01 November 2009

A Guest Sermon

My friend Dawn, who is not a member of the clergy, gave her first sermon today. It is a must-read, and I don't think she'll mind me sharing it here. The original, along with a few additional words about it, can be read on her blog here. If you have comments or words of encouragement, I would like you to go leave them on her post, since she has worked tirelessly on this referendum and deserves to be recognized.

It is just two days before the election, and I am in a pulpit, a place quite frankly, I never pictured myself short of some kind of trial. Politics make strange bedfellows, though. And despite the fact that our democracy was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state, we as Unitarian-Universalists, are called to speak out for justice, and in this season, that means we end up mixing our faith and religious practices with secular concerns. And that, I suppose, explains how this grumpy middle-aged, lesbian, ex-Catholic semi-failed UU ended up in a pulpit two days before an election to not quite talk about politics.

As Unitarian-Universalists, what do we believe? What makes us what we are?

I remember when I was young and I was at that stage in a Catholic girl’s development when I began to realize that not every one of my friends was Catholic. I asked my aunt about different families we knew, and I remember when I asked about the Bennetts, she told me “they’re Unitarians.”

That stopped me for a moment. I had begun to learn a little about the various stripes of what had previously been a monolith of “Protestants” in my mind. I knew of Baptists and Episcopals (“Catholic-lite” I was told) and Pentecostals and Lutherans, but Unitarian-Universalists were a new thing to me.

“What do they believe?” I asked.

There was a pause, as my Irish Catholic aunt searched for her answer.

“Not much, as far as I can tell.”

More than thirty years later, I find myself here, asking the same simple question. The answer is far more complex than that first one I received.

What is it that we believe?

What is it that drives us?

We can cite the stuff that is written in the front of our hymnal and in all the literature, the lines about the inherent worth and dignity of each person, the bits about the interconnectedness of us all, the appreciation for our diversity and how we value each search for truth and meaning, but what DRIVES us? What makes us DO stuff? What makes us move?

What gives us passion enough to put aside the things that we do every day and invest a little bit of ourselves? And perhaps the more telling portion of this equation is this: how do we explain it to ourselves, and to others?

There are beautiful and intricate essays woven by theologians to explain why UUs are different from other Protestant sects, but for me, the thing that makes it real is what I call the “put up or shut up” principle. It is unwritten anywhere in our texts, you won’t find it in our creed, or in any hymnal or pamphlet, but it is something that runs through me that resonates within these walls.

We are people of action. We are people who put our money – and so much more – where our mouths are.

We do not only wail about hunger, we feed people.

We are saddened by oppression and seek to stop it and lift up the oppressed.

We do not just lament injustice, we work to fix it.

We prefer action to novenas.

Put up or shut up.

We exemplify faith in action.

The key thing, it seems to me, is that we like to be challenged. We like to have our ideas and beliefs challenged, else why would we show up every Sunday? Certainly not to be told repeatedly that we are right. Certainly not to have illogical things drilled into us by rote until we believe and chant it all back like so many automatons.

We want, nay, we DEMAND to be challenged, in all aspects of our lives. We need to hear “so what are you going to do about it?” We need to hear “please explain.”

Ours is not a faith of passive obedience, but one that demands rigorous action. As much as we need to be challenged, we challenge each other and the world around us. As often as we hear “please explain,” we say those same words.

“Please. Explain.”

“Show me.”

“Teach me.”

For what is it worth? To go through a day – or a lifetime?

never learning,

never growing,

never risking,

and never accomplishing a damned thing?

What kind of life is that? Where is the joy in being sedentary? Passive? Isolated?

When I first encountered UU-ism as an adult, it was at the Universalist-Unitarian Church in Waterville, Maine. I attended a service there as part of an assignment in a college class on modern religious movements.

I was overwhelmed.

The people were welcoming.

The readings were about love and sharing and helping and doing right, and you can only imagine my amazement when I flipped through the hymnal to find Holly Near!

I couldn’t go back for over a month. It felt so affirming -- it was more than I could stand.

I had never been in a church where I had been told that I was worthy. Indeed, as a part of the Catholic masses I used to attend weekly - sometimes daily – I repeated “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” countless hundreds of times through my developing years and into adulthood.

To stand among people who did not ask me to hide my orientation or my politics was amazing. To converse with people who did not judge me because I had ideas that were different from theirs was enormous. To be welcomed and introduced to other, out queer people in a church was all a bit much for this embittered ex-Catholic to handle. I had no idea church could be like this. And it scared me.

What kept me coming back – initially – was the social and political action stuff. I was impressed by how active the people at the UU church were in politics. I was surprised to see people actually doing things – as opposed to just writing a check. In 1995, when I really became involved with the church there, it was because of the number of people from those pews on Sunday morning that I saw at the Maine Won’t Discriminate phone bank all the other nights of the week. We were fighting a No On 1 battle back then to protect the anti-discrimination law that had been passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.

Sound familiar?

You knew I’d get to this part.

The No on 1 part.

And it’s true. That’s why I am here.

My job today is to challenge you, within the context of what we know of our faith, and ourselves, to be all that we can be, to do all that we can do. And to give of ourselves. I mean really give. Not the easy stuff, the check, the single shift at the phone bank, going to the polls and casting a ballot. I mean the tough stuff.

The put up or shut up kind of stuff. The ‘how much does this thing called equality mean to us really?” stuff.

We’re UUs. We’re already active. And, truth be told, we’re usually pretty smug about how active we are.

When was the last time you gave everything you had?

I mean everything?

When was the last time you stayed up late, got up early, worked tirelessly, round-the-clock, putting aside everything else for a thing that was bigger than yourself? And what was that cause? An event? A war? A campaign? A big project? A movement?

What is it that is worth that much of us? Is marriage equality worth that? Some say yes, some say no.

Let me tell you what happens sometimes when my partner Laura and I visit an emergency room. Laura suffers from chronic back pain and chronic migraines. Sometimes we end up in the emergency room for acute care. She is in pain, blinded by her pain, often crying, sometimes being physically ill, barely able to speak. I am nervous. I am scared for my beloved. I want to stop her pain, but I am powerless. I want the doctors to respond NOW to make her better. I am frantic with worry.

And then a nurse steps in front of me and says, “you can’t be in here. You’re not family.”

I could cite case after case of similar instances, both in Maine and around the country, but I am only here to tell you about my experience. My truth. My reality. Where I live every day. And this is it. Unless we are married, by law, I am not a part of my partner’s family.

The hospital cannot release Laura’s medical information to me. I cannot have input or ask questions about her treatment or how I should care for her after I get her home. Under the law, we are strangers.

To me, then, this fight is worth everything I’ve got. And honestly, I don’t recall a time when I have poured more of myself into a thing than now.

I have devoted myself to causes and projects over the years. Some were logistical challenges, like conferences or retreats or weekend activities, but some were bigger than that.

Some, like this campaign, are about something that goes deeper than coordinating a weekend of picnics and hiking. This is about equality. And rights. And security. And dignity, and justice, and all of those things that are hard to describe but so important to us.

So important is this battle that I have devoted what some would call an unreasonable amount of my life to it in recent months. I am a small-scale contractor, specializing in home maintenance and repair. With the economy in a downward spiral, I have taken a leap of faith and thrown myself into this campaign. I have abandoned my business except for the most peripheral obligations and have begun to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to pay my rent and other bills. I have not applied for public assistance, although it may come to that after the election.

I go to sleep each night and wake each morning thinking of the campaign. I think of how I can help, what I can do, where I can go to raise money, to recruit volunteers, where can I put yard signs, how can I get a house party put together in Bucksport or Stonington, or Ellsworth? How do I get my mug in front of voters and potential volunteers in Sedgwick or Gouldsboro, or Belfast?

Lately I have been having a recurring nightmare. I awake with a start from a dream in which it is November 4 and I am reading the election returns in the newspaper. Only I learn that if we had two more votes in each town, we would have won.

We UUs often talk about a faith-lived life, but what does that mean? To me it means living my life as closely in line with the things I believe as I can possibly get. It means put up or shut up.

It means doing what it takes to do what is right. It means giving of myself, laying myself on the line, taking a risk, speaking out, standing up and stepping forward.

It means volunteer. Put a shoulder to the wheel, stand and haul in line with the others, and do the work that is real.

Some of us are burned to a frazzle. Some are too overwhelmed by the enormity of what must be done to even begin.

And I am here, feeling just a little of both. Like many of my friends, have been fighting the long battle for equality for years. Many of us are more than just a little burned out. We feel as though we have been throwing ourselves at this particular wall for a very long time and we can see no sign that our efforts are doing anything real.

In the past few months, my role in the campaign has been to inspire people to give of their money and their time. I make ‘em cry and then I make them write checks and volunteer. It is what I seem to be good at, so it is what I do.

Not everybody can ask a group of strangers for money, and fewer still can ask their friends; but I can, and it needed doing, so that’s what I did.

The time for house parties is over. We are down to the sprint for the finish.

I stand before you with a complex agenda. I am here as a fellow Unitarian-Universalist, knowing what it is to be a cat who resists herding, and resenting mightily the suggestion that I might not be as enlightened and politically active as I ought to be already, thank-you-very-much.

And I am here as an organizer who knows just how much more there is to be done in the next 58 hours and who wants to inspire you to do it.

And I need to somehow wrap it all in a not-quite-political message that will both challenge and appeal to the pantheon of spiritual traditions and beliefs that fill the room.

Frankly, a house party would be a lot easier right now.

We all know what is involved in a political race. We all know what is involved in the last hours of a campaign. There’s a lot of grunt work to be sure, very little glamour, and much confusion and sometimes some shouting. But it is as necessary to democracy as air and sunlight and free speech. It is the stuff that makes our nation what it is – free people working hard for justice.

A faith-lived life is a light that can change the world. Gandhi taught us this.

How much is it worth to us, this thing called equality? What does it demand of us? What are we willing to give? How much faith do we have?

Are we willing to give our time? Our energy? Our talents?

Our hearts?

So now I challenge you:

What are you willing to do on faith?

How much of yourself are you willing to put on the line?

Are you willing to give of yourself?

Are you willing to give a day?

One day of your life?

Tuesday? Election day? Can you take that off to help drive people to the polls?

Maybe Monday, too? To make get out the vote calls and help people who want to vote early?

Two days?

Can you offer that much on faith?

It’s a lot, I know.

Are we willing to step out on that high wire and trust that we are doing the right thing and that the fates, or some higher power of our own definition, will preserve us?

Are we willing to put ourselves on the line?

Not as civil rights workers have in the past, stepping into the path of police dogs and fire hoses and riot batons; but to put ourselves on the line in a different way.

Personally, I’d love to see everyone here rush up to our volunteers after the service and sign up to work all day both Monday and Tuesday.

Not all of us can take two days off. But we can all give something.

Through this fall’s campaign, I have been using some basic math to inspire people to write big checks.

When a donor makes a one-time contribution of $100, that is a very good thing. But what does that represent? How much of that person is offered in that donation?

If the donor makes $30,000 a year, that $100 check represents one-third of one percent of his or her income.

One third of one percent.

How much are we willing to give of ourselves?

How much of our resources, whatever they may be, are we willing to put into this battle for equality?

One day of our year is – in easy math – one three hundred sixty-fifth of our year’s allotment of days. In easier to comprehend math, that’s something just over one fourth of one percent.

If we break it down into working hours, for those of us with day jobs, let’s say we offer up a whole workday. Based on 50 weeks of full-time employment, one eight-hour day is four tenths of one percent of what we pledge to our employer each year.

How much are we willing to give of ourselves?

The time for writing checks is past. Now is the time when justice asks us to give of what is real, to give of ourselves.

We talk in lofty terms about democracy and equality and justice, terms our Unitarian and Universalist forbears held so dear and suffered so to preserve, but how much of ourselves are we willing to sacrifice for those things?

What is equality worth to us? What value do we place on being able to visit a spouse in the hospital? How much of ourselves are we willing to give so couples will never have to hear again “you can’t be in here, you’re not family,” or worse yet, from a funeral director, “I’m sorry, you can’t sign for the body. We need a family member for that.”

This IS the single most important civil rights issue of my lifetime.

Marriage equality is going to happen on a state-by-state basis, creating a patchwork of equality until we arrive at a Loving vs. Virginia – type decision that will decide for all the land whether same-sex couples deserve the same basic civil rights as our heterosexual counterparts.

Maine is the only election this year dealing with marriage equality. 34 times the issue of same-sex marriage has gone before voters in one form or another in this country, and 34 times it has failed.

The task before us is enormous and is of a level of importance that I cannot describe, but can only hope that you comprehend.

This is our chance to march to Selma.

The world is watching.

I have taken that step out into the ether and trust that the world and its people will not let me down.