates Muhammad’s accompanied exodus from the city of Mecca ten years after the beginning of his receiving the Koranic messages and his establishment of a new social order based on Islamic tenets in the city of Medina, renamed to this, meaning the “City of the Prophet”.
Practicing Muslims honor and celebrate the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to sunset. The spiritual discipline of fasting reminds them of important events in their religious history and fosters compassion and gratitude for one’s life and blessings. Only the hungry really know what hunger means.
Ramadan is the fourth in the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the guiding principles of a Muslim’s personal life. The first pillar is the repeated recognition and recitation that “there is no god by God and Muhammad is his prophet”. The second is a commitment to regular prayer. The third is the religious practice of charity, and the fifth is for all who are able to make the pilgrimage once in their lives to the city of Mecca. Once there pilgrims gather with other Muslims from other lands and develop international appreciation for their faith. And every pilgrim, regardless of their homeland or economic status, exchanges their own clothes for simple garments that unify them with others of their faith.
In addition to the guidelines for Muslims in their personal lives (which induced more than what I’ve just mentioned) there are the social teachings of Islam. They are elaborate and have components with fundamental differences from what is familiar to us as Westerners. This helps to explain the deep historical divide between our cultures.
Just as Jewish and Christian values have helped to shape and inform the social institutions of the West, the Koran has served to help shape Islamic society. The Koran is more explicitly a guidebook for Islamic society than the Bible has been where politics, religion and social institutions are intentionally blended.
Despite its real shortcomings and it’s susceptibility to fundamentalism and fanaticism which exists in all religions, Islamic history demonstrated a moral advance in a large portion of our world in a shorter amount of time than any other religion has been able to achieve.
Although the Koran does not promote the pacifism of turning the other cheek, its image of being a militant religion is largely a prejudice resulting from 1300 years in which Islam and Europe have shared common borders and fought over them. The Holy War referred to in the Koran is basically identical with the Just War of the Catholic canon. And if we look at the full view of religious history, the Koran’s verse of “let there be no compulsion in religion” can be considered the first core mandate for religious tolerance in history. The Islamic culture has actually demonstrated far more racial equality and religious tolerance than have the cultures of the world’s other religions. And furthermore the violence of the crusades and the Inquisition perpetuated by the hands of Christians is seen as a darker time in world history than the violent episodes present in the Islamic world. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Islamic culture with its philosophers and scientists enjoyed a rise of literature, science, medicine, art and architecture.
Today Islamic people have been facing some deep challenges of living in a post-colonial time. Much of the unrest and violence we are familiar with as Westerners results from the tension between the move toward modernization and industrialization but the rejection of Westernization. There are also the strong forces of nationalism that compromise the religious unity of Islamic peoples. The religious and racial tolerance that has been practiced in Muslim countries in prior times is much more difficult in the current climate of charged political conflict over Muslim identity.
This now leads us to the second portion of my message this morning where I’d like to introduce you to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner and his book “The Left Hand of God”.
There is a strong strain of religious triumphalism at work in our world today. We do not only see it in Islam, we also see it in Judaism, right-wing Christianity and other religions, as well. The central stance of religious triumphalism says “Our God will emerge as the one real God at the end of history, and all the rest of you will get the punishment you deserve”.
Doesn’t the refrains of this sound all too familiar?
This is what Michael Lerner refers to as the Right Hand of God.
The Right Hand of God is an image of God with a hand of power and domination. While celebrating a message of love, the Right Hand of God also celebrates the pain inflicted on those who are perceived as evil. This image of God then fits nicely with a politics of militarism and xenophobic nationalism – including our very own American drive toward domination over most all of the other countries in the world.
Lerner asserts that one reason why this way of thinking is so strong and appealing to so many in our world today is because many people simply can’t imagine how a world with so much pain and cruelty can be overcome except through some sort of God as an all powerful savior who provides the single answer to saving us from ourselves.
I had been aware for several years of the magazine, Tikkun, and its editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, but I did not know about Lerner’s coalition building efforts until a friend who I met in Adult Education class at the Berkeley church started telling me about it. My friend who I will call Sarah had been a member of the Berkeley church for many years along with her longtime partner. They are both attorneys although he had retired after serving in the Navy from his labor law practice representing migrant workers in California and had begun taking classes at the largest seminary in Berkeley, the Pacific School of Religion. Sarah has been working with a firm to help limit the power of California’s public utility market.
While he was taking Old and New Testament classes, Sarah was revisiting her identity as a secular Jew. Her grandmother had come from Russia and her parents had been avid labor activists without any presence of religion in their lives.
Sarah and her husband decided to attend the Jewish services that Rabbi Michael Lerner was leading as a place where they could learn together and share their views with each other. Sarah was unfamiliar with much of the Jewish ritual but she really enjoyed the hearty singing together that the community would do. And before long, Sarah and her husband became very impressed with what Michael Lerner was doing to mobilize social action. Through his magazine, his writing and his public speaking, Michael had been organizing conferences in different parts of the country. He would help to bring in social activist speakers from other faith traditions and regularly the rotation of conference cities would include Washington, D.C., as it was last spring. The participants would alternate attending presentations and workshops with physically lobbying with groups of others at the offices and events of our national legislators.
I am personally very excited about the momentum Lerner has been helping to build in recent years. I will follow today’s introduction to Lerner’s work with a Politics with Spirit, Part Two next month where I will share with you the specific points of mobilization in Lerner’s strategy – as the subtitle to his book “The Left Hand of God” states “taking back our country from the Religious Right”.
Michael Lerner believes and is acting on the belief that a new political alliance can be forged between three fairly large, loose categories of people who are finding it difficult to hold their stand in the public square today.
These groups are 1) militantly secular leftists, 2) those he calls “spiritual but not religious people”. These people are equally uncomfortable with what they see as dogmatism and rigidity in both religious people and the antispiritual biases of secularists.
The third group is progressive people in the multi-faith religious world. People who actively practice their own faith traditions while also striving to fulfill their strong commitments to social justice and peace.
Lerner asserts that another reason why the Right Hand of God mentality is so prevalent today is that there is a marked absence of an articulated, coherent spiritual-political alternative.
Too many Liberals and progressives are afraid to use any religious or spiritual languages and so they are accused of not having any religious or spiritual foundations. Or they are accused of even worse – contributing to the demise of religious and spiritual values in our society. Secular people are attacked for the same reason.
Lerner asserts this is largely unfair. He suggests that no one in America has become materialistic and selfish because there were people in their neighborhood or workplace or school who are liberal or don’t believe in God. He continues to say that this group of Liberals and non-believers are no more materialistic or selfish than those who do believe in God, attend church, or vote conservatively in elections.
Lerner encourages us as people of faith to be “unequivocal rather than apologetic about championing a vision of love and generosity”. We can, and should, claim the values we hold as based in the teaching of the Torah, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and the wisdom of the world’s traditions that hold in common the belief in a world where love, kindness, peace and social justice is really possible.
Perhaps we can find a way to stand firm and together in coalition, offering a legitimate alternative in the public square.
May it be so.