Sermons

“A Bright and Shining Future”

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!

 

“Walking Together”

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 worldThey 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.

 

“Politics with Spirit”

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.