Thursday, August 11, 2011

Faith Around the Margins - a Mother's Day Sermon

Thanks to Jason Cook for reminding me to post this sermon that I committed on Mother's Day earlier this year.

Faith Around the Margins:
A Mother’s Day 2011 Sermon for Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church

Sermon Reading from Rev. Carter Heyward:

Love, like truth and beauty, is concrete. Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward." Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies.

Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth. To make love is to make justice. As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk. People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience. I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

For this reason loving involves commitment. We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen. We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of a deity called "love." Love is a choice -- not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity -- a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.
And the sermon begins:

Good morning. I'd like to thank Rev. Karen Stoyanoff for graciously loaning me this fine pulpit today. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would preach here this morning. What I ended up writing surprised even me.

In 1975 a good friend of mine was hired as the Executive Director of the Tenn-Ark-Miss Girl Scout Council. A few months later, the Council's board of directors announced that the previously all white Girl Scout Camp, Camp Kiwani, would be integrated the following summer. With only one exception, the entire camp staff tendered their resignations rather than work with black children or black staff members. I was one of five white counselors recruited to work the following summer, the first polychromatic summer at Camp Kiwani.

I'd never spent much time with African-Americans before that summer. My family had participated in the "white flight" to suburbia about the time I was born. I had friends who were Chinese-American, friends where German was spoken in the home. I had friends who were deaf, a friend in a wheelchair, friends whose parents came to Michigan from Mexico and Czechoslovakia, but no black friends. And while my family wasn't affluent, I had never seen real poverty until that summer. I had never met teenagers who had never been to school because their skin was the wrong color. Public high schools in Selby County were closed following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and only reopened in the fall of 1976. For almost 20 years, there were no public schools, and all white children went to private, primarily parochial schools. I met african-american children who lived in cardboard boxes with tin roofs, children who lived without running water, whose parents cooked dinner outside over a three-pound coffee can "wood stove", and it was not their choice to live this way. For one short summer, these were my children.

Five years ago my children's children were housed in the Houston Astrodome, sleeping on bridges in New Orleans and Gulfport – perhaps not their biological children, but their children nonetheless, children of racism, children of oppression, children who were robbed of their childhoods as surely as my campers were robbed of theirs.

I was haunted by the faces of hurricane survivors from Louisiana and Mississippi for I know these children, these parents, these grandparents. I continue to be angered and saddened at our national inability to directly deal with poverty choosing instead to blame the victims of oppression, by our willingness to redirect resources from the poorest Americans and squander those resources on unneeded bridges, unnecessary tax cuts, and our wars to oppress other people of color on others continent to keep gas prices down and oil profits up. We live in what Laura Flanders calls a "sink or swim" society, with grossly unequal access to healthcare, housing, and government relief efforts. The Census Bureau’s statistics tell it for the umpteenth time. For the ninth straight year, only the top 5 percent of Americans have been thriving; incomes and resources for the other 95 percent have been flat or on the decline.

There are Americans living on the margins, living a marginal existence. I am ashamed that it is possible, actually very easy for me to have a first class standard of living even though you and I live in what is for others a third world country, that poor people are too easily "out of sight, out of mind", and that poverty is not an equal opportunity employer, but continues to favor historically marginalized groups. Katrina didn't turn the gulf into a third world country – racism and our ability to live in a racist system, turned Louisiana and Mississippi into a third world country. In 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards was derided for speaking of the two Americas. But there are at least two kinds of Americans: those who can get themselves out of harms way, and those who cannot; those our government rushes to help, and those they do not; those who are expendable, and those who are not. Here in our one (and only one) America, 12% of white Americans surveyed but 60% of black Americans surveyed in late 2005 believed that racism was a factor in the lack of response to Katrina. This was big news for about five days, on our screens for less time than it took to notice an entire nursing home gone missing, less time than it took to return home and remove the plywood from the windows.

A few days after Katrina made landfall, Tim Wise wrote a column for MSN online entitled A God with Whom I Am Not Familiar. It begins:
This is an open letter to the man sitting behind me at La Paz today, in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt:

You don't know me. But I know you. I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal morally scolding the people of that devastated city,
heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster

When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, one of your friends offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh.

"Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard." She then added that police should shoot the looters, and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

Your God is one who you sincerely believe cares about your lunch. Your God is one who you seem to believe watches over you and blesses you, and brings good tidings your way, while simultaneously letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed, and perhaps ten thousand or more die, many of them in the streets for lack of water or food. Did you ever stop to think just what a rancid ass such a God
would have to be, such that he would take care of the likes of you, while letting babies die in their mother's arms, and old people in wheelchairs, at the foot of Canal Street? Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.…

God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl. God doesn't help anyone win an Academy
Award. God didn't get you your last raise, or your SUV.

If you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this--or somehow more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make to a relief fund--so be it. But let's leave God
out of it, shall we? All of it. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.
In 2005 I was visiting Spindletop, our congregation in Beaumont, Texas -- a victim of Hurricane Katrina’s younger sister Rita. When we spoke of New Orleans after the service, one couple talked about hoping and praying that hurricanes would miss them and hit elsewhere, then feeling totally guilt-ridden when their prayers were answered. They asked me if I thought they were bad people. I suggested that the God who would answer their prayer probably doesn’t listen to Unitarian Universalists. A god with whom we are not familiar, probably isn't terribly familiar with us, either.

Four months ago your UUA Board held its quarterly meeting in Phoenix. Prior to the meeting about half of the Board traveled to Tucson and Nogales to see what’s going on at our border, to learn what is being done there by the government with our tax dollars and in our name. I can’t tell you everything I learned – there is not time. I would like to tell you about two things that happen there every single day, two things that you’re not likely to read in the newspaper or see on television because they are being done to those who have been deemed expendable. I tell you these things on Mother’s Day because I truly believe that anyone who has ever been a parent, anyone who has ever loved a child, would be bothered by these things:

1. Automated, unmanned towers in the Arizona desert, machine guns and lots of technology to detect and with no thought involved, shoot anything that walks upright.

2. Lateral repatriation: a federal policy that intentionally breaks up families under the assumption that if you can't even locate your kids or your parents, you are less likely to try to cross a border. In case you're not familiar, here's how this lateral repatriation works: If you and your undocumented family is caught in the United States, we might repatriate (return) you to Tijuana, your spouse to Nogales, and each of your children to yet other cities -- and all this after your cell phones and any address books have been taken from you so you cannot find each other. There is a relatively new but thriving child sex trade just south of our border.

The UUA Board members met families and pieces of families in Nogales – a woman with her twelve year old daughter, both lamenting their inability to be at home with her two younger siblings; three young brothers; a man and his son; a couple who looked like the young newlyweds I see at Niagara Falls. All their faces are also with me. Our government implements policies that shred the fabric of family life, policies that have horrific outcomes that are so obvious that it’s a lie to call these outcomes accidental or unintentional.

The wet heat of a hurricane, the dry heat of the Arizona desert. What do these stories have in common? The circumstances differ, of course. Hurricanes abandon people in the convention center and Superbowl; failed economic policies abandon people at a bus garage in Nogales. Here is what is common: a decision that some of us do not matter at all, are unworthy of our notice or our care save for one fact: we can build an industry on their misery. The fastest growing industry in Arizona is the prison industry, and there are many ties between elected officials in Arizona and the corporations building and managing those prisons. Halliburton, with close ties to the Bush White House, made billions in the Gulf and paid almost no taxes – including payroll taxes – on the proceeds because they processed the payrolls in the Grand Caymans. Why should we care that money is made from misery? Because we have allowed huge institutional systems built solely to maximize profit. Once there’s a profit, the suffering doesn’t matter. …

Whenever I bump up against the evil of which we humans are capable, I feel guilty, and saddened and angry and tired. You, too? I'd like to suggest that we can choose how to be with any of these emotions. Franz Kafka wrote:

“You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided"

What will we choose? We can choose to be mindful, to be vigilant. As Unitarian Universalists, we are uniquely suited to pay attention to the margins, to be aware that margins are often intentional, that the margins provide a buffer, serve a purpose. We're thoughtful folks, willing to work long and hard to improve the world when others less grounded give up, when others are ignoring this life to focus on the afterlife. As sophisticated people of faith, we know how to stay on the task, to be tenacious about building a better world.

We have a powerful message – a message not just for the white middle and upper class citizens of the United States, but for the dispossessed in New Orleans, the homeless in Hattiesburg, the undocumented in California and Texas and Arizona, the beaten and broken on our border with Mexico:

Because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person:
We will open our eyes and see your suffering. We will not forget what we saw. We will not pretend you deserved or somehow earned the injustices that were heaped upon you. We will ask that our tax dollars be spent in keeping with our values and basic humanity.

Because we affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations:
We will focus our resources on those who are least likely to receive justice, equity, or compassion from the government or other organizations, and on those who are being systematically targeted for unjust and non-compassionate treatment.

Because we affirm acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations:
We are committed to supporting vital ministries in New Orleans and Tucson and Phoenix and Clearwater Florida and Lawrence Massachusetts and Orange California and a thousand other places so that Unitarian Universalists can continue to work with local leaders to create fair, just communities.

Because we affirm the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all:
We will become knowledgeable about global relationships. We will understand how the U.S. standard of living – our standard of living -- depends on a lower standard of living for many, including our neighbors in Mexico and know that those who suffer as a result of U.S. economic policies suffer on our behalf. We will work to address the gap between the obscenely rich and obscenely poor countries, and the obscenely rich and obscenely poor within in this country. We will continue to stridently oppose the use of war to support the American economy and American business.

Because we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part:
We will not disconnect ourselves from those who suffer now, or in the future. We are called to minister on the margins. We will not close our eyes and stop up our ears to shut out this call, even when we're angry, or uncertain, or just plain tired.

We are the stewards of a powerful Universalist faith that gains energy and authenticity on the margins, whose message is most cleanly lived and preached in accountability with those most marginalized. Grounded in our tradition, empowered by our principles, and connected by the spirit of life and love, a god of many names with whom we are familiar, may we pray:

Let silence be placed around us,
like a mantle,
Let us enter into it,
As through a small, secret door;
to emerge into an acre of peace,
where stillness reigns,
and the voice of God
is ever present.

The voice of God
in the startled cry
of a refugee child,
waking in
unfamiliar surroundings.
The voice of God
in the mother
fleeing with
her treasure
in her arms who says
"I am here."

The voice of God
in the father
who points to the stars
and says:
"there is our signpost, there is our lantern.
Be of good courage."

O God, may all we see and all we know
become a cloak of understanding
to warm our hearts in prayer, focus our minds on justice, and move our hands to action.


prayer by Kate McIlhagga from "Women Pray"

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