What is the Purpose for Church?

It is an important question. For if the church has no purpose, then why would we gather on Sunday morning? Unlike other faiths, where non-attendance is considered a sin, Unitarian Universalists, do not have such a creed. So, for these other faiths, attending church is in a way to avoid committing at least one sin, and is easily averted.

There are some Unitarian Universalist congregations where Sunday morning offers a nice program. Several years ago there was one congregation that invited me to speak.  The service was not a religious service but a program of a chamber quartet performance.  The words I offered were considered the intermission for the quartet. There were no hymnals for congregational singing. There were no prayers or meditations, no recognition of a community of people, there was no children’s time, just a program of Sunday morning music and some words offered.  Very nice, very relaxing but in my mind not congruent with the purpose of church.

What is the purpose of church?  For the congregation that loved their chamber music, the purpose of their church was to offer a morning where one could relax with some nice music and have coffee afterwards.

There is a story told about Rev. William Ellery Channing, known in our Unitarian history as the author of the defining sermon “Unitarian Christianity.”  One Sunday morning, he was crossing the Boston Common on his way to church when he saw one of his parishioners walking towards him.  They greeted one another, and Rev. Channing asked the parishioner where they were going since church was about to start within the half hour.  The parishioner said, I know what you are going to say about the topic being offered so I am going to do something of more importance.  That was the last Sunday in which Rev. Channing offered a title and a blurb on his Sunday morning message.

If the reason for attending church is only for the sake of hearing an interesting topic or lecture, then I think that is a poor purpose for church.  There are other venues, especially in a university town, that can meet that important need.

Yes, I hope the words and meditations I offer are encouraging and perhaps even challenging, but my words or thoughts should not be the primary draw here. I have no desire to be a celebrity pastor like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, or Norman Vincent Peale. These people speak eloquently from the pulpit their doctrinal beliefs and thousands of people flock to them for the chance to hear an inspiring message or make them feel good about themselves.

And if a person stays away from church because they think they know what is going to be said in the pulpit and therefore wants to do something of more importance, I believe they are missing the point of church.  I have shared in the past that before I became a Unitarian Universalist, I lived in an intentional Christian community. We met, not only to pray together, but also to minister to one another.  If we were not there, we could not minister to others nor be ministered to. If we were not there we were not living up to our individual calling. I still carry this purpose in Unitarian Universalism, though how we minister to one another might be, no, I guarantee, is vastly different from the Christian community in style and scope.  We each have something to offer to one another here in this place.  It may be to offer a listening ear to someone who has not had anyone listen to them all week long.  It might be to offer a hug to someone who has not received any human touch this past week.  It may be to offer a joke or two and allow belly laughs to occur which releases endorphins to make us feel good and reduces pain.

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal and not a doctrinal faith.  We covenant with one another to uphold and encourage one another to pursue a set of aspirational principles.  The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These are difficult aspirations to uphold.  We are going to fall short in the fulfillment of them in our daily lives but it is important, and given our current national environment, vital for us to come together to encourage one another to not lose heart in holding these aspirations as possible for our lives, for our congregation, for our community, and for our nation.

We need one another in these days of intense pain being inflicted upon women, LGBTQ, immigrants, and people of color by our own government.  Our current national administration is stripping our civil rights away and we need the strength to resist the rollbacks of rights and protections.  These cold-hearted inhumane rollbacks of protections are causing great pain in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities.

But these are not the only pain people in our congregations are facing. We have people grieving the loss of family members. We have people grieving the loss of employment. We have people who are struggling in their marriage. We have people who are lonely, people who suffer traumas from childhood or from military service. We have people who are struggling with all sorts of infirmaries, both short term and chronic. We cannot minister to one another if we do not attend our main service a week.  Each of us has a role to minister to one another and it need not be a conscious effort to do so.  Sometimes it is the willingness to listen to one another that is all that is needed that offers a balm of healing and comfort. And each of you have the unique gift of yourself that may be just the thing that someone else needs to hear or see.  But if you are not here, because you think you know what the speaker is going to say that you have heard it all, then that person who is needing to hear that encouraging word that only you can give, will leave here empty-handed.

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow   …    Number 1021 join me in singing…

The purpose of church is not the elements of the worship service.  The liturgy, the music, the hymn singing, the words shared from the pulpit.  These are only elements to a much greater purpose, which is to minister to one another in a community of relationships. And in this place, there is a covenant, a promise that each member here says when they sign the membership book, that they will participate in the life of the congregation.  At every membership recognition service, I recite these words to our  members [1]:

You are here this morning because you have chosen to be in a relationship with these people and with this religious institution.  “I can take care of myself” has been replaced by “We can and will take care of each other.”  Your membership also tells the world that you believe in and support the need for the free religious voice amidst the religious pluralism of our country and our world. “We need not think alike to love alike” said Francis David in 16th century Hungary.  This is the basis by which our individual searches for truth and meaning are encouraged within this loving and supportive community.  Becoming a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is your opportunity to find inherent worth, affirmation, appreciation of diversity and respect for commitment.  It is also a path to salvation, understood not as entry into another world at death, but rather as the recognition that wholeness, health and loving relationship are available to each of us right here and now, within this life and this world.  

Members of the congregation then renew their pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

These are not idle words.  They are a promise to one another.  A promise and a calling.  A calling to strive to be supportive of one another, to listen from the heart, to respond from the heart.

The purpose of the church, as we have declared it to be in our covenant is one that is sorely needed in our world today.  If we build on this covenant here with one another, by meeting weekly as we are able, then as our relationships grow we gain the confidence and the skills to take our faith, our principles that we seek to uphold here into our daily lives as a beacon of hope for all to see. We will begin to find ourselves ministering to others, friends and strangers alike, because that is who we are as a people.  People who are moving on the side of love.  And that is the purpose of church.  Blessed Be.

[1] Adapted from Alice Blair Wesley lectures found in Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures

Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on 10 September 2017(c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond

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Published in: on September 13, 2017 at 2:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Now

 

How goes it with your spirit?  I have to say that I have been crushed by this election.  And when I say crushed I don’t just mean disappointed.  I mean my spirit has been pulverized and left gasping for air.  I am still struggling to catch my breath and absorb what has happened.

Last Sunday I stated this election was not about electing a man or a woman, or even about electing a republican or a democrat to the office of the presidency.  It was about ratifying and affirming our nations most sacred values—E pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.  Our unalienable birth rights of Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty and justice for all.

Apparently, America no longer wants to be an America that celebrates E Pluribus Unum. That value was okay to proclaim when America was 90% white in 1950.  It apparently is not okay when America’s white people reflects 61% of the population in 2016 and is projected to be 49% in less than 30 years.  When America finally begins to look like E Pluribus Unum, Whites get nervous because it will mean they will need to share their power.

I shouldn’t be surprised given how White America treated our first Black president who probably will go down in history as one of the all-time great presidents.  Not by this generation but by future generations.  Abraham Lincoln was hated when he was president[i].  I mean states seceded from the union and millions of people died because he became president. Not exactly how one wins and influence friends.

I still believe these values were the heart of this election.  I still believe that this nation was given an opportunity to make a deliberate choice to embody the values on which this nation stood, albeit imperfectly.  We were given a choice to turn away, even if ever so slightly, from our nation’s original sin of racism.  We were given a choice.

And we chose white supremacy.

I think what stung me the most was the realization that the only demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Trump was the White vote. Of the 70% of White voters, 58% of them voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic comprised a majority in their support for Trump. Not one.

Now there are many individual reasons why a person might have voted for Trump.  So when individuals begin giving reasons why they voted Trump, the reason is not because they believe that Whites need to stay in power and oppress other groups. No, they believe there are other reasons, but the aggregate reason is racism.  This is an important distinction.  Let me rephrase this point another way.  Trump’s appeal to individual White voter’s is not because individually they supported his racism, but the systemic impact in this election of White voters is racism.

We need to understand the message this sends to marginalized groups when one demographic votes overwhelmingly for a demagogue like Donald Trump. We need to understand that their fear, my fear, is not unreasonable but is based in the history of events over the last 24 months.

We have seen an uptick in hate crimes against Blacks, Muslims, Trans-fulx, Mexican immigrants over the last 24 months committed by White people who support Trump.  Southern Poverty Law Center reports 200 hate crimes[ii] were documented in the 72 hours after the election alone.

And these are the ones that are documented as hate crimes.  The hanging effigy of a black man off the apartment balcony above OHenry’s is not considered a hate crime.  The poster displaying Trump with a statement saying, “Obama, You’re Fired” in a math teacher’s class in Northridge High School is not considered a hate crime. The American Latino citizen, who was yelled at by a passerby “to go pack because Trump is deporting your ass” is not a hate crime.  The woman at UA who received anonymous rape threats because of her public support of Clinton. Our congregation’s children being told in school by friends that Trump is going to remove all the gays from Alabama. These have all occurred in the last week here in Tuscaloosa. They may not be hate crimes per the current statutes of the law, but they carry with them pain and anguish.

The KKK in North Carolina is planning on hosting a victory parade in Trump’s honor. The Alabama Klan has come out publicly stating they are going to hold Trump accountable for his campaign promises to deport immigrants, ban Muslims, and repeal LGBT rights. But the White nationalists do not represent the White 70% of the 59 plus million who voted for Trump. But the White nationalists have benefitted from the collective vote that supports their agenda for oppression.

If your vote supports the oppression of others even if you voted your conscience for your personal reasons, then your vote supported racism.  It is that simple and that complex.

I need to sit with that information and realize that I as a white person have some responsibility in these election results.  I did not speak to my relatives of my concerns regarding a Trump presidency.  I did not tell my relatives that if they loved me and supported my life as a gay man, that they should consider not voting for Trump.  I didn’t, because if I did, then I would have to contemplate that my relatives do not in fact love me for who I am.  That fact would be too painful for me to face.  Despite all their verbal assurances that they do, their actions shout no.  So I would prefer not hearing them say the words that they would prefer a Trump presidency over the safety of a gay relative. Did you tell your relatives—that a Trump presidency would endanger the life of your gay minister or your trans friends in this congregation?  Or your friends of color?  Or your Muslim friends? Or your immigrant friends?

But the individuals who voted for Trump are not going to be able to hear that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism. Not going to hear it because standing in their shoes, they believe that Trump finally heard their cry for help. They see their ability to earn a livable wage and to give their children a better life than they had, slipping away. Their concerns are not, in their essence, based in racism; they are based in economic realities. The median income finally rose this year to just over $56.5K[iii] but its buying power is still less than it was in 1999[iv].  The hard truth is that for millions of people in this country, they are hurting. No matter what they have done to try to get ahead they are thwarted in their attempts.  My colleague, the Rev. Daniel O’Connell noted that half of the country ‘finally feels heard and the other half feels a deep and anxious fear for their future.’

I also know there is a desire to self-differentiate myself from the 58% of White voters who voted for Trump.  I don’t want marginalized people, who do not know me, wondering if I voted for Trump because I am white.  My age group voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  So I want to differentiate myself. So I get it when others want to send some sort of signal, some sort of sign that says, I did not vote like the rest of my white family and neighbors. Should you decide to wear some symbol as a sign, a blue finger nail or safety pin, be ready to back that symbol up with some actions.  Don’t wear them and then remain silent when the racist or sexist comment is made.  Don’t wear them and then turn a blind eye when you see a person being discriminated against because they wear a hajib or are Black or Brown.  Don’t wear them and then walk on by when you see someone being attacked.

I don’t know what the future holds. I appreciated Clinton’s concession speech.  I appreciated Obama’s comments on the election and the smooth transition of power that he is in the process of ensuring.  I even appreciated Trump’s acceptance speech which, if that was the first time I heard him speak, I would have thought wow, what a classy guy, praising his opponent and all.  But that was not what he shared on the campaign trail. He made threats to prosecute his opponent if he was elected. He made threats against me and people like me, he made threats against my immigrant friends, those here with visas and greed cards and those undocumented, he made threats against my Muslim friends, and he made threats against my black friends.  I can only assume that he now intends to follow through on these threats.

So what now in light of this turn of events in our nation’s history?  We, as a congregation seek to love one another all the more.  We find ways to differentiate ourselves from every other predominant white congregation in Tuscaloosa County so when people come here to visit, know that they have visited someplace unique and special and most importantly safe. That they will know our principles and our personal creeds are not just lip service but is indeed who we are in our most inner being.

As I stated I do not have a crystal ball to predict what is coming down the pike with a Trump presidency. We live in one of the most conservative states in the union.  But every fiber in my being tells me that we are going to need one another more than ever if we are going to thrive in this brave new world.  This means your support is needed more than ever to ensure that this congregation is able to support you in the days ahead.  Support and nurture your inherent worth and dignity. Support your ability to develop justice, equity, and compassion in your relations.  Support your free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Support your right of conscience and the democratic process.  Support your work towards developing community with peace, liberty and justice for all. And support the well-being of your spirit.  Blessed Be

[i] http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/02/abraham-lincoln-was-actually-hated-when-president/

[ii] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day

[iii] http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/news/economy/median-income-census/

[iv] http://www.davemanuel.com/median-household-income.php

What Now? 13 November 2016 © Rev. Fred L Hammond  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

We attempted to live stream the sermon and discovered that the internet bandwidth was insufficient.  So the video below is severely pixeled but the audio is relatively ok by comparison.

2015

Who is this mythical person christened
Twenty-fifteen? A babe in swaddling clothes
at birth, a decrepit hunched being come
final hours of December thirty-first.
Its destiny is the same as yours/mine.

What type of life will Twenty-fifteen live?
As with all newborns we dream wishful hopes
anticipating, desiring, longing
for something better; something wonderful.
The life it lives depends in part on us.

How well we embody our principles—
how well we choose to seek to act justly —
how well we choose to share loving kindness —
how well we walk humbly throughout our days.
Live this day, this hour as the best moment,

as if our December thirty-first draws
near as it must for all creatures on earth.
Who then is this mythical person born?
Twenty-fifteen is our measure of life
Fill it with love, generosity, grace.

© 2015 Fred L Hammond

On the Seventh Day

Creating a universe
filled with galaxies filled
with solar systems made
of comets and planets
with self-sustaining life
forms and sentient beings
expressing awe. This feat
is worthy of the long
pause or even a Sabbath.

© Fred L Hammond

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:11 pm  Comments Off on On the Seventh Day  
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Expectance

I posted on our Unitarian Universalist Facebook page this question: Imagine that the world never heard of Jesus or Christianity. And imagine that this December 25th is the birth of a special child destined to ‘save’ the world. What would you expect from this child’s life? The posting had been seen at least 27 times but only one person chose to respond to the question.

While the reasons for not posting by the other 26 people are most likely many and multi-layered, I found the lack of response telling. These past few months have been rather harsh on the American psyche. What we thought true has been proved untrue. What we thought honest has been proved dishonest. What we thought valiant has been proved cowardly and dastardly.

There is much happening today to make one’s heart sink with despair. Will we ever get it right? Will we ever as a nation truly embody our values of democracy, freedom, and justice for all? 2014 will go down in history as a violent year for our nation. We were confronted to see how little we value black lives in this nation. And the truth sent us scurrying to our safety net of stereotypes of the other. We were exposed to the truth of our nation committing unthinkable acts of torture to satisfy the morbid curiosity of two behavioral psychologists who wanted to discover how to impose helplessness and subservience in others. And this truth increased our use of euphemisms. Others commit torture we do enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs because even our euphemisms need euphemisms. Horrendous pills to swallow. How can we continue with all of this misery that we have inflicted on one another?

And then the unexpected happens. Members of this congregation announce the birth of their grandchild. In the midst of despair, a baby is born to bring joy. The mystery continues.

What will the generations say about this birth? Will they say it was on the darkest day of the year that a mighty wind blew a cleansing breath across the land when this child was born in the state of Georgia? Angels appeared in the lightning and thunder calling this child forth into life. And word of the child’s arrival spread across the people faster than the speed of sound and all shouted Hallelujahs! For they have seen the one in swaddling clothes who will bring healing to this land. Future generations will speak of this child’s birth from the perspective of knowing the whole story of their life. Just as people speak of the Christ child’s birth of long ago.

Well, we don’t know what their life will be as they grow in wisdom and stature. And we don’t know what stories will be told about their birth decades from now. But within this newborn lies not just a hope but the very real expectation that lives will be changed because of their being in this world. Lives already have been.

And that is where our hope is restored. We tell the story of Christmas because it is a child who comes forth to teach us about loving one another. The presence of children raises the oxytocin levels in our bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mother and child, families, tribes together. It is what makes us a gentler people to each other. The presence of children playing reduces stress. It makes us a more generous people. The celebration of Christmas is not just for the children, adults need to celebrate a child focused holiday as well.

And the basis of hope is there because we do not know how any child’s life will unfold when they are born. The hope is in the potential within the coming days and weeks and years offered to this new child. What experiences will this child have that will nurture them into being loving and kind, brave and honest, ethical in their decisions? The experiences to be had are where all of us come in.

I do not believe that Jesus became the teacher and the transformer of lives by some supernatural force alone. To me stating Jesus became the teacher he was, solely because god willed it so, negates the human potential to evolve into moral and ethical creatures. Such a statement places despair right back into the picture and declares that outside supernatural forces are required to transform humanity. And my stating we each are born with the human potential to be more than we are currently, does not negate the power of faith in a person’s life. The truth is Jesus had parents, and siblings, and aunts and uncles, and cousins like John the Baptist, teachers and mentors that helped shape his life’s path. These lives helped give him the fortitude to stand firm and embody the belief that there was a better way to be than to debase and torture others.

So it is with us. If we are honest with ourselves we each have had someone in our lives; be it for a life time, a season, or a day, whose life example offered us a choice in being who we are today. We are the ones who must hold fast to the values inherent in the premise of loving our neighbors as ourselves and teach these values, embody these values in our daily lives to our children. Perhaps one of our children will grasp the mystery to creating peace and goodwill to all and heal our divisive land filled with racism, greed, and torture. May this season renew our expectancy for what could be and offer us the courage to work towards that vision.

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 24 December 2014 (c). 

A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus

This is a story of mystery and intrigue. All stories, even the story of your own life, begin with mystery and intrigue. For no one knows at the beginning of the story how a story will end, no one, not even those living it.

This story begins in a distant land, across the oceans, across a mighty desert, during the 59th year of the Roman Empire founded by Caesar Augustus. He established rule over all the lands that surrounded a mighty sea. He declared a time of peace across this empire as he had subdued all the peoples and tribes who lived within his empire. But there was one province where there was still great unrest, Judea. The people who lived there were a proud people with a belief in an unseen and mysterious God. These people longed to be free of Rome. They wanted self-rule and they longed for a leader who would fulfill this promise. But any such talk of a leader brought the wrath of Rome, which took many forms in those days. An innocent traveler could be doing Rome’s and Caesar’s bidding. So people were afraid of strangers.

It was during this time of uncertainty that Caesar Augustus called for an accounting, a census of all the people in this region. This census included a tax to further burden the people of Judea and to not register and pay the tax would mean fierce punishment. People were angered and resentful of this decree.

Now Joseph and his betrothed, Mary lived in Nazareth but the census required them to leave their home and travel to the town of Joseph’s ancestors, to Bethlehem. Traveling through the Desert Mountains was treacherous in those days and Mary was expecting a child. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, it was time for her give birth.

They looked for a place to stay. But at every inn they received the same reply—no room. Finally, an innkeeper seeing Mary was in labor offered them to stay in the stable behind the inn where there was hay for bedding and shelter. In the wee hours of the night Mary gave birth to her child, whom she called Jesus.

Now none of this story thus far sounds mysterious. But what happens next is indeed mysterious.

In the hills not far away from Bethlehem there were some shepherds keeping watch over their flock of sheep. And a bright light appeared before them and in this bright light was what appeared to be an Angel. Now most people have never seen an angel so the shepherds were filled with fear and trepidation. That means they were quaking in their boots. But The Angel shouted, Do not be afraid. For I bring you news of great Joy for the people for today born this day in the city of David (the Angel was referring to Bethlehem. Angels often speak poetically.) a savior, who will be the messiah. You will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly the whole sky was filled with Angels singing Glory to God and peace and goodwill toward all people. Then the angels vanished, just like that. (snap fingers) The shepherds still very much in shock decided they should go to where the babe was born. When they saw the child just as the angel had said, they bowed deeply before the child.

But that is not all that happened when this child was born. There was yet another mysterious thing to happen. Wise ones known as the Magi were scanning the heavens for a sign to offer them hope in these treacherous days. And a new star appeared in the heavens. They saw this star as an omen of a great person being born who would lead them to new freedom and decided to travel from the east to offer their respects to this new leader. As they drew near this new star in the heavens seemed to rest directly over the place where this new child was born. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts they presented to the child. They also bowed down before this child and declared him a king of Kings. How very odd for strangers to give such gifts and to say such things to a child born in poverty, born in a stable.

Word of this child’s birth spread through the region and had reached the ears of the magistrate of the province. He wanted to find this child so he too could pay his respect but Joseph had a mysterious dream which warned him that the magistrates’ intentions were to harm the child. And Joseph, Mary, and the child fled to a neighboring province until it was safe to return. All of these events were very mysterious. Mary, the mother of this child, held these mysterious events in her heart. She wondered what is in store for this child with such a mysterious beginning to summon angels and wise ones. And we wonder today at each new birth what wondrous things will unfold through their lifetime.

Written by Rev. Fred L Hammond (c) 2014

Published in: on December 25, 2014 at 10:43 am  Comments Off on A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus  
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