writings


prayer from April 18 service, as requested:

May we get out of our own way today;
may we see where we are needed
know where we are planted
and go there
and go there and go there
deep into the heart of the bramble and the thicket
into the unknown and the uncharted;
may our passions take us
where no one has gone before
because somebody has to;
may our overwhelming love and curiosity
bring us tears of surprise and joy and laughter
and sorrow
yes, sorrow,
when it is needed.
May we know our own needs
so that we can meet them
so that we are humbled by our need
and by the abundance of this fine universe
and of our friends
and of strangers
so that we may know how many prayers are answered
how many miracles are before us
each day
every day
and trust that if we work and play and live
deeply as exactly who we are
we will emerge whole, not unscathed,
but more beautiful for the wrinkles and lines and scars
that have shaped us.
May we know that we are blessed
may we know that we are powerful
may we know that we are loved.

amen.

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Triumph Takes a Village
Ellsworth, Maine
March 28 homily part III

Let’s bring everyone in
it takes a village and this is
palm Sunday
that Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem,
triumphant,
on the back of a donkey,
before it all fell apart, and then
came back together
in one short week.

we are all villagers
and we share this experience
of adversity, of triumph and fall,
and resurrection
it is part of the human experience
it is part of how we became human, the grief,
and the story of re-emergence is the story of our triumph

what makes it work,
what makes humanity work,
what makes this talon-and-fang-less existence work is our brains,
but not the way we think.
what makes it work is the village, the collective, the connections, the cooperation.

What makes it work
is that not only does it take a village
but we are capable of being that village.

When I do the new members class,
what comes up over and over
is that we don’t want to leave people out.
We know that what we want most is for everyone to be included,
and the very hardest times are when what is best for the group
is not including some individuals.

We tread frighteningly close to Machiavelli–
with whom getting the right results justifies any method you use to get them.

We won’t do just anything,
but as is often the case we are caught between fantasy and reality,
between what-would-be-nice
and what-actually-is.

It would have been nice if Congress could have been a bit more cooperative about health care reform.

But they weren’t.

We don’t have a national history of cooperation around civil rights. We’ve gone to war over it. We’ve dragged out dogs and fire hoses. We’ve made death threats.
Apparently we’re still making death threats.

Drawing boundaries–
saying that death threats are not acceptable,
that hate speech is beneath us,
that we expect everyone to meet basic standards of decency–
is not violence.

It’s not wrong.
And it makes the circle meaningful. It means that we have made some effort to be safer inside the village than outside. It means that we have created a place of welcome, of nurturing, of hope.

And now we want to share it. now we want to draw everyone in. Everyone who wants to be here and who will honor the space we have worked so hard to create is welcome. Our hope is that everyone will want to. Our dream is that our village will expand to hold the world, that our lives will become compelling examples of what can be when our values of respect and cooperation and transformation are widely held.
It takes a village. It takes a village to make a village, to keep it safe, to welcome and honor guests, to keep the circle strong, to share the love.

Our stewardship campaign is beginning. We are preparing for our future by raising the money we need to be in the world. There are some churches, some places, some institutions that rely heavily on one or two major donors. Everyone else can skate on their coattails, participate a little, but not worry too much about giving. Someone else has it covered. Someone else will take care of it.

That’s not how we do things around here. That’s not the Maine way. Whether we were born here or not, we’ve all got a bit of Maine about us–we’ve chosen to make this place home. And around here, everyone has to pull their weight. No one can survive around here long without kicking in. We carry stuff, we check on each other, we show up with food, we pull each other out of ditches. Just last weekend our own Zoe Weil got some homemade roadside assistance when three people offered to help after her car broke down. And I know that Zoe will stop for someone, or call someone, or get a door or watch a pet for someone.

We are a village, and we live in villages, so we understand villages around here. No one expects someone else to just take care of it. We and our forebears built this community, we’ve raised this building, we’ve connected with each other, we’re doing good things in a good place, and we’re going to take good care of it: the building, the community, each other, and our future: the babies like Katie and Charlie, the children, the youth, and the people who haven’t gotten here yet because we haven’t found them and told them how much they’ll get from being here. We value what we’ve done, and we value where we’re going.

We have a long history of adversity and and equally long history of triumph: We opened our doors in 1835 but had to close them again due to financial difficulties. We recommenced in 1865, with somewhat more success. There were several times when the congregation was in dire financial straits but we recovered, and survived. In 1971 we moved from High Street to this location with a small congregation and a very part-time minister, and we began rebuilding again. Our presence–this presence here–is our living triumph. As we continue to strengthen, to interconnect, to draw people into our loving and beautiful village, we are offered by our very vision an historic challenge: we are changing our relationship with money. Rather than being controlled by it, we meet it on equal ground. It is not our adversary nor our benefactor–money is our partner. We are an abundant and robust financial community–a place where we have enough and give generously. Our congregational charitable giving this year has met our goal. Thanks to the generosity of the congregation and the dedicated leadership of past Stewardship chairs–most recently Evelyn Foster and Kay Wilkins–we have steadily increased our support for this congregation, this village. The more we do here, the more we know we can do, the more we know we are needed, the more we are connected, the stronger and more vibrant we are, the more people are welcomed in, the bigger the circle grows. We love one another here, and that love makes us strong. It makes us powerful. And it makes us generous. Love opens us up and challenges us and calls to us.

I found out this morning that my dear friend Darby has multiple sclerosis. She lives in Portland, Oregon. She has three kids, whom she has mostly raised on her own. The twins are somewhere around ten or eleven. Her daughter is older. She has a serious and dedicated girlfriend, and she has a loving community gathered around her. It’s not that she doesn’t have people. But when I found out, when I read her note on Facebook–because she couldn’t bear to tell the story over and over–I immediately wanted to do something. I don’t know what I can do. I have to trust her to tell me. She will tell me. She knows well that I can’t read her mind. But my love for her raises up a fierce wanting, an almost desperate wanting to .do. something–fly out there, wrap my arms around her, go for a long walk and listen, listen, listen. Meanwhile, I wrote her a reply. Meanwhile I told her I love her. Meanwhile I am here, and she knows that I am here.

And you know the other thing I wished for her? I wished she had a church. I wished that with every bone of my body. Because we are the places where people go to be connected, to be lifted up, to be in quiet prayer, to sing and dance and drum out the stuff of our lives, to sit in intimate circles and share, and to be stronger, to be wiser, to be more able to be our very best in the world because of all of the ways we are fed here.

We are drumming and making music and having discussions and hosting workshops. We are renting and sharing our space with violins and nursery school and twelve-step groups. We are having parties and sharing food and loving each others’ company. We are sitting in touchstone circles and informal groups and long-standing small groups, and we are holding each other and we are planning and plotting and we are growing our circle. We have so much. We are so much. We have a whole community: babies and old people and parents and people in love and people in grief and farmers and fishermen and retirees and teachers and social workers and librarians–we are a village. It takes a village, change starts with a village, a better world starts with a village, and we are that village. We are already that village. Let’s bring everyone in. A dollar a day will do it, a dollar a day more from each of us will get every person inside the circle. Save it or earn it, maybe you can do an extra something on the side, even just once, your own personal fundraising project for the church, so we can bring everyone into this circle, because we have such a gift, such a blessing here, It takes a village, and we are that village. We can do it. We are doing it. Let’s bring everyone in.

I’m trying something new: posting my sermons here on this blog, so I can manage them myself. I’ll be posting the ones I think are worth publishing, starting this week and working backwards.
–Leela

Easter 2010
Ellsworth, Maine
Born Again

…and on the third day he was risen. In the Christian story, today is the day of transformation. Today is the day that Jesus proves his divinity beyond the capacity even of doubting Thomas and rises again. On Friday he was crucified, and on Sunday, a new day was born. Even the Catholic church acknowledges some allegory, some mythology, some flexibility of details. Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a fixed calendar date, it’s a moving target, always a Sunday, always. It reminds us that we did not always number time as we do now, that once we counted seven days after the first full moon or two months after the longest night of the year, that the seventeenth of October is in fact not more precise but more approximate, if the heavens are our guide. It reminds us that there are larger forces than ours, that we have impact but we are not the only forces acting in this world. And it reminds us to examine the inexplicable, to embrace the impossible, to assume that some rhyme exists, that some reason holds sway, even if we do not understand it.

It assures us that we come from something larger. We die into something larger. We do both over and over throughout even a single lifetime. We love, we die, we birth, we die, we lose, we start over and over and over. Love’s recovery is not just a pop song, it’s a leitmotif for life, it gives us our marching orders–because the world will break our hearts and we have to keep going. We have to keep giving. We have to keep loving and playing and bringing the joy, bringing the celebration, bringing the hope.

But if we resist, if we push back, if we don’t step into the fire, we can’t come through it. We can’t get out of it. Grief is not something we can go around. Pain is not something we can avoid. Pat Humphries of Emma’s Revolution sings, “Baptism of fire/ never knew what that meant but now the flames are rising higher/guess I haven’t seen anything yet…the only way out is through.” The only way out is through. And we are tempered by the fire, strengthened by it, brought closer together, chaff burnt off. Everything that remains is that which can survive and thrive. We cannot resist forever.

We dare not resist. The tidewaters of rage and anger and fear, the tidewaters of soul-rending grief cannot be dammed up indefinitely–the dike will spring a leak, and a trickle will become a flood, and the low country will be flooded from the high grounds all the way to the sea.

And so we surrender. We give in, we let go, we look for the toehold we need to go before the goddess and find the gratitude in the ache, to find the beauty in the crystal shattered on the stone. We fling our hands wide and cry to the skies and let pain become the wave, the current that comes in, the rising waters that lift all boats, ours among them,
and we become one among many and we are no longer alone.

We, too, are risen.

but who are we now?
Because there is no way you can be beaten and betrayed, rejected, abandoned, stripped and bled and broken, and come back the same person you were. You are not the one you used to be. But you are someone, because here you stand, in a body with these hands and arms and legs, with these eyes and this tongue. You are only one, yet you are one, And you cannot, as Helen Keller says, refuse to do the thing you can do. But in this new life, this phoenix-after-the-rising, what is that thing?

Rebirth is powerful stuff: the renaissance is called that for a reason–re-naissance, re- for again, naissance, for birth. Europe was a whole new place. It was probably inexplicably unsettling to those who lived it, but with history’s long view we can see how extraordinary a reconstruction it was.

Our own rebirths are just as radical. They move us, pick us up and toss us back on the beach but a thousand miles from where we started.

Seminary tends to bring out some strange tendencies in people. One of the things almost all of us do or have done is we get really curious about personality tests and take a lot of them. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, the Kiersey-Bates, and so on. Each of these sorts people into groups based on the things we do or don’t do, like or don’t like, feel or don’t feel. Then they tell us what we already know about ourselves–but the last part is that they make recommendations about how we can bring out our best. But they all depend on self-reporting, which is dicey if you’re in the middle of some major life changes. What used to be true may no longer be so, and the people around you might know you better than you know yourself. After a while I started taking them in consultation with a friend or two, so they could tell me what I did not yet know about myself.

Seminary is a crucible. It is intense, elective rebirth. Like boot camp, like medical school, like gender transition, you go in a person, you come out someone essentially yourself and yet entirely different. It does feel like dying.

Now by the time we feel like we’re dying it might be there’s nothing worth preserving. But in the resurfacing there are these moments when we remember, hey, I used to do this. Hey, I used to be that. Hey, what happened? I liked that about me. Where did it go? How much am I willing to sacrifice, now that I’ve already sacrificed everything?

Choosing rebirth itself, as in Hinduism, can be a sacrifice. It means the transformation and then it means not resting, even if you’ve earned it. It means going back into the world, going to do the work that still needs doing, going to be the person that still needs being. Vishnu came to earth as Krishna to serve as a charioteer for Arjuna the prince in a great and terrible battle, because it needed to be done, because the world needed him. The Bhadgavad-Gita is the instruction he gave to Arjuna, and is widely considered a good of Hindu theology. The sacrifice of rebirth is continuing to have dirty hands and sweaty brow, continuing to engage with an imperfect world. The joy of rebirth is in being here, in discovering our gifts and talents.

The question of what we are willing to sacrifice changes shape; when we die midstride, that which survives is our essence, our core, the irrefutable center of our being. We ask the question: what of my old self is divine? That is all we keep. Everything else is gone.
That’s a profound loss. All the habits, contexts, securities, gone. All the old familiar illness, gone. All the comfort, gone. And in the midst of all the triumph, celebration, excitement, it can be obscured. The times of grief and quiet and absorbing the transition lose their standing in the wash of joy from everyone else.

Imagine you’re Jesus. Imagine you were crucified. Beaten, tortured, dead.

And then imagine you were reborn, healed so you could go back to saving the world. The first day or two is pretty good. Your closest friends and associates are astonished and amazed and profoundly glad that you’re among the living again, even if their own grief makes them skepical. But you get a little further into your new life, say a week. Last week you were about to be crucified, this week you’re back on your feet, walking, teaching, into your routine. You’re still a little skittish about kisses. And guards and hills. Every time you see a thorny shrub it makes your head hurt a little. And don’t even talk to you about spears. But everyone wants you to be normal, the Jesus they used to know. There’s not a lot of time for you to go stare at the place where you died or touch the places on your own hands where the nails were. You’re not supposed to cry or rage or process with Peter, or try to find Judas’ body so you can bury it before the vultures shred it. And who do you talk to about the sorrow of loss, that you’ve lost yourself? Do you go to Mary Magdalene and explain how hard it is to be so different from everyone else so she can nod and say she understands? She’s so glad to have you back–they all are. How can you ask her to understand your grief when she’s already had her own?

Rebirth is not unmitigated joy. It is bittersweet. But it’s real. It is possibly the most real thing any of us will ever do. When we are born for the first time, we experience it without understanding. By the time we encounter even the possibility of doing it again, we have known not just triumph, not just Palm Sunday, but despair.

Our forbears, some of them, were Anabaptists. They had adult baptism only, because they believed that each person had to consciously choose to enter the church. Many traditions now have multi-part processes; Catholics have baptism, first communion, confirmation. We have dedication, coming of age, membership, and bridging. These allow for an adult choice, th moment to deliberately enter into the process of renewal and transformation.

Each person must choose. The choice gives us a sense of power, of agency, of bigness in a very big universe.

The profoundest part of the crucifixion narrative is that Jesus did not choose without reservation. He prayed at Gesthamene that the bitter cup might pass from him. His experience of separation from everything and everyone is so profound that he calls out to the god that he himself incarnates, and asks, “why hast thou forsaken me?”

Why have I abandoned myself?

What sense of loss is greater than this,
and what is more necessary?

How can a human-merely-being become Cummings’ unimaginable You (because that’s what’s happening—a human is being transformed into a god) without first being lost to everything and everyone, including–most importantly–himself?

As long as we cling to what we were, we cannot become who we are.

Jesus Christ–christos, the anointed one–is risen. Until the moment of reappearance, though, no one knows. He is just another disappointment, vanquished. The bad guys have won. Until today. Until this morning. Until the day that changes everything.

I watched a TED talk last week. These are 20 minute speeches given by people with big ideas who have won grants from TED, a “small nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading”. The best ones get put online. The one I watched was of Kevin Bales speaking about modern slavery and how to go about eliminating it. He says that since the 1600’s the price of a person in today’s money has dropped from about 40,000 to about 90 dollars. Enslaved people–people are no longer even a capital investments. People are less expensive than cars. They have become disposable, like coffee cups. Children are slaving in quarries. Adults are being beaten to death in agriculture. One of my colleagues is witnessing to and fighting slavery right here in Florida. There are 27 million people forced to work without pay under a threat of violence and cannot walk away. Only Iceland and Greenland are entirely slavery-free. Every other country seems to have slavery in active operation. Anyplace that has legal corruption, anyplace where people can get away with being violent, the vulnerable can be enslaved.

Bales was in Nepal, working to free people, and the owners and slave traders were menacing them. He was scared. And he said to a woman there, “Are you upset?” And she said, “No.” She said, “People like you come from the other side of the world to stand with us, and so we have hope. How can we not have hope? How could we not succeed?”

And that’s what the story says that the divine Jesus did, he came, god as man, to stand with humans, to be in solidarity with humans in suffering, carrying the possibility of success and bringing hope.

Not just once, but twice. Born and reborn, divine on earth, like Krishna, come to teach and transform and be with us.

Now here’s the miracle of Unitarian Universalism: We all have that of god within us. Every birth brings the presence of the divine into the world. And in our struggles, in our heartache, in our pain, we die and we could let the divine slip away. We could become embittered and disconnected and lose sight of the sacred within us, and of our sacred responsibility to the world. We could stop and get mired in the hurt. But we don’t. We in this faith rely on our people, our religion, our practice, our community, on our people, to bring us back from the dead with our hearts again made whole. Mended hearts. Healing hearts. Duct-taped hearts if necessary. Whatever it takes to keep us in the world as deeply caring, fiercely good people. That is what we do here. That is what this faith does. That is our miracle of Easter.

Happy Easter.
He is risen.
We are risen.
Amen.

For our Easter service this week I wrote a piece of speculative fiction. I am writing into the tradition of Jesus Christ Superstar and Real Live Preacher‘s Dramatized Versions and mean absolutely no disrespect.

Mark 16 (New International Version)
The Resurrection
1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6″Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Dear Diary,

It’s been a week. No, ten days. Remind me again why I did this? I could have stayed a nice, quiet carpenter, son of a carpenter. But no, I was curious. I didn’t believe what my people believed. So I had to go stir the pot, make trouble, tell people what I was thinking. I never thought it would come to that, much less this. You know that sinking feeling you get in your belly when you realize something is not going to be easy or simple? I should have paid attention. Crucifixion ought to be forbidden. There is nothing that can justify that much pain.

And now, odd as it seems, I’m back. It’s been good to see everyone again. I didn’t miss them–how could I? I was dead. But they missed me, and it’s pretty incredible to see them so happy. On the other hand, I have to wonder what happens now. The shock has worn off, the joy is softer, and it’s mostly like I was never gone. Now I go places and it’s heal this, save me from that, cast out the other thing. They seem to have lost all their independence, forgotten everything I taught them before I died. They expect me to be their leader like before, but it’s just not the same. I was dead. Dead–gone, vanished, not of this world. It changed me. The whole week changed me. I let people kiss me but I don’t really like it. I’m nervous around guards and spears and people in general, and this ability to vanish and reappear whenever and wherever I need to is still new. I feel different. I feel separate. I’m not the person I once was. I miss it–just eating and talking and joking as if it’s all going to be okay. It could end at any moment. What if your next sentence is your last? Now I’m a walking miracle. People don’t treat me like a regular person anymore. I have to reconnect all over again. It’s hard. And it’s lonely. I have to have answers, I have to be perfect. I can’t be their friend like before. We’re not the same anymore. They weren’t there with me; they don’t know. they can’t know. I don’t want them to ever go through anything like it. But I’ve changed. Things are never going to be the same, and I can’t explain that.

Do I have a choice about this?

Never mind, we already had that conversation. I just miss having friends. You’d think being a god would make things easy.

–Jesus

As often happens, I hunted and hunted for a tell-able version of this myth before writing my own for use in Sunday service. Research tells me that the details have flexed over time in true folk traditional style, so I have made my own choices about what from which versions to keep and what to leave out. Tradition says, for example, that there were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 pomegranate seeds–I suggest you pick a number that corresponds to the length of your winter.

The original title for this is “The Rape of Persephone”. Modern retellings often take “The Abduction of Persephone” as their name instead. For audiences with very young children, like mine, I prefer simply “Persephone’s Tale”.

Please do not reprint without permission, but feel free to tell it (out loud) with attribution. Enjoy!

Once upon a time a long time ago in the land of Greece there was a god named Zeus and a goddess named Demeter. keep reading