Perhaps Love

“Perhaps love.”

“Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain**.”

It is, isn’t it?  We like to think, oh, no! That is not love.  Love is happily ever after.  Love is all roses and sunshine.  Love is all that and a bag of chips.

We need to face the reality … love contains conflict.  Love contains pain.

Now before I go too much further with this line of thought, let me clarify what I am talking about when I mention conflict and pain as being within love.

Let me separate out the pain and conflict experienced as the result of emotional/mental/physical abuse.  The sort of conflict and pain that arises from abuse is not about love, that is about power—control over another human being. Love is not about power over another person.  So when I state love contains conflict, love contains pain; I am not referring to abusive relationships.

I am referring to the pain that arises when someone is hurting, physically/emotionally/mentally.  I am referring to when a loved one is sick.  I am referring to when a loved one is being harassed.  I am referring to when a loved one dies—regardless of circumstances.

On a larger scale—I am referring to when there is injustice against people.  People who seek to love one another face conflict and pain when there is injustice.  I am referring to when pain and conflict arise because of a systemic condition of the hardening heart in the collective hive.

This has been a tough summer for those who believe that Love wins. I know for me it has made me seriously reconsider my calling as a minister who longs for the day when justice runs down like a mighty stream.  What am I doing here in Alabama?  What am I doing here in the United States? If I, as a minister, am not on the forefront of justice standing on the side of love with the people who are in pain, what am I doing?  I cry for justice to reign in this land.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was only the tip for me.  I listened to my relatives defend his being shot and became nauseated.  His senseless death is an abomination to all of America’s ideals and principles.  But his death is not the only one, and we don’t really know how many others because our police and government do not track violent encounters[i] between police and civilians. A law was passed by Congress in 1994 requiring the Attorney General to collect and track such events and give an annual report[ii].  No such report has ever been submitted in 20 years.

There were at least 4 other deaths of unarmed black men in the month of August—their names must not be forgotten:  Eric Garner—Staten Island, NY; John Crawford—Beaver Creek, OH; Ezell Ford—Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker—Victorville, CA.  How many more deaths are needed before America wakes up to the evil it is perpetuating?

This is the pain that love contains. The pain is greatest at the epicenter, with their loved ones who grieve senseless deaths at the hands of a corrupt system militarized by fear and racism. But it is a pain that radiates out like an earthquake and is felt far away by those who are sensitive to it.

How does a family live with such pain?  Where is their comfort to be found?  How do we respond to such an earthquake of pain?

There are other pains that love contains.  This past week Save OurSelves hosted a daily Jericho March around the capitol regarding the pains that our current state administration is enforcing on the people of Alabama—in total disregard of the pain and grief it causes their citizens.

These daily marches focused on Immigration Rights, Education & Youth, Women’s Rights/ Equal Justice, Worker’s Rights/Living Wage, Criminal Justice/Due Process, Medicaid Expansion and Health, and Voting Rights.

These issues all intersect with one another. There is a coordinated effort in our state to hold people down from their great potential by denying the ability to organize in the workplace, by removing funding from our educational budget, by taking away a women’s right of agency to address her own needs, by creating laws that unjustly increase incarceration and slavery in our prisons, and the grief experienced by loved ones who died because of no healthcare—when healthcare could be afforded to them with Medicaid Expansion.

Love is like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain.  What does one do with the ocean so that Love wins?

We expand the ocean.  We support one another when pain occurs. We cry out together.  We let our wails be heard like the mothers in Ramah. We place our lives on the line when others are threatened.

Many of you know that I was arrested within the capitol building on Thursday for attempting to participate in a 24 hour prayer vigil for the expansion of Medicaid.   I spoke with our board president before I made my decision to do this but it was obvious that this was where my heart was leaning.  Too many deaths have occurred that could have been avoided if our governor, a doctor by profession, had agreed to expand Medicaid.  I could no longer be silent on this sanctioned death by denial of healthcare any longer.

The pain and grief he has caused 700 families this past year alone is unconscionable, not to mention the 300,000 people who are struggling and praying that they will not need medical intervention to save their lives.  My heart this summer has broken open and I am compelled to speak out in a way I have not before.

I see his refusal to expand Medicaid to be an evil act against the people of this state, people he was elected to serve.  Many of whom he defined as his brothers and sisters in Christ, since he has made it clear he does see non-Christians as his brothers and sisters in humanity[iii].  With brothers like that, who needs enemies?

Our Governor is a victim of his own lies and deceptions.  And like Governor Wallace before him, he must be convinced of his betrayal against the people he was elected to serve.  The only way I know how to reach him and save him from his own deception is to rip the veil off on white privilege and supremacy which this administration has fought to preserve and strengthen and to fill the capitol with hundreds, even thousands of people demanding to see Medicaid expansion now.  And to insist laws put into place that expand rather than contract a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

This must be a concerted effort and a coalition of people broad and deep.  It means we must be motivated more by love than by fear of the stigma of being arrested. As the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton-Glascow said to me in the Montgomery County Jail, Jesus was arrested for his civil disobedience.  So was Gandhi, so was Martin Luther King, Jr. so was Annie Pearl Avery, who is one of the original SNICK participants in the 1960s and who joined me in being arrested on Thursday.

Ms. Avery is now 79 years old and told the police at the Montgomery jail that it was partly her actions in the 1960s that enabled them to have the jobs they have today. She enjoined them to recognize that we are fighting again for rights that are being denied Alabamans and join us in our struggle—not fight us by locking us up.

But these people I mentioned by name are all people of color.  We live in a nation where people of color are disproportionately arrested even though all people share equally in the crimes committed.  I realize that as a white person, I have been conditioned to believe that only bad people are arrested.  And in this country, bad people are conflated with being people of color because that is what White America is taught to believe.  There should be no shame in being arrested for justice.

I am also aware that in our Unitarian Universalist movement, the temptation is to make an arrest for a just cause to be some sort of an elite status symbol.  Across our denomination clergy arrests thus far have resulted in no time served, a small fine, and some court costs.  In Washington, DC, the arrests of 112 clergy and faith leaders were an orchestrated show against deportation of immigrants.  We knew in advance that we would be released with no further court cases, no threat of prison time. The risk was minimal. It gave us media publicity.  If we are serious in our quest for justice, we need to take larger risks that place our lives on the line, a few hours being arrested is not a personal risk.

While there was some media present at the rally on Thursday, the arrests that happened were no media stunt.  The Governor’s office did not want to arrest us and pleaded with us to leave. We stated we needed to pray for the governor to expand Medicaid and therefore would not leave.  We were charged with trespassing in the second degree which carries a $ 500 fine and /or up to 90 days in prison.  We could have been charged with trespassing in the third degree which carries a small fine.(In delivering this sermon, I misstated the penalties based on a website I found regarding these terms.  It is corrected here to Alabama criminal codes.)  My court date is Sept 15. I cannot predict the outcome.  Our governor does not want to become the next North Carolina with thousands swarming the capitol and over 900 arrests.  He is hoping this will deter others to follow.

We must not be deterred. Love does not stand back in the face of evil actions. It stands firm.  It holds the pain felt and assimilates it into more love.

I am committed to justice for the people of this state and therefore I must be willing to sacrifice the white privilege I am afforded.  If need be, to be arrested and bear the consequences.  The consequences I face do not even compare to the lives painfully lost because of denial of healthcare.

The evil that we face today is the same evil that Martin Luther King faced in the 1950s and 60s.  My actions are not the seeking of a status symbol, they are a call to action, to be willing to put our heart and soul into the belief that people need to be free to reach their full potential.

I realize some of you may not agree with the actions I have taken.  I understand. I have said this before and it bears repeating, I do not desire a congregation that follows their minister blindly. I do desire that this congregation will be informed of the issues.  Study them.  Read up on them.  Consider these issues a matter of faith development importance because they are indeed a serious matter of faith development. The future of our faith is dependent on how these issues play out. There are forces that seek to take away our freedom to practice our free and liberal faith.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the billboard out on University Blvd entering Cottondale.  It is a huge sign displaying the #Secede.  This group wants to recreate the confederacy in the form of a White Supremacist Christian Theocracy.  I have talked with some people who have experienced this group firsthand and they are a vicious and hateful bunch.  They are feeding off this country’s and state’s current hatred for our President. Be forewarned, there is very little difference between this group and the white elected officials in Montgomery with their declarations of a specific Christian theology that places women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and laws that place black and brown men into slavery through incarceration.

Perhaps love. Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain.  The ocean is wide and deep. There are many ways to hold that conflict and pain. Some will grieve and wail uncontrollably.  And that witness of love is essential.  Some will share their stories of injustice committed against them. And that witness of love is essential. Some may do so by supporting those who stand on the vanguard. And that witness of love is essential.  Others may march, wave banners, and shout slogans.  And that witness of love is essential.  Others may stand with hands raised in silent protest in front of the guns and tanks pointed at them. And that witness of love is essential.  And others may choose to engage the pain with civil disobedience, risking their livelihoods, their freedom to enable others to be free.  And that witness of love is essential.

Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the ability to remain centered and grounded while the world is raging threatening storms.  It is the ability to move forward in love because of the inner conviction that justice is the victor already. Love ultimately wins.

Love is large enough to contain the conflict and the pain on the journey towards justice.

Blessed Be.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 31, 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.

** This quote is from John Denver’s song “Perhaps Love.”

[i] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-ferguson-police-killing-african-americans-20140819-story.html

[ii] http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/dispatches-tracking-us-police-brutality

[iii] http://www.towleroad.com/2011/01/alabama-gov-elect-bentley-tells-non-christians-hes-not-with-them.html

Reframing Christianity

What if we got it all wrong about Christianity?  What if the crucifixion and resurrection is not the cornerstone of the Christian narrative?  What if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the sacrificial lamb that has been slain for the redemption of the world?  What if there was a different meaning, a different purpose, a different narrative that Jesus was trying to teach humanity?  What if we have been distracted from that message by trying to find meaning in his death?

What if his torturous death on the cross was an attempt to kill an idea, akin to Gandhi’s assassination, or Martin Luther King’s?  When Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the late 1500’s, Sebastian Castellio wrote “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: It is to kill a man!”  It was true with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. their ideas were sought to be killed with their death. What if the ideas that Jesus taught were diminished in significance by glorifying his death on the cross?

The message that Jesus taught during his life was that God is love. Love one another. Be holy / be loving as your God in heaven is loving.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Place first the realm of heaven/ love above all else and everything shall be added unto you.  Be generous in all things; if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well.  If they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Love your enemies.

Contrast this message with God sacrificing his son to break the power of sin, the evils of the world in humanity.  God putting his beloved son in whom he is well pleased through torture, barbaric grueling torture for the salvation of humanity that is weaker, feebler, unable to measure up, unable to even come close to the love that Jesus exemplifies.

What parent would seek to punish a beloved child, perhaps a stronger, well meaning child for the wrongs committed by a younger, weaker, perhaps even physically feeble child?  What parent would then be called loving by doing such an unjust act against their children?

Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins writes:  “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”  My comment on this quote was: “We [would] do the same for a father who punishes his older, stronger, more able son for the shortcomings, the wrongs committed by the younger and feebler son.  This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified on the cross for our sins, for our wrongs committed.”

Now to be fair, the quote is taken out of context from Rob Bell’s text.  He is not talking about Jesus being punished for the sins of humanity.  He is talking about millions of people who have been taught that if someone does not accept Jesus in the ‘right’ way and they were then killed that very day, then God would have no choice but to punish them eternally with hell fire. Bell writes, “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.” Such a god who portrays as being loving that would then become vindictive at the moment of death is no loving god. I agree with Rob Bell on this point.

I remember in high school, one of my classmates dying in a horrible car accident. The story went around the school that moments before his car accident he was being witnessed to about Jesus; he became angry and stormed off and consequently died.  The moral of this story was exactly what Rob Bell is saying.  My classmate because he rejected Christ was now in hell.  See what happens? God will take us out too, if we reject his son. How in heaven is this good news?

But Rob Bell’s argument in my mind is the same.  No loving parent would punish a good child, an obedient child, a child that models the best qualities of virtue for the inabilities, the inherent flaws in the child that cannot live up to those standards. No loving parent would call that love, mercy, or grace.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The key is in how we define the word “gave.”  To be consistent with God being love, crucifixion on the cross does not fit the definition.  Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard that a king had leased out.  He sends a servant to collect his harvest and the servant is beaten.  The king sends another servant and he too is beaten. So the king sends his beloved son, and the workers at the vineyard conspire together and kill the son.  The king does not give the son to be killed; it is what the workers at the vineyard do. God did not give his son to be crucified; it is the action that the people chose to take. At best the crucifixion can be seen as humanities abusive tendencies with all of life’s gifts to us.

There is a flaw in the theology surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Now I understand how such a flawed theology could arise.  Humans are meaning makers.  We want everything to have a meaning, a purpose.  We want our lives to be meaningful and not just the drudgery of the day to day indifference.  We have incorporated this meaning making into our clichés and platitudes.  When someone dies, we hear things like “God’s ways are mysterious” or it was “God’s will”. When we go through tough times we hear that “God is working his purpose out” or “God only allows what we can endure.”   We want our lives to have purpose, to have meaning.  So here was this man who lived and taught extraordinary truths on the nature of love.  He is betrayed, he is tortured, and he is crucified on a cross.  We want this to have meaning. We need it to be filled with profound meaning.

What possible meaning could it have?  He lived in a culture that valued the notion of substitution of wrongs through sacrifice.  This is the culture of the scapegoat.  This is the culture that had stories of child sacrifices with Abraham offering up his son to God. This is the culture that believed that blood rituals could bring atonement for sins. It makes sense that this culture would seek meaning in this manner.

But this is meaning that contradicts the very teachings of Jesus.  This is meaning that makes salvation into a three minute sinner’s prayer with no more commitment than that to achieve life eternal.  Salvation becomes marketable and easy. This life is filled with grief and sorrow but there is pie in the sky with Jesus.  All the focus is on the here after and no concern on the here and now.

Rob Bell states in his book, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” 

But if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the atonement of sins to enable our safe passage into heaven, then what is his good news?  How do we make sense of his death?

Jesus saw his life to “proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4: 18-19) His life was to show the power of love, justice in the world.  His life was to offer a new way of being that was not caught up in greed, coercion, or power abuse; be it physical, emotional, psychological, or corporate abuse.

This is a harder message to absorb. It is not a quick fix salvation. It sometimes points the finger of justice directly at where we live and convicts us. But it does seek to embody love in a way that is liberating in the here and now. It proclaims that not even death can stop it from progressing forward. Love is more powerful than death.  Love will resurrect in the hearts and minds of those who seek after it. It proclaims that we can be a part of that message if we seek to love one another.

“Perhaps the story of the physical raising of a dead man to life is an allegory of something else like the hope and promise of resurrection in the living of our days.  In the days that followed the biblical story, there was a change in the people who had followed Jesus. We are told they were all in hiding, in fear of their lives when their teacher was killed.  Over the next few weeks, they began to come out of their own self imposed tombs to begin spreading a message they had learned from their teacher. They tapped into the message of Jesus’ ministry of love and justice for others and began to see new possibilities for their lives.  It was as if the words of this man began to live within their own hearts, and created a new perspective on how they viewed life.  The embodied resurrection was empowering them to create their lives anew with the message they had heard. “[From “The Silence of the Resurrection” © 2009 Rev. Fred L Hammond UUCTuscaloosa)

Our focus then should not be on the crucifixion of Jesus. It should not even be on the resurrection. These are just footnotes to the narrative that was Jesus’ teachings. Our focus in this narrative is on what Jesus taught.  How are we to live our day to day lives?  How do we help bring release to the captors and set the oppressed free?  How do we love one another? How do we embody the teachings of Jesus so that they too transform us and the world around us?  How do we love one another, especially the ones who have caused us pain?

These are the vital questions to be asking ourselves. These are the questions that will re-frame  and transform our lives in profound ways.    Blessings,

Universalism: Love Wins

I had posted as my Facebook status the following: Universalism is the belief that all people, and I mean all people, are loved and received home by the creator. Therefore no matter how far we stray from our human ability to express love to our neighbors we, like the prodigal son, will be welcomed home into the arms of an all forgiving, all embracing creator. Love Wins. The choice is in whether we allow love to win now or later.

A friend then asked the obvious question, “Even Hitler?”  Yes, even Hitler. In the story of the prodigal son there were two brothers, the younger brother took his share of inheritance and wasted it all on prostitutes and drugs.  When he had become destitute he returns to his father’s home. The older brother is filled with rage that his father would throw this lavish party for his no good for nothing brother while not once had his father given him even so much as a young goat that he might celebrate with his friends.  That older brother is us.  It is easy for us who work hard to be just and loving, to do what is right to then become angry when mercy and love is offered to one who is so far from us in our actions.  It is easy to point our fingers at another and say that person is not worthy of love, look at what they have done!  “Give him the Death Penalty!”  “Crucify Him!”

They have conspired to murder, to rape, to terrorism; clearly these things are wrong and therefore worthy of death.  It is easy to justify this.  We as a society must have a standard conduct of behavior or else chaos would reign, right?  And so when a Hitler who has caused directly and indirectly so much evil and untold suffering in the world it is hard to believe that even Hitler could be embraced by Love.

I don’t remember who said it, but there is a quote out there in the universe that goes something like this, “It’s a pretty good bet that if God hates all the same people that you do, then that is not God.”  God should not be made in our image.  If God is all loving then that love extends to even those we detest with our whole being.   Hitler, in  the history of the world, might be such a candidate to be detested with our whole being.

There are some that argue, if everyone gets to heaven, then what motivation is there to do what is right/ to have a moral code of behaviors.  Love wins. If I have been so swayed by the power of love, if I have been so convinced that Love is worth my devotion with my heart and soul then I will choose to seek to do what is most loving, most honorable, most just. To embody Love becomes my motivation to change myself and to change the world towards justice.

I have just purchased the book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins.  Today is the day it became available.  But it is not a new thought. The notion that God loves all and all will go to heaven is deeply rooted in Unitarian Universalism.  The title says it all.  Love Wins.

If there is any limitation on that love, then love does not win.  If Hitler is not included in Love winning then Love is not love.  If Love refuses a Hitler then it is not love but something else. And if Love refuses a Hitler, who else does Love refuse to embrace? Who else is Love powerless to embrace? Who else is love unable to transform and heal? And who gets to declares this powerlessness, this limitation of Love? Jesus did not.  Buddha, Mohamed, Confucius, Abraham-Hicks, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hahn, Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, all the spiritual teachers that ever walked this earth never once declared Love to have its limits of being Love.

Either Love wins or Love is not love but selective and prejudiced and biased and judgmental and unforgiving and condemning and vindictive and capricious and …