Archive for September, 2008

Our Prophetic Imperative

September 4, 2008

It is rare that a Unitarian Universalist minister begins his or her sermon with a biblical quotation. My subtitle for today’s sermon, “Let Justice Flow,” deserves a citation. The line which has been made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. comes from the wild and wholly Hebrew prophet Amos. It was Amos, not famous first for cookies, but for telling the Kings of Israel and Judah that they had turned to greed, who put it this way:

“I despise your greed and I take no delight in your assemblies even though you have offered up the burnt offerings. God will not hear the noise of your songs or the melody of your harps but let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:22-24)”

As I thought about this passage I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states: a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel to the North and Judah to the South, with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is the only offering God really wants from his people.

Sound familiar? It ought to. How different is our arrogance as the only remaining superpower, the openly proclaimed Empire of the World from this fallen age of Israel? Some even suggest the new Star Wars film by George Lucas is a commentary on George W. Bush and the encroaching agenda of fear and the attendant loss of civil rights around us. Part of our effort today is to name the true costs of this war. The facts you can see for yourselves, a billion dollars a week, 4,000 American lives, half a million Iraqis dead or displaced, and our neutering as a voice of compassion and change in the world. As Linda Bilmes who lectures at Harvard wrote in a recent LA Times Op-ed (3/16/08), Californians, because of our disproportionate size in the military industrial complex, are going to bear the greatest brunt for this war. And then there are the personal costs such as this from Jim Wallis’ blog about his newest book The Great Awakening, My Son’s Grave (by Celeste Zappala) ‘The Cost of War’. The sorrowful convergence of the fifth anniversary of the war and the observation of the 4,000th fallen U.S. soldier in Iraq (has sadly past). Soon candles will be lit and vigils held, arguments will ensue as to who was right, and the meaning and value of sacrifice and the chorus of whispers, wails, and anger will be carried on wind sweeping across this country and all the gravestones of war. The stones are silent witnesses to the failure of humans to follow the commands of the Lord of Love. The stones are places where U.S. families gather, as far as can be from the bombs and desert fears. It is in that cold silence that my grandson and I visit his father’s grave. He throws chunks of snow around the fully decorated gravesite. “My dad loves to have snowball fights” he tells me in present tense. “My dad and me always team up against my mom; she doesn’t like snow.” He laughs; and in this moment of transcendent playfulness I look at him with great love and will not speak of horror and lost hopes. Head bowed, snow tears on my face, I let the chill of the day overtake me – but I do not want my grandson to see my thoughts. In spite of all my protests, I could not protect him from losing his playful, tender father. I can only hope now to be a witness to the good life lost – to all the good lives lost. I will add my voice to the wind of remembrance and faithfulness. And I know for the rest of my life I will come to this country cemetery and visit my son who will never be older than 30. And I, like so many mothers and grandsons in this cold season, will stand amidst the stones of this country to listen in the snow for the laughter and forgiveness of our lost’. Celeste Zappala is the mother of Sgt Sherwood Baker, who was killed in action on April 26, 2004. Sherwood was killed while protecting the Iraq Survey group as they searched for the weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. He was the first Pennsylvania National Guard solider killed in Iraq. But where are the Amos’ of our time? Who shall proclaim the truth to let justice flow again?

In the tradition of the ancient Hebrew Prophets, I see our third smooth stone of liberalism as in Adams words “the moral obligation to direct our effort… towards a justice loving community.” Distinctly different than those religions that retreat from the world, our religion must, by its very nature, help justice flow into the world. We, and others, are here to proclaim that prophecy in the old testament way, not only of the future but of what in the present needs to be changed. Prophets, as Adams put it, “foretell” if this continues this will happen, not forth tell, as if they had some crystal ball. As a free church we come from an ancient tradition of foretelling: “The Radical Reformation of the 16th century, the heralds of the Renaissance, the mystical and radically democratic sects of the 17th century, (from which many of our religious forebears hail), the democratic revolutionists of the 18th century (including the founders of our own nation, many Unitarian), the religious liberals….the evolutionists and scientists of the Social Gospel in the 19th century – all were prophet bards foretelling and struggling for a new epoch.” (From The Prophethood of All Believers by Adams). We are right here part of that same prophethood of all believers, the prophethood that brought us Theodore Parker, Thomas Jefferson, Lydia Maria Child (the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate) , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, our own Hope Foye, all Unitarians and Universalists, who foretold and acted upon that prophecy.

The prophets are here and they are more than us. But their voices are not being heard because of the control our government has over the media that allows those voices to prophesize. I think of Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian who is challenging the powers that be. I think of Barbara Boxer, our senator from California, I think of the past President of the UUA and past director of Amnesty International, Dr. Bill Schultz, whose report naming our country one of the worst in human rights abusers in the world has met with a firestorm of protest from the President on down. As Dr. Schultz said on NPR, “I think the President doth protest too much, perhaps there is more truth here than they admit”.

To help justice flow and stem the costs of this war we must begin by unblocking the dams upstream. Its one thing to rescue the victims of our arrogance it’s another to unblock that which holds justice back. Or as William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, put it over a century ago “We can’t just keep picking people up at the bottom of the cliff without climbing up the mountain to see who is throwing them off.” (As quoted in, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis). What are these dams that are holding justice back, not only in the freedoms of our own country, but the very right to life in the world’s poorest countries?

First among them is our failing as a moral country. We have to replace platitudes about religion with the real religion of life. You know we heard all about how the religious right had voted Bush into office on “moral values.” Well we have moral values too! UUs and UCC and most other mainline churches have the moral values which hold that 30,000 children a day dying of hunger is just plain wrong. We have the moral values that say that debt cancellation to the lowest 10% of the world is not only possible but necessary. We have the moral values that hunger and abuse and poverty here or anywhere else for that matter is wrong. We have moral values that say torture – any torture – is wrong. That there is no such thing as just a little bit of torture.

We can begin to live up to our prophetic imperative by proclaiming those moral values in the public square. Not only in good-minded churches binding together, but in YOU speaking out at work and in your community about YOUR moral values. When someone tells you homosexuality is wrong, tell them love is right and then tell them what is really wrong: allowing homelessness to continue, denying aid to Darfur, reforming a tax code that rewards only the wealthy. Whenever we hear a story glorifying this war speak out about its cost. We are the people we have been waiting for.

And when people tell you that this is a time of war and we have to make hard choices, ask them ‘whose war?’ Because the question is not guns or butter, as the commentator Mark Shields put it, but rather caviar and missiles (quoted on Shield and Brooks, Jan. 2003, PBS). Budgets, whether it is the federal government or this church’s budget, are moral documents. It is time to put up a fight for what we truly believe in. It is time to let justice flow with our money.

Only our money will break down the damns beyond our own little worlds. Only money buys us the voice we need to be heard. I would like to believe that citizens alone could turn our world around and they can help but our money will also be necessary. We are always stretching. We are stretching to break through the dams to a new world. The question is why? We are here, as someone a few weeks ago put is so well, to “save lives” — not only the lives of the people who come here but the people who we will never meet who have no Amos in their corner. We and our money have the power to let justice flow again.

Specially, I am asking you to join the UUSC today. Fill out that form, drop a check in it and drop it in the collection basket. I am asking you to help us help justice flow again, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. But I am also asking you this month to make your financial contribution to our annual budget by way of a pledge.

To be of any use to this hurting world – to save the world which is our home – we must broaden our meaning making beyond just what we need. In the words of my colleague, the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, may we be a place “… whose inward focus is on worship and spiritual development and whose outward focus is on bringing the good news of UUism to the larger community through words and deeds.” (UU Congregation of Frederick newsletter, 2005). We can be the deed doers, the makers of a new world, right here and now.

Some would disparage over the world we live in, but take hope and have courage. I always remember the words of Theodore Parker, our great prophet, ‘the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. It is our task to create a better world, even just a little bit of it, to remove those impediments towards the flow of justice again, person to person, hand to hand, arm in arm, help does arrive despite the politicians. Our social action committee, these brave souls are here to help you let justice flow again. Our imperative is to shout it out from the mountain tops and the valleys: “stop this war” and change the world! As Jim Wallis puts it, we must stop being the thermometer that measures the temperature of the world and begin to be the thermostat that turns the heat up and melts the dams of injustice, breaking through with the free flow of justice (in Great Awakening by Jim Wallis).

Join us as we change the world. Give generously to the causes we support. As Wallis said, “Imagine politics being unable to co-opt the (religion) but being held accountable to its moral imperatives. Imagine social movements arising out of spiritual revivals and actually changing the wind of both our culture and politics. Imagine a fulfillment in our time of the words of the prophet Amos’ ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Just imagine.” (ibid, Wallis)


Intelligent Design?

September 4, 2008

I was getting somewhat exasperated. It seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t understand why he held his position. “Look,” I said, “here’s the deal: carbon dating puts Earth at 4 billion years old. That gives us a long time to change, you can just look at certain mammals and see how they got to be that way. How can you say, with a straight face, that God just plopped the whole shebang down in one fell swoop; seven days.” “Six days” he smiled, which made me even crazier, “because that is what The Book says He did”.. “For crying out loud Rick,” my voice raised, “what about the fossils? How did they get there?” “God planted them there to test our faith — if we believed in the Bible over the fossils then we were worthy.” Oy!

Admittedly this was the worst kind of conversation to have with someone of faith. My science was not even in his frame of reference so no one was convincing the other of anything. Intelligent design is actually a complicated and varied field of study. It’s really not so simple as science on one side and biblical creationist (such as Rick believed on the other). Actually creationism, the belief that God created the whole world in 6 days 4,000 years ago is at the far end of a spectrum of possibilities and the one that most of us who believe in evolution think of when we think of Intelligent Design. I really am not going to talk about that extreme position today but the more intriguing middle ground that even some scientists grapple with: Is it possible that there is some intelligence to the progress of evolution or is our place here the result, as Darwin contended, of random selection? I hope my answer will surprise at least of few of you and give you something to think about this summer.

What is evolution? As my colleague Stephen Nodvin writes: “Evolution, or as Darwin called it “descent with modification” is a change in the characteristics of living organisms over generations, including the emergence of new species. The modern theory of evolution includes two critical parts: first, natural genetic variation in offspring and, second, natural selection. Evolution is not magical but rather the outcome of natural processes. Its workings are as logical as gravity.” (Stephen Nodvin, Sermon preached at UU Church of Nassau, NJ, Jan. 2006)

Evolution is technically a theory, but it is a very well supported theory. The part that gets us into trouble is that the universe appears to be so well fine tuned as to suggest a design. Life on planet Earth is even more remarkable given the very limited tolerances we breathing creatures have for temperature and air. While we now know of hundreds of existing planets, it is something short of miracle that ours is the one that supports life. This belief in the uniqueness of earthly life, especially human life, is known as the anthropic principle: the earth and its current conditions were designed for our survival. The only problem with this principle is that it rests on two huge assumptions. The first is that there are only a few hundred planets in our galaxy. There are only a few hundred known planets, the odds of other planets some of them life bearing rise almost daily. And the second assumption is that life can only exist in the narrow carbon form we know. Life at the bottom of the ocean in hot sea vents is proof that even that is too parochial. The anthropic principle is the center part of the theory of Intelligent Design, more broadly, as Stephen Nodvin writes:

“Intelligent design, according to its main proponents, is the concept that “certain features of the universe and of living things exhibit the characteristics of a product resulting from an intelligent cause or agent, as opposed to an unguided process such as natural selection.” These proponents say that intelligent design is a scientific theory that stands on equal footing with, or is superior to, current scientific theories regarding the origin of life.

“Let me give you an example of the thinking of this concept. If I showed you a watch you would almost certainly agree that it did not come into being by chance. Upon inspection, you would see that the parts and pieces of the watch were clearly designed so that when they were put together the hands would move pointing the hours, minutes, and seconds of the day. You would surely agree that the watch, whose parts have such obvious purpose, was designed by someone. That someone, the creator of the watch, would be human. As William Paley said in 1802:

“the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.”

“The quote is at the heart of the Intelligent Design debate. It is the image of the watchmaker, the metaphor being that the watch is so complicated that it is difficult for us to imagine its existence without an “artificer” or “designer.” For creationists like Paley the same argument applied to the human eye, a heart, or a complete organism. Like a watch or telescope, these living things are very complex. So complex that it was hard to imagine their existence without the presence of a “designer.”

“While Intelligent Design proponents insist that their “findings” are new, in fact the argument that the complexity of nature indicates the existence of a purposeful natural or supernatural designer has been debated by philosophers for millennia. The first recorded arguments come from Greek philosophy around 500 years B.C. This teleological argument for the existence of God or a Designer was subsequently dealt with by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas.” (ibid, Nodvin)

The greatest problem with this debate is that both sides rest on tremendous assumptions. While Intelligent Design assumes creation must have a creator, there is much we assume about the evolutionary record as well, such as why so much of what we call life took place in the mere 500,000 years of the Cambrian Explosion. The problem with assuming a specified complexity is that it rests on our need to have a creator because we are ourselves are creative beings. The sheer genius of Darwin’s theory is that changes to life forms can be explained without a first cause, that is without a designer in mind. Evolution, life itself, just happens, it unfolds through environment and random mutations naturally selecting for survival. No designer need apply. That, at least is the official party line. But as Stephan Nodvin writes:

“Darwin’s theory of evolution provides detail on how biological diversity and new species are generated. But it does not tell us the why? Why is it that the physical laws of the universe are such that this wondrous thing called life emerged? Why is it that this amazing process called evolution worked so well to have produced the complex structures, organisms, and diversity that we see on Earth today? What we are talking about is a the mystery of creation that is not testable and therefore does not lie within the realm of science but rather within the realm of faith and philosophy.” (ibid, Nodvin)

As Darwin himself wrote: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

Like Darwin, I am an agnostic about such things. I can clearly reject a grand designer in the universe but can I reject a design?

Not so quickly. I have long believed that we are part of some grander scheme of life. It is not a verifiable belief, but rather an informed intuition. I know that I am here at PUC for a purpose not of my own design, even if I can’t tell you yet what that is. One of you asked me why I was the minister here. My answer, only slightly in jest, “I am on a mission from God.” I just don’t know what the mission is yet, or who the God is that sent me.

Lack of material proof of a designer does not deny the possibility of a design. Is it intelligent? I can’t say. But we are moving, it seems in a direction of greater consciousness; slowly, but we are moving. We know more and appreciate the commonality of being human now more than we did a thousand years ago. We know now that we really are all inter-connected in life with all other living creatures; reclaiming that wonderful wisdom from Native peoples before us.

So while I reject Intelligent Design, I believe that there is a design embedded in our evolution that is becoming intelligent to us. I reject intelligent design as a certainty, but likewise remain skeptical of a random, rudderless evolution as manifest destiny. There are far too many coincidences leading to life and its balance to dismiss out of hand an innate design to the universe. Not necessarily “directed” but encouraged to move forward in a way that is still mysterious to us. This is why, while I believe in evolution, I also believe evolution is taking us somewhere for the betterment of all life and knowledge.

Enchanted randomness perhaps, much like an enchanted agnosticism, begins with the radical premise, I am radical agnostic, I don’t know and you don’t either; but it expands to the possibility, the potential, that we are here to grow into something other than we are. Theology has shifted from a devolution from God to an evolution to God.

There is a name for this theology, process theology. The belief that God, the Holy, the Great Mother, is co-creating with us the universe we dream of. In this sense, I am both a believer in evolution and intelligent design. Evolution as the means to that mysterious potential. It’s theology, not science, that takes the theory of evolution to its intelligent end. Kenneth Miller, a respected and renowned cell biologist at Brown University, and a believer in God put it this way:

“It is often said that a Darwinian universe is one in which the random collisions of particles govern all events and therefore the world is without meaning. I disagree. A world without meaning would be one in which a Deity pulled the string of every human puppet and every material particle as well….All things would move towards the Creator’s clear, distinct and established goals….The common view that religion must tiptoe around the findings of evolutionary biology is simply and plainly wrong”. (Kenneth Miller Finding Darwin’s God, 1999).

Evolution does not exclude meaning or even a design, if we look for those meanings and that sense of design as unfolding in the evolving world around us. As Darwin himself concluded in the Origin of Species: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been and are being evolved.”

Something to think about.

Let Peace Begin

September 4, 2008

Like so many of you, this has been a difficult week. I returned to town last weekend to hear of the terrible shooting at our church in Knoxville, TN. For those of you don’t know, Jim Adkisson, a unemployed truck driver, walked into the church sanctuary, took out a semi-automatic shot gun, and, while a children’s performance of Annie, Jr. was in progress, opened fire. Greg McKendry, a longtime member of the church, threw himself into the path of the shot and deflected two other shots before other members of the church wrestled the shooter to the ground and held him there until the police arrived. Beside Mr. McKendry, Linda Kraeger of the nearby Westshore UU Church also died later; 7 other adults were injured. No children were physically harmed but the psychological trauma of watching death and terror before their eyes will be long lasting. Two church communities have been torn open by this attack. The reasons for the shooting are murky at best. Mr. Adkinsson was a confused and angry man. He was a fan of the “hate media” and blamed the liberals for his problems with employment and food stamps. Ironically, as many have observed, our church in Knoxville was were he could have come for help, as we would have been for any other person marginalized by our society; but instead he chose to blame us instead. As he himself said, he couldn’t get to the liberal leaders who denied him his rights (curious in and of itself), so he would take aim at the liberals who put them there.

I really don’t think there is a ready answer to the why of this. As so many of you shared at our midweek service of prayer and healing, hatred continues to haunt humanity. Mr. Adkisson was both the perpetrator of a heinous crime and a victim of a society, buffeted by the winds of vitriolic rhetoric and readymade cultural wars. Most of all he was a man at war with himself. Perhaps there is no better sermon to preach in the aftermath of this tragedy than a sermon on the beginnings of peace.

Let peace begin. Let peace begin with us. Let us not feel the necessity of placing blame, but, rather, let us reaffirm our commitment to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And in the midst of all of this, our personal and collective lives did go on. Someone has died, people came to be married, babies need love and our children need our assurance. Someone asked me this week whether we would turn the chairs around in our sanctuary, or post guards, or at least be more suspicious. My answer was no to all that. The opposite of love is not hate as much as fear. The opposite of war is peace born out of love. If we were to become institutionally suspicious of the strangers in our midst what would that say about our values of radical inclusiveness? How could we be only caring but not sharing, and certainly not daring?

Universally, this week our brothers and sisters from around the world have responded to this tragedy not with anger (although there is some of that at right wing fundamentalism) but with a renewed call for peace, mostly and importantly, among ourselves first. Reclaiming our sanctuaries as places of welcome and justice. A place where the Jim Adkissons of the world are understood as marginalized by a society grown indifferent and affluent, to the determent of caring for its people. This week the community, faith leaders and government came into the Knoxville church and, at public and private expense, cleaned the church for re-dedication even as I speak. That is the power of love.

And it is that power that I commend to us as our beginning. Let peace begin with each of us. Thicht Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk so influential in my own spiritual work and that of our Peacemaking team, writes, “Every day we do things, we are things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life… our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment, we are alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh

We are “things” that have to do with peace. I have found myself this week, in the midst of my worries and fears, trying to smile and be more courteous almost as if I were a thing, “an instrument of thy peace,” as St. Francis Assisi once wrote. Holding doors longer for anyone, letting some one in a rush go around. Let Peace Begin With Me, as our closing hymn says. A thousand cranes on the water.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people folded cranes as we are doing today and put them on the troubled waters of those bombed out cities. In peace, simple witnesses for peace. You would be surprised how powerful this can be. If not for others, then most of all for yourself. Calm the anger and the fear of Knoxville, which is really only a symbol of our own daily vulnerability to life. Let peace begin.

Let peace begin with this Church. I commend to you the work of our peacemaking team, founded first to study the resolution for peacemaking before our Association next June. But their work, started first by reading Thich Nhat Hanh, is expanding to discuss how we can be a peaceful sanctuary, much like the green sanctuary we are becoming. How can we better deal with disagreements among ourselves? How can we teach peace skills to our children? These and many more issues will be before a panel discussion on August 24th after church. We so often think of peace as something needed out there, but it is more often needed in here.

Let peace begin with our religion. I have not always agreed with our UUA president, but on peace and justice we are of the same mind. There is so much more we can do together than apart, as Bill Sinkford says. I was pleased to see that our denominational response to the violence in Knoxville was not to lash out at the hate media (although this is an issue we hope to address), but to convey love and even forgiveness with courage. And that peace spread to other religions; the outpouring of support from the Knoxville community has been incredible. Members of the community have been inside the church all week long cleaning and repainting it in preparation for a service today. The whole community! My sisters and brothers in faith here in the South Bay have sent me letters and emails expressing their heartfelt prayers for us as we, even here so far away in California, deal with this loss. We are not alone. There is always a possibility for any religious community to atone for its wrongs. Indeed that word, atonement, means to be made whole again with the Holy, at-one-ment. Sadly, as Rebecca Parker, the President of Starr King (our UU seminary in Berkeley), has observed in her work Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, “War became a force that gave life meaning and strength… the “peace” among Christians at the expense of those who would be required to fulfill the role of the enemy: Jew, Muslims and heretics.” Fortunately, we are making progress at bringing peace to some of faith, but not to all. Jim Adkisson was not motivated by a religious group, but by the culture of hate in our society. Our own interfaith group, the South Coast Interfaith Council, on whose Board I serve, is working to dismantle this subtle division that leads to war between people, communities and nations. I am pleased to announce that Mileea Islam-Majeed, an American born, Bangladeshi Muslim woman, has been appointed at the new Executive Director of the Council, replacing the wonderful Rev. Ginny Wagener. I served on her search committee and we purposely sought a non-Christian who was bright and committed to inter-faith understanding. You will meet her soon.

Let peace begin with our communities. On August 17th from 2-5 pm we will co-host, along with the Hindus, an interfaith café here at PUC. A wonderful opportunity to meet people of all faiths. But even beyond that, we partner now with Neighbors for Peace and Justice in San Pedro and Random Lengths News to bring Social Justice Films. We are hoping to build out from here. In fact it was none other than Dwight Eisenhower, a general, a Republican president who once said:

I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Let peace begin in our nation. Call me naïve but I feel a new day coming in this election. We are weary of war and cultural divisions. We sense almost a new holiness, the resurgence of something greater than ourselves. Not universally, but I do believe it is here. Get involved in this time my friends. Days like this will not be long with us. We will end this ugly war; we will close Guantanamo; we will begin to know peace in our time.

Let peace begin in the World. From ourselves to the Church, to our communities, to our nation, to the world. My meditation faces squarely in the psalmist’s words the reality of death and sorrow. But surrendering ourselves to hope we can build again a new world. Death will be with us always, violence, I suppose, as well; but so will love and peace — and peace is not an end but a going, a being, something new. After the Service today I urge you pick up a copy of the proposed “peace pledge” we as a church are asked to sign. It asks us to covenant – that deep and abiding promise so much a part of our heritage – with each other and other groups to work for peace from the inside out: To create a Center for Peacemaking. I urge you to read it and come to the forum before next Sunday’s service where we will talk about this. Many years ago we became a nuclear free zone and planted peace poles in our sacred land here. Nuclear weapons are still a very great threat but perhaps older now we also recognize that people with warring hearts are also a threat.

The answer does not lie in hiding under a desk and hoping it will get better. The answer lies in making the pledge and the promise to work for peace, for change, for action, in courage, even in the face of great danger.

Let me close with one of the many moving stories to come out of the horror of Knoxville last Sunday. One of the men in the church, Jamie Parkey, initially heard some one shout “he has a gun, get down”. As he pushed his mother and daughter under the pew he thought to himself, “Get down? What good is that going to do? He will just keep shooting!” So he stood up and ran for the shooter joining others who tackled him to ground. Stand up! We do face danger everyday. But stand up! Let peace begin with you. Don’t dive under the pew and hope they stop hating. Stand up and with compassion and say, “I am here. It cannot be otherwise. Peace begins with me and spreads outward like an even unsteady ray of light.” And we will change the world. We will.


These are the words of Robert Kennedy on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus (who wrote) ‘in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’ What we need in these United States is not division; what we need in these United States is not hatred; what we need in these United States is not violence; but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult time; we’ve had difficult times in the past, we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness, it is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of people in this country want to live together, want to improve their lives, and want justice for all human beings…Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our people.”

Enter the Greening Temple

September 4, 2008

By Rev. John Morehouse

I don’t know if any of you saw the New York Times this morning but there on page was a full-page ad by the UUA proclaiming our door and our hearts are still open. After the tragic events of two weeks ago in Knoxville, TN, where two people were shot to death and six others wounded during a Sunday morning Service, our collective response has not been one of fear and reprisal but one of compassion and recommitment to our values of inclusion and justice. Our doors and our hearts are still open and will remain so for all those seeking comfort and help.

So it is no less fitting today that we speak of the necessity to see our Church, indeed our planet, as a temple whose doors are still open. Because we stand for life and love. We stand ready, still, in spite of it all, to promote the fair use of our resources – be they material or human. We have work to do, but it is good work. And there is a connection between the care of the planet – our greening temple – and creating a world that helps all the marginalized find peace.

First, I want to speak to the theological reasons of why it is so important for us to take a stand on the environment. I want to invite us into the dream of what a greening temple our Earth could become again. Our conquest and subjugation of this land and its peoples was fueled not only by our European greed but by a mis-reading of the Bible. We were influenced by the duality of how we look at the world, going all the way back to ancient Greeks; there is an essential difference between us as thinking beings and the material world we act on. Even our bodies are something we own to abuse or fix. Our white immigrant ancestors laid plunder to the land based on the line in Genesis 1:28 “fill the Earth and subdue it” that one word “subdue” implies a freedom to do as we will, but other translations imply a different injunction: many Catholic versions order humanity to “work the Earth,” “steward the Earth,” “bring creation to the Earth.” Running rough shod over the Earth was not the idea. No, we are asked to steward the Earth and in order to do so I ask you to consider the following: In 1979 a chemist by the name of James Lovelock and a microbiologist by the name of Lynn Marulis came up with something they called the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ which claims that all the Earth taken together, ‘her atmosphere, her soil, plants, animals and people form one complex and interconnected life system.’ Sound familiar? It should, it’s our 7th principle as a Unitarian Universalists: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

If the Gaia hypothesis is correct, then we haven’t been treating ourselves very well at all. In fact, humanity is like a cancer on the body of the Earth. And like cancer cells in our own body we will either fight back or be destroyed. What I am suggesting is that, like our 7th principle, we actually may be living in the body of a divine organism in which we are only one part. In a daily sense we are conditioned to believe that the Earth is something apart from us, but ponder how small minded that might be. Looking out over the ocean the world looks flat until you see a ship coming over the horizon and realize we are on a very large blue globe.

Centuries of patriarchy – believing our role was to subdue the Earth and own it – has led to not only the demonization of the Earth (ever wonder why Hell is down there) but has led to more destructive trends such as the demonization of women, who like the Earth, bear life. Mother Earth, up until the last 4,000 years was the goddess of life and worship. The sky god of Genesis subdued her and her chaos, and made the male ascendant in theology and culture. In the book of Genesis, Eve is portrayed as temptation, sin, the fallen siren of evil who takes the fruit of the Earth from that most Earthly of creatures, the snake, and forever dooms humanity. Even for us, as religious liberals, the Earth is really not holy. Think of land ownership. Here in Southern California we think about it a lot. That little piece of Earth you “own” is part of a substantial worth to our heirs. This church property which we believe we “own” is worth, what, $8 million? But what do we own? Perhaps we really don’t own anything in life. At least nothing you take with you. Eminent domain, earthquakes, mudslides, nuclear bombs; what of the Earth do you really own?

And isn’t that the point? We were, even in the biblical account, appointed stewards of the land, not owners. We were asked to take care of it for the future of life. And when we stop sentimentalizing nature and realize that we are the ones who are owned by the Earth, we can truly enter the greening temple. Nature takes life as well much as she gives it to us, she has no pretense of consciousness, no attachment to any of us, and yet we are partners. This temple not only shelters us but inspire us to change. What Yeats called, “the sublime movement of all that we see”.

And it is change that is calling to us. That is what global warming is waking us up to. It is up to us, as thinking and creating beings on Mother Earth, to change. As Aristotle observed, “reason is creative” (not just if “a” then “b,” but if “a” then create “c”).

Until recently I used to think that the environmental movement was somehow disconnected with the larger issues of justice. That the environmental movement was a culture of exclusion that wanted to protect the planet at the cost of others using it, or perhaps even, as in the logging states, at the cost of jobs. Now I see that line of argument as brain washing by those who seek to divide and conquer us. We need to throw open the doors of our greening temple for all. Taking care of the planet is what is going to help bring justice, living wages and real security to those who need. As Van Jones, an activist in Oakland who spoke to our General Assembly in June said, “one good thing about green collar jobs is they can’t be outsourced. If you want to weatherize your building, you can’t ship it to India, if you want to build wind farms, it’s wind blowing in the U.S. that is harvested.” (Quoted in The Sun, interview with Van Jones, March 2008) So working for justice requires making our energy more sustainable, perhaps in ways that we wouldn’t think of. Van Jones challenges the mostly white environmental movement: “A lot of wealthy educated people wanted to take action after Al Gore’s movie (An Inconvenient Truth), but most low income people of color I know had no interest in seeing (the movie) in the first place. They already have enough problems. They don’t need a new crisis to worry about….poor people need to hear about opportunities (ibid, Jones).

They need to hear about opportunities. Talking about saving the planet is not going to save the planet. Becoming white allies of people of color and creating opportunities in green ways will necessarily connect the two and open our green doors to everyone. Our Board president, Ed Slizewski, and I have been talking about a fascinating idea from General Assembly. What if PUC were to become a micro lender, for business projects that gave green jobs to poor people? What if we used our significant investments to invest right here in the businesses focused on Green outcomes in the South Bay? Small loans would necessarily be geared to people in need. What if?

How are we to live up to the promise of that ad in the New York Times? Our doors and our hearts are still open. The doors and hearts to our greening temple of change.

We are working towards becoming a Green Sanctuary church and we are going to the trouble of fitting our values to our actions. We can enter and live within this greening temple, starting right here at PUC. We can remember, as Chief Seattle once said, ‘that the Earth does not belong to us we belong to the Earth”. And once we recognize that even an inner city garden plot is part of this greening temple, our minds will be open to seeing the connection between honoring the Earth and honoring those of us who live within its embrace. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves studied 186 cultures that exist in warm and beautiful climates and found that, with the exception of Southern California, all of them have matriarchal values of nurturance and acceptance. The harsher the climate the more competitive the culture. The lower the latitude the better the attitude. We would do well to see the connection between the Earth and our culture. Are we only standing on the roof of this greening temple trying to get inside? The door actually may be our humility; the belief that we are only, as the 7th principle reminds us, a part of the web. Humility, humbling, humus. It’s more than recycling. Recycling won’t save the planet. But an ethic of care to what we do with our waste and how we treat other people, humility that we are only visitors here might actually save the world.

Truly becoming a green sanctuary means extending our resources out into the world to bring about a change in the society towards green. Entering a greening temple is more than just recycling and changing our light bulbs (of course we do both), its about creating green jobs directly or indirectly in our communities and the world. A kind deed, a voice in the wilderness, the light we shed is never wasted. We have the power not only in our humility but in our creative ability to change the world. No truth in this vast swirling universe is sealed. It’s always open to the power of creation. It is the reason why we are here and why we teach our children to imagine a better world. It’s the theology of the Earth and our creative abilities to honor and grow with this Earth that makes us truly human. Human, humus. As God spoke to Moses “Remove thy sandals from thy feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Enter this holy ground with us, enter the greening temple, and change the world, ourselves, and our neighbors.

Blessed be!