Category Archives: Neighboring Faiths

We Are Not Better

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Our 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the Neighboring Faiths class took a trip two weeks ago to a very large, very vibrant, black Baptist church in Boston; a church with which I have a long relationship. I spent some time processing the event with them after church last Sunday. It was great fun.

The class began with the kids talking about their experience. The service made them feel uncomfortable, especially at first. As the only white people in the room, they felt exposed and different. Not only did their physical appearance make them stick out in the room, but they felt self-conscious and awkward as they compared their reserved behavior in the pews to that of the worshippers around them. “There was a lot of clapping and hands in the air and yelling.” “It was so loud! And so long.” “People were dancing around and crying. It was weird.” “They think Jesus solves everything.” The other kids giggled.

“Stop. Here’s what I want you to know,” I said, probably a little too forcefully. “We–our church–we are not better. I’m going to say that again. We are not better. Our faith tradition is not better. If there is one thing I want you to learn in this class…one thing I worry that we don’t teach well in our churches…one thing I worry that NO CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA teaches well or at all…We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution. Our worship style doesn’t make us better, our theology doesn’t make us better, our history doesn’t make us better, our lack of a need for Jesus doesn’t make us better. We have different ways of doing things based on the circumstances we have found ourselves in. We have different ways of understanding God based on the privileges we hold, or don’t. We have different ways of knowing and feeling and acting. But we are not better.”

The kids looked at me a little stunned, like “Whoa, there, settle down, buddy. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?” Then they continued talking about the experience at the church they visited, with far more admiration and appreciation than they began with. We talked about how important Jesus might be to some people. We talked about why the idea that Jesus triumphed in the end despite persecution might be a deeply held and beautiful belief to those who live with cultural persecution every day. We talked about the desire to worship a God who used prophetic people to free slaves…to lead slaves out of bondage. We imagined why that kind of God might make us cry, or dance, or shout for joy. Our youth slowly took their armor of skepticism off and admitted that they loved being in that two hour long service. “The music was SO GOOD.” “The people were CRYING and hugging each other!” “I think they really healed that man. I believe he was healed.” “We felt so welcome.” “There was so much spirit there.” “I felt the energy.” They talked about the things we held in common with the church members there, like the beautiful baby dedication they witnessed, and the doxology after the offering. They found beauty in the abandon with which people approached worship. “The people that worship there didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of them while they were in that building! I wish I could be like that at school,” they said.

We are not unlike our youth. I know I’m not. We spend a lot of time “church shopping” for the church that makes us feel most comfortable, most known, most un-offended, most alive. And we care deeply about the values and the theology our church claims. This is good and noble and understandable. But we are not better, and we need to tell ourselves this. We need that humility. When we see every other neighboring faith through our own lenses, we start to lose our ability to look for understanding; to access genuine curiosity. We lose our empathy, and a little bit of our humanity. We fail to live faithfully.

Sometimes our UU churches, just like every other church I have encountered, have a tendency to hold up our unique way of doing religion as superior, and more evolved. To that I say “nonsense.” We don’t go to church to attend a pep rally for Unitarian Universalism. We go to church to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And then we go again next week, because we need that reminder as much as we can get it. We are not the best, nor are we the center of the universe. And thank God for that. We are a flawed community of people just like all the rest. In fact, this is the heart of our saving message. We are more alike than we are different; connected in our sins, our suffering, and in our capacity for good. We are all just trying to get through this life as unscathed as possible, with as much opportunity to feel as possible.

Let’s all try to live that truth and love with more abandon, and a little more humility. Our souls deserve to have their armor removed, and so does the soul of our world.

Amen.

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Destroying Hells

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SERMON “Destroying Hells” (preached in Brookline, MA, October 2011) by Rev. Robin Bartlett

In October 2010, our neighbors in Boston experienced one of the most heinous massacres in Boston’s history. In Mattapan, four people were shot and killed, including a mother and her two year old boy in her arms. The victims were then dragged out into the street, naked, where they were left lying for their neighbors to see. The incident, it is reported, was likely the result of gang and/or drug violence. There have been numerous murders—too many to mention—in Boston for the past few years…some of the bloodiest in recent memory.

Most of the murders have taken place in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Many have taken place in my neighborhood. The victims have been primarily youth and young adults of color. These incidents are reminders that evil exists in our world—in our backyards—…that people can callously take human lives as if they were meaningless, and throw them out on the street like trash. Like waste. Splayed out naked in our streets. Surely that is the very definition of evil—a callousness—a disdain for human life—that causes the degradation of bodies; of souls.

Evil is one of those things that we just sort of know when we see it, right? The kind of callousness that would lead someone to shoot a toddler in cold blood…that is evil. The kind of callousness it takes to murder 6 million Jews in the holocaust…that is evil. The kind of callousness that would cause someone to fly planes into buildings of working civilians. That is evil.

Yes, these events are our proof that evil exists in the world, no matter how optimistic we are—no matter how convinced we are in inherent worth and dignity of all human beings–no matter how strong our Unitarian “onward and upward” theology of the perfectability of the human spirit—no matter how sure we are of the Love that holds us all—no matter how fervently we hold fast to the belief that this love can conquer anything.

The fact is, we don’t see evidence of this love conquering all evil. As A. Powell Davies points out, “evil in human life is not a fiction, it is a very somber fact. Evil happens every day.” Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Sometimes, in our cleverness, we try to persuade ourselves that what we call evil is not real . . . but is only a condition of not enough goodness, even as ‘cold’ means ‘not enough heat,’ or darkness is a name we give to the absence of light.”

So though we believe in goodness, we know that there is not enough of it, and somewhere deep down we know that evil is real. And when things like this tragedy in Mattapan happen, we maybe think a lot about what might cause someone to shoot a 2 year old in cold blood, and we psychologize and we sociologize and we theologize. Some of us call the perpetrators “evil” or at least the crime itself “evil”, because we are sure that this kind of crime is the opposite of good, and that therefore, these kinds of people are the opposite of good. And, if we’re being honest we might admit that incidents like this help us to also do a little comparison that bolsters our own goodness; our own righteousness. We say to ourselves, “Well, I am not that. I am not them.” If evil is set up in direct opposition to good, witnessing this kind of tragedy is a way to feel like we are good. We are in opposition to that kind of killing; that kind of disdain for human life. We are not that. We are, therefore, good.

The thing is, we cannot separate ourselves from any of these incidents of human sin and evil, from the genocide in Rwanda to the predatory lending on Wall St. And we can’t separate ourselves from the murder in Mattapan. Sure, the surface-level message for someone like me after the murders was, “don’t worry, your kids are safe. These people aren’t like you. They are poor. They do drugs. They are involved in gangs. They are not like you. They are not like you.” It did feel oddly safe in my little car, driving down Blue Hill Ave through Mattapan on my way from Jamaica Plain to Milton, passing the site of the murders—so many murders—every day. My privilege allowed me to put on blinders like the kind they give to easily distracted horses so that I might ignore the carnage.

But the thing is, I am—we are all–part of this human collective. We are each other’s neighbors, both physical and spiritual.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, a lawyer pointedly asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer knew when he asked that the definition of the word literally meant “one who is near”, and therefore typically meant “a fellow Jew”. In other words, he wanted the answer from Jesus to be “someone like him.” Someone like me.

Worship services on Sunday mornings in our suburban Boston UU churches reflect the lawyer’s sentiment, don’t they? When I ask people what they appreciate about church, they often say that it is a place where they can find other “like-minded people.” This always strikes me as strange for the denomination that desires explicitly to be theologically diverse. The subtext is “I want to be worshipping with people from my culture”. White liberals. NPR listeners. White collar workers. The rich. People with college degrees. People who are quiet in worship. People who appreciate a good pipe organ. People who make me feel safe. As Jesus reminds us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, this safety is an illusion. And all of humanity includes our neighbors—the robber, the priest, the Samaritan, the murderer and the murdered, the poor, the rich, the Muslim, the Jew.

And because we are all neighbors, intimately connected, we all participate in the evil of the world. Those of us in the dominant culture benefit from the system of evil that helped perpetuate this crime in Mattapan—and others like it–against our neighbors—the cycle of poverty and violence born out of economic and racial injustice. We actively participate in this system of evil by using our privilege to ignore it; by not claiming our place within it. By speeding down Blue Hill Avenue as the priests and Levites did in the story of the Good Samaritan, ignoring the broken, naked bodies in the road. “They are not like me. They are not like me. They are not me.” We divorce ourselves from evil because we live so separately from one another. But because we remain separate, we each participate in this murder of bodies; of souls. Just as our salvation is wrapped up in one another’s, so are our sins.

And therefore, we have a job to do! As liberal religionists, as members of the human race…we have a job to do. And it is an urgent one. Henry Clay Ledyard said that “The mission of the Universalist church has been a double one, first to contravert the one-time prevalent idea of an endless hell. This part of the mission has practically been accomplished. . . But the second and more important one awaits fulfillment . . . a fight which shall continue until the real, actual hells, before our very eyes, are destroyed.”

Our job, my friends, is to destroy hells. The hells that we encounter here on earth, before our eyes. The first step is to admit that we participate in a system of evil, and the second step is to admit that we need one another to fight.
And we destroy hells together by humbly getting out of our comfort zones. You know, those comfort zones where we separate by category—we separate into people who “think like us” and “look like us” and “act like us”. These comfort zones keep us in our separate neighborhoods; our separate political parties; our separate races; our separate churches, synagogues and mosques. These comfort zones implore us to define ourselves by difference—young, old, Republican, Democrat, Black, White, gay, straight, rich, poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist.

When the Mattapan murders occurred, my friend Matt invited me and my church’s youth and their adult mentors to come to Morning Star Baptist church in Mattapan–a large and influential African American church where Matt is a youth minister–for a peace vigil on a Friday night. Family members of the victims are congregants at Morning Star, and Matt invited me because I was a neighbor—a religious leader at a neighboring church in Milton, about a mile and a world away from his church.
I brought about twelve people from my theologically and politically liberal, predominantly white, middle to upper class Unitarian Universalist church, about half of whom were teenagers. We were the only white people there, and we were warmly welcomed like brothers and sisters. Our youth got right to work with the Morning Star youth, putting candles in milk containers so they wouldn’t blow out in the chilly wind outside. Truthfully, we felt nervous and out of our element. Our theological and cultural differences were vast. But, I brought my then 5 month old, and she was passed lovingly around the circle into the arms of people I had never met. We prayed a lot before we left to march, the UU youth completely taken aback by shouts of “Amen” and “thank you Jesus”.

We marched through the streets of Mattapan together that night—crying, singing, praying—finally stopping in front of the house in which the murders occurred. There was a makeshift memorial with teddy bears and pictures and flowers for the victims. At one point, Matt shouted angrily at giggling teenagers, lest they lose the somber, serious point of the event–referring to our work together as nothing less than a “spiritual war for our souls—for the soul of the city.” “People are DYING. Your people are dying,” he yelled over the crowd.

Now as UUs, we don’t use the term “spiritual warfare” all that often. Frankly, we don’t have to. Our rank and file is generally a privileged rank and file. Here in ‘burbs, many of us live far enough away—culturally, educationally, economically—if not by many miles—from Mattapan. Many of us don’t feel the same urgency my friend Matt does about taking up spiritual arms to fight evil. And it’s not because of our theological differences. Most of us aren’t being confronted on a daily basis with the degradation of our bodies with real, actual weaponry like our neighbors are. But as participants in a system of economic injustice, privilege, poverty and violence, we should feel the urgency just as keenly, as if we have the same need to protect our own physical bodies. Our people are dying. And please make no mistake about it: these neighbors are OUR people.

Universalist Mary Ashton Rice Livermore said that “As our [life] experience deepens, we realize that the whole world is one vast encampment, and that every man and woman is a soldier. We have not voluntarily enlisted into this service, with an understanding of the hardness of the warfare, and an acceptance of its terms and conditions, but have been drafted into the conflict, and cannot escape taking part in it. We are not even allowed to choose our place in the ranks, but have been pushed into life . . . and cannot be discharged until mustered out by death. Nor is it permitted to furnish a substitute . . . We may prove deserters or traitors, and struggle to the rear during the conflict, or go over to the enemy and fight under the flag of wrong. But the fact remains that we are all drafted into the battle of life, and are expected to do our duty according to the best of our ability.”

This battle is not easy, and it is so tempting to struggle to the rear during the conflict, or to go over to the enemy and fight under the flag of wrong because it is more comfortable. It takes vulnerability to stay on the side of good. It takes some serious guts.

We were freaked the day we went to Mattapan to march. We didn’t fit in. We spoke different languages. There was an ocean of hurt and guilt and separation between us. We needed a common language. We needed humility most of all. We also knew we needed something like the God who transcends all differences; the God in the in-between spaces–to help us form a bridge over the ocean.

Prayer was the language we could share to name the evil that needed to be destroyed; the hell we bore witness to. We all felt powerless in the face of unspeakable tragedy, but we were together. Healing happened in the passing of babies, in the sharing of pizza, in the lighting of candles; in the singing of songs. Spiritual warfare was being fought through the process of meeting one another across difference and allowing ourselves to be connected in shared humanity—in shared divinity.

We, too, can fight the systems of evil that maintain the separation between human beings based on ethnicity, race and social class for the benefit of keeping people powerless. We, too, can fight systems of evil that put profits ahead of human lives. Each of us, our community, our country—we can fight systems of evil—evil that has destroyed our land, evil that has led to health care being treated as a commodity rather than a basic human right, evil that has left us powerless as the gap between rich and poor in the richest country in the world grew to its biggest gap since 1915–rivaling the third world, evil that has left our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered neighbors in fear for their families based on the presence of large and rowdy crowds eating fried chicken sandwiches on a Wednesday in August.

We can fight this evil. We can take off the blinders born of privilege and complacency and feeling powerless and fight this. The world will be saved, Davies tells us, “by people who bring their sweat and toil, not just their tears.” Friends, as Unitarian Universalists—as fellow world citizens—we are called not just to despair of evil, but to fight it. Name evil when you see it. Don’t name it as “other”—but as a part of who you are as well—who we are. Once we recognize ourselves in one another—our good and our evil and all the gray area in between–we can save one another in the goodness we know can conquer all. But we need to be willing to stand side by side in the fight for the soul of our cities, our communities, our country and our world. May we have the courage to take up arms of love and justice in the fight.

Amen.

This Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dear church friends,

This Sunday, children in grades 1st-7th grade will gather in the children’s church for a service on burning, burying, and throwing away grudges with the story “What if Nobody Forgave?” We will sing, pray and meditate, hear a healing message, and ritualize our forgiveness together. We will begin in the sanctuary before being dismissed to the children’s church service. We are psyched to be joined by musician Valerie Anastasio again!

Our babies, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners will meet in their classrooms per usual.

“How clear the path of one who believes, he lives with honour, with honour he leaves.” ( Guru I, Japji)
Our 8th grade Neighboring Faiths class is going on a field trip to the Milford Sikh Temple with their guest speaker from last week, practicing Sikh Ilene Gillespie, and teachers Brad Palmer and Brian Howland! The will meet at 10:00 am in the Fahs room, and leave soon after to get to the 10:30 service at the gurdwara. We expect that they will return at around noon. For more information on the Temple, see this link: http://nessc.org/. PARENTS: BRING YOUR PERMISSION SLIPS!

Coming of Age friends: COME TO WORSHIP. Then come to class. We will be discussing forgiveness by reading the Bible. For those of you who think the Bible is boring, you clearly haven’t read the parables carefully enough, or the frightening and wrathful judgment of the God in the Hebrew scripture. We will read examples of both on Sunday. You are going to love this class.

See you in church,

Robin

Neighboring Faiths to Travel to Synagogue for Shabbat this Friday night, November 9th

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

All 8th graders are invited to travel to the Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley on Friday night. (www.tbewellesley.org.) We will meet at the church at 5:00 pm, dressed to impress (nice pants, button downs for boys, skirts, dresses or dress pants for girls), so that we can be there in time for a 6:00 pm Shabbat service. All youth MUST have a permission slip, so if you are the parent of an 8th grader, look for one in your email inbox! You are welcome to attend with us if you would like!

Shabbat shalom,

Robin