Monday, January 9, 2017

New Years: 5777 and 2017

Like many people in the Western world I grew up only following the Gregorian calendar with its start date of Jan. 1.  As I have been exploring Judaism, however, I have begun to follow its calendar and its New Year began in October.  I did some web searching and there are approximately 40 different
calendars in use in the world today - many are tied to religions like Judaism and Islam. Each calendar uses either solar, lunar or a combination of the two to measure time.

Before the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays I was talking about the fact that while 2016 had been pretty hard and awful, not really sad about seeing it go, 5777, the current year in the Jewish calendar, on a personal level was going much better.

The past years of 2015 and 2016 have been very challenging for me and my family.  In 2015 I lost my Dad, I did not have full time employment, we lacked medical care for about half the year, we moved, and overall the year was just filled with challenge, heart break, anxiety and frustration.  My Facebook post from Dec. 31, 2015 "Spending New Year's Eve in our traditional way, watching New Year's Rockin Eve, hanging out at home, just being a family. I am so very ready to say goodbye to 2015. It was a very long and very difficult year. I am holding onto to a tentative hope that 2016 will be better. After all I have hoped for financial stability, a full time job and the ability to provide for my family for the last 3 years and each year in many ways has been worse than the last - so 2016 please break the trend and help my family and I find the stability we need to thrive. Here is hoping that 2016 brings abundance, love and blessing to all of us!" I would love to say that 2016 manifested a full time job and financial security but alas it did not.  

5777 began on a much better note.  By Rosh Hashanah, I had two new part-time jobs, that I love, as an Adjunct Instructor at Bryant & Stratton and teaching the 8th grade at Or Ami.  I was able to leave Food Lion.  In addition, I had two job phone interviews and one of them is turning into an in-person interview in January.  As I look at this threshold of 2017, about a little over a  quarter of the way through 5777, I have the possibility of a full time job and bringing financial stability to my family.  It was during the start of 5777 that I realized that I wanted to make Or Ami and Judaism my spiritual home.  This has meant closing some chapters of my life and it also means I stop sitting in liminal space between Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. There is peace and joy that comes with that.  In just making public my decision to convert I feel a freedom and excitement that has been long in coming. 

Taking joy in my work with all its challenge and opportunity has meant that I smiled each time someone asked me how I liked teaching.  Each time I entered the classroom to teach, there was absolutely a feeling that I knew what I was doing and what I didn't know I wanted to learn and I did. I am excited about starting a new semester in just another ten days or so.  

So here is to hoping that the rest of 5777 grows in sweetness and that 2017 manifests some long awaited dreams.  It is comforting to know that with following two calendars, there are two opportunities to reflect on a year just passed and a year about to begin.  


Happy Gregorian New Year and may there be blessings for all of us, 

whatever calendars we follow!






Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Light Endured: A Hanukkah Reflection

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees defeat of the Greek army. After they cleaned up the mess, tossed out the idols, they found one cask of oil, enough for one day but it would take many more days to make more oil.  They went ahead and lit the Menorah with the single cask and miraculously the Menorah was still burning the next day and would burn such for 8 days. It was enough time to gather and bless more oil.

The story is about faith - lighting the candle not knowing if they could keep it lit, and it is about trust - somehow knowing that things would work out.  As I think about this story, I think about a triumphant, tired, mourning people, because even when there is "victory" in war there is also loss, bloodshed, injury and death.  It must have been hard to realize that there was only one day of oil. They lit the candle anyway.  They would have left expecting to come back to the light out and days before more would be available.

This is not the first story of the Israelites endurance and waiting in the dark.  There was slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon; thousands of years of religiously encouraged persecution by Christians of all kinds; and the Holocaust, an attempt to wipe all Jews and Judaism away.  The Hanukkah story is a story of endurance and the Jewish people are all too familiar with endurance.

Each night the Israelites expected the Menorah lights to be out and yet they were still lit the next day. I imagine that each day there was deep gratitude that the oil lasted and the Menorah stayed lit. Did they breathe a little easier?  Were they in wonder about how it could happen?

Did they then become anxious about what to do if the light went out?  What would happen then? This feeling is familiar to so many of us.  A parent worried about a sick child or a child about an ill parent; those with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, invisible illness; the people in Aleppo, Yemen, and too many other places to list, who live not knowing when the next bomb will fall, when and where the next drone strike will happen. What will happen to me, to my family, to those I love?  Can I hold on until there is more? More questions than answers  - how long, why, must I?  Questions asked into the darkness and answered with silence.

Hanukkah reminds us that yes endurance is possible.  It is possible that there is more in the jar than we know, there is more strength than we knew we had. Lighting the candles, singing the blessings, knowing that you do so with Jews around the world, and as Jews have done for generations, as we remember together that the oil and light endured. The lights reminds all us to hold on to hope, to endure, to remember.

I believe that individually and collectively we need this reminder more than ever.  For those of us who live here in the United States, many of us are fearful of what a Trump presidency means for us, for immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people to name just a few.  Hate is already rising, been given permission to run amok.

Maybe what we need most is to stop worrying about whether or not we will have strength, light, love tomorrow and just sit with the knowledge that we made it through today.  We had enough for today and that will have to be good enough.  Tomorrow we may have more, we may have less, we may even have nothing, we don't know, no one knows.  So the Hanukkah lights remind us to take one day at a time, to add one candle each night, to see how many days we have already made it, and to keep hope and faith that somehow a way will be found for tomorrow.


Monday, December 26, 2016

A Jewish Family Story: Joseph, Mary and Jesus

I preached this sermon on Sunday Dec. 25, 2016, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock.

Reading:  Vanderbilt Professor bring first century context to Christmas Story 


While the Christmas season provides increased opportunities to hear the story of Jesus’ birth, few contemporary versions consider how first-century Gospel readers would have understood the message, according to a Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar.

“I believe that the more we know about the New Testament in its historical period, the more profound the text becomes,” said Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011). “Today’s readers often hear a personal message from the Scriptures, and those personal messages can be enhanced by hearing what the Gospels’ first audiences would have heard: political messages, laugh-out-loud stories and strong connections to the Jewish Scriptures.”

Jesus’ birth and the writing of the Gospels both occurred in the Roman Empire. Levine said that the New Testament writers ask their readers a political question: will they worship the Roman Emperor, who was regarded as divine but who ruled by military force and economic exploitation, or will they be loyal to a Jewish messiah who proclaims that the one who wants to be first must be a servant of all?

Levine said that the Star of Bethlehem, which in the Christmas story leads the Magi to Jesus, is one aspect of the nativity story that has been misunderstood through the years. “The first-century view of astronomy is quite different from ours,” she said. “People back then had no idea of how large or how hot stars are. A star perched directly over a house would incinerate the house, and the entire continent around it. Instead, stars were thought both to be relatively small and to be living beings, like angels.”

Levine, University Professor of New Testament Studies and professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, noted that Matthew injects humor into the story by describing the Magi. “Although people today think of the Magi as wise men, Matthew’s readers may not have thought this,” she said. “To ask about the one born ‘king of the Jews’ in Jerusalem, where King Herod is on the throne, is not a politically astute question. One first-century source, Philo of Alexandria, describes a figure from the Book of Numbers, Balaam, as a Magus (singular of Magi), and Balaam has a donkey who is smarter than he.”

Levine believes that part of the problem with the Christmas story is that it tends to get abstracted from the rest of the New Testament.

“It is read at Christmas and then put away with the holiday decorations until next year,” she said. “People in the first century didn’t read the Gospels in snippets. They sat through an entire reading just as we sit through a movie, and they would remember earlier scenes. For example, when Jesus says, at the Last Supper, ‘This is my body, which is given for you,’ listeners would remember that the baby was placed in a manger, that is, a feeding trough. The symbolism of Jesus as food for his followers would be clear to them.”

Levine encourages people to read all sacred scripture with respect.  “We study it with respect, not only for those who believe the words are divinely inspired, but also with respect for the authors and the audiences who first heard them.” She said that the Bible is meant to be read, to evoke strong emotions and to speak to readers today.

More insights into the first-century context of the Christmas story can be found in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which covers all the books of the New Testament. The book’s co-editor is Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis University.

Media Inquiries: 
Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS 
annmarie.owens@vanderbilt.edu


A Jewish Family Story:  Joseph, Mary and Jesus

from http://www.okclipart.com/religious-christmas-clipart30jhcvlyqf/

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah! This year Christmas and Hanukkah overlap with the first night of Hanukkah last night so I thought it would only be right to talk today on Jesus and his family as Israelites, as Jewish people.

Biblical scholarship from the Jesus Seminar that includes Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, books such as The Jewish Jesus by Peter Schafer and Paul the Jew, an edited collection of essays, has focused on understanding Christian Scriptures with a focus on their Jewish origins.  All too often in the history of Christianity and our own UU history, Christian Scriptures have been viewed either as a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures or that the Christian texts supersede the Jewish ones.  Unitarian minister and theologian, Theodore Parker, was noted for his anti-Semitism and his negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

On a personal level, I have been attending Congregation Or Ami, a Reform Jewish congregation in Richmond for the last year and a half.  I have taken an Introduction to Judaism Class and an Introduction to Hebrew.  In addition, one of my teaching jobs is the 8th grade class at Or Ami.

As I have been exploring Judaism, a desire I have had for awhile, I have come to some important decisions. The first is that I have withdrawn as a candidate for UU Ministry and the second is that I have decided to convert to Judaism and will formally begin the process in the new year.  So for this talk it is only appropriate to look at the Christmas stories through the eyes of Judaism.

On the last class of Religious School before Winter Break, I gave the 8th grade a quick summary of the two Nativity stories from Matthew and Luke.  Far too often the two stories get meshed together so we have angels, shepherds and wise men all in one story but in reality, just like Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 with the two stories of Creation, the Nativity stories are each unique written by and for particular communities.  The communities of Matthew and Luke were very different and hence we have stories reflecting the perspectives of the community.

We also have to consider the historical time and context.  The gospels were written after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Pharisees, one of the sects within Judaism, is ascending and creating the Rabbinic Judaism we know today.  There is a quest to redefine Judaism in the wake of the oppression of the Roman Empire, the Destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora of the Jewish people.  When we talk about the communities of the Gospels, they are not yet Christian, they are Jesus followers.  So these early communities were diverse and they were in the midst of a fight between the more Israelite communities around Jerusalem and the more Gentile, Greek and Roman communities that were further out.

These differences come to light in the two Nativity stories. Matthew’s community is Jewish, so in the story, the connections to Jewish history are key.  Matthew begins by tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and most importantly, to King David.  First, the listeners would have been familiar with genealogies as they appear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, which were less concerned about the actual family relations but rather in making important theological points such as King David is the seventh son of Jesse, seven in Hebrew means “sanctified or one set apart.”  Matthew too is making a theological point, that Jesus is in fact the promised Messiah, that he fulfills what the prophets had said.  Matthew in the story, constantly quotes the prophets, such as this quote from Chapter 1 verses 22-23:  “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23)

In Matthew’s story there are no shepherds, no angels singing.  Joseph is important in Matthew’s story as a receiver of dreams, just like Jacob’s favorite son Joseph (and the story of Joseph was the Torah portion for this week).  Matthew has Joseph receive the dream that his family is in danger and to flee to Egypt and when it is safe to return (remembering that Joseph also goes to Egypt where he saves his family from starvation).  Over and over throughout the text, the listener or reader is reminded of earlier stories, of important Israelite leaders and historical moments.  

Now let us turn to the Nativity story in Luke, Luke’s community is a Gentile community, steeped in Hellenistic thought and culture (the very culture that the Maccabees revolted against).  Luke’s story begins with the announcement by an angel to Zechariah, a priest, and his wife of Elizabeth, who is barren, will have a son, John the Baptist, even though both are advanced in age.  Again to the listeners of the story, they would remember Abraham and Sarah and how Sarah also bore a son in her advanced years.  This is also where Mary is visited by an angel.  Here the Nativity narrative is filled with many more details.  There is announcement both to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary, the birth of John before Jesus, a census, the travel to Nazareth, the shepherds, no wise people and Angels singing.  For Luke’s community the story begins with many recognizing the importance Jesus has already, years before his public ministry. Joseph plays a greatly reduced role in this narrative, he receives no dreams, he does not rescue his family from Herod.  He is simply Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father. From the beginning we are told in Luke that Jesus is God’s son.  Mary is the key parent in Luke’s narrative.  Luke gives her the beautiful prayer of the Magnificat beginning with “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  It is Mary who ponders the events of Jesus’ birth and childhood in her heart.  In contrast, Matthew puts Joseph as the central parent, we hear nothing from Mary.  It is Joseph, not Mary who receives the prophesies. In the story of the actual birth there is no census or travel or being turned away at the inn, Matthew ends the birth story with “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)  After this Matthew moves right onto the Magis and the flight to Egypt.  For Luke the birth is announced to shepherds by angels who come to see the child in the manger. Luke then goes into presenting Jesus at the temple on the eighth day for circumcision, where again two prophets praise God upon seeing the baby.  Luke does not give his genealogy until after Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. Luke prioritizes the uniqueness and newness of Jesus, the universality of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus, which would have been something the full members would be familiar with from their own Baptism.  For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment, the answer to the hopes for deliverance, for the fulfillment of the prophecies where once again Israel would be independent and free from oppressive foreign forces.

Both stories stress important elements of Jewish history and practice: the importance of names - Jesus’ name is known before his birth and commanded by G-d; Jesus is the descendent of David, there is listening and obedience to God’s commands whether in dreams or in visitations by angels. Throughout both narratives, despite making different choices about what to include both Matthew and Luke are communicating to their communities by referencing the stories that would have been so familiar to the community.

In our modern age, it is difficult for us to imagine the memorization of text that was so common in the ancient world.  While few could read, many could recite texts from memory and tell the stories.  As Amy-Jill Levine tells us in our reading, the listeners would not just hear part of this story, or a selected reading, edited and divided into a three year lectionary.  The stories of Torah and the Prophets would be familiar, so much so that Matthew and Luke do not have to make the connections explicit.  Matthew does not have to say in the text, hey look Jesus’ father is Joseph and just like Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, who was a great dreamer, Joseph listens and heeds his dreams.  No for the listeners that connection was obvious.

One of my favorite Biblical scholars is John Dominic Crossan.  Crossan tells us in Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”  Too often in our modern world there is a division into camps, the stories must be literally true or inerrant, without error, or the stories are not factually true so therefore they are not important at all.  If I were to offer one critique of my experience of Unitarian Universalism is that all too often the stories of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are read and interpreted as literally true, or that their purpose is to convey facts or history as we understand them today.  This “literal” reading of the text then meets the UU emphasis on reason and rationality, which is a good thing, but then the text is dismissed, seen of being without value, or that it is a nice story, good to pull out a couple of times a year and then for the rest of the year it is put away, much like Amy-Jill Levine states in our reading today.  Much like Evangelical Christians who insist on the literal reading of the text, who will not engage in the possibility that the stories can be filled with Truth, with a capital T, without being literally true, much is missed. When we focus on did it happen, how did it happen, can we even know if it happened that way; we end up missing one, the message of the story which has nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred and two, the beautiful complexity which the authors used to weave their story.

The story of the birth of Jesus, is the story of the birth of a Jewish child, to Jewish parents, who was raised and steeped within both the culture and practices of Judaism.  When time is not taken to hear the stories under the story, we miss so much of what the writers were saying. So this year, this Christmas, this Hanukkah, let us listen for the stories beneath the story.  Let us look at Scripture, yes with reason, but also with creativity and imagination and seek to understand what these stories have to tell us today, what light they can shed in the darkness of our time, what hope they offer.  Let us make them living texts, ones who are both unchanging in the telling and whose meaning changes as the times and world changes.  

The stories of this Jewish family were written to give hope to a people struggling under an oppressive Roman Empire.  They were to give hope to a people who had lost so much.  They gave a way to understand their situation and to hold on to hope even in the darkest of days.  Matthew’s story in particular, reminds us how even children are not spared the cruelty that we humans are capable of inflicting on one another.  As we look in the faces of the families fleeing from Syria, from Yemen and from so many other places filled with war and killing, let us see this Jewish family, on only the words of a dream, fleeing danger and death.  We can imagine Joseph maybe wondering if he was just a little crazy to uproot and move his wife and young son to take a long journey to Egypt, how scared Mary must have been and the trust she had in Joseph to protect her and their child, and for a young child, leaving all the familiar things behind but held safely in the arms of his parents as they ran.

So I invite us in this celebration of Christmas and the celebration of Hanukkah, to look at these texts anew.   I invite us to worry less about whether a lamp of oil burned eight nights instead of one or if Jesus was really conceived by the Holy Spirit, or if Matthew’s version is more accurate than Luke’s version, and reflect instead on what these stories may tell us about today, about our world, about our own lives.  I invite us to peel back what we have been told, or what we think we know of these stories, and hear them anew.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a Joyous and Hope-filled New Year!

Friday, November 25, 2016

A New Chapter

When I was finishing my Masters Degree, I had a theme song for my synthesis paper - Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield.  It wasn't just that it was ironic, but as I was writing my paper the line "Staring at the blank page before you; Open up the dirty window; Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find"  I saw my paper as putting down the words and thoughts that I could not find somewhere else.

Today, a different line calls out to me: "Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten." Well maybe not a whole new book begins but certainly a new chapter is starting and for it to begin, I must close the door on the previous one. I have been slowly, a piece at a time, been writing the last words of this chapter.  Sometimes with eagerness, sometimes with anger, and sadness and certainly some trepidation as the next chapter opens with a blank page waiting to be filled.

As I was getting ready to leave the Outer Banks, I wrote a blog post called "We are Called Unto Life" and in it I wrote, "What I have learned is that I want a life, a full life, a complete life.  I want it filled with people and community.  I feel like over time I made myself smaller, shrank my world down and now I want to burst forth and explore the world." The title of the blog comes from the evening prayer in the Reform Siddur, Mishkan T'filah,

Over the last year and half, I have struggled to shed the image of myself as minister. This was not about not valuing that work, it is about needing to be seen as more than that, that my skills and experience were transferable to other professions. In addition to what I have needed professionally, I was finally free to explore Judaism.  I was no longer serving a congregation, there was no one to question me about my "loyalty."  When I left the Outer Banks I said that there were three things I wanted to do: explore Judaism, start a Georgetown alumni club and join a book group.  So I have been working on the first two but have yet to find a book group that speaks to me.

Over this year and a half I have been attending Congregation Or Ami, one of the two reform synagogues here in Richmond. I have taken two classes Introduction to Judaism and Introduction to Hebrew.  I have attended the High Holy Days services for the last two years and Shabbat on a fairly regular basis.  This year I also accepted a position teaching the 8th grade in the religious school. During this same time I have I had a foot in both worlds - remaining in the fellowship process within Unitarian Universalism and attending and participating at Or Ami.  It is time to stop having my feet in two places.  For many years now, I lived my life in the betwixt and between - not fully a minister, not solely a religious educator, identifying as a UU and attending a Reform Synagogue.  There is a value to letting yourself living in the liminal spaces and at some point one steps out of it, placing oneself in one place and hence a new chapter is beginning.

I have finally chosen where I want to be.  This past week I officially withdrew as a candidate for ministry within Unitarian Universalism.  I had already removed myself from various UU groups and pages on  Facebook. Secondly, I met with Rabbi Ahuva from Or Ami and I have asked to formally join and to start the conversion process.  One of the hard things I am giving up is guest preaching for UU Congregations.  I will preach one last time at UU Congregation of the Rappahannock on Christmas Day.  The title for the sermon is "A Jewish Family: Joseph, Mary and Jesus."  I have to say realizing that I would have to give up preaching has been hard to swallow.  I know when Rabbi Ahuva said that to me I felt a bit punched in the gut.

As I have thought about it though it makes sense, not just because of my desire to convert but because it is time to fully close this chapter and guest preaching is part of it.  I am also re-thinking about what I have here on my blog about what I do and I have taken down my wedding officiant Facebook page.  All of this is about deciding where I want to be, what I want to be and to do that I can't hang on to pieces of the past that no longer fit.  Yes I love preaching and the reason I love it is because for me it is about teaching.  The identity that I want to shine out even brighter is that of teacher.

Professionally working as an Adjunct and an instructor at Or Ami, has put new life into my working life. Maybe, just maybe I will finally find that full time job outside of a congregation that I have been searching for.  Maybe I will now be seen as an educator, a person passionate about the power of education capable of teaching, coaching, directing and creating programs.  That is my hope.  When I first got to Richmond I remember a conversation I had with a staffing agency that I just looked like a minister and that I would want to go back there.  I bristled and I have to say I have revised my resume, my cover letters, my LinkedIn profile to enhance my profile as an educator, trainer and outreach manager.  It has been hard to change my brand, as they say, to be seen in new ways.  In the process of this re-branding, I have come to see myself differently.

I will always be a religion geek - loving ethics and theology along with the why and how of faith.  I am not renouncing any part of what I have done or been, rather I am choosing to start a new chapter or maybe even it is a new book.  Most profoundly I have found in Judaism the religious home I have been seeking.  Here, like Jacob I can "struggle with God," whose new name Israel means "one who struggles with God."  I am not asked to believe impossible things.  One hallmark of Reform Judaism is the idea of  informed choice.  It is expected that I will learn and know the variety of ways people practice Judaism, including things like the dietary laws, and determine what practices resonate and work to deepen my life, particularly my spiritual life.

I do not make this choice lightly or with haste.  It has taken me a year and a half of prayer, reflection and participation at Or Ami to come to the point of joining and deciding to start the conversion process.  I told Rabbi Ahuva that I plan to take a full year before completing the ritual of conversion. This year for me will begin after I preach my final sermon on Christmas Day which also corresponds to the first full day of Hanukkah.

One unique part of my journey is that while I am choosing to be Jewish, my family is not.  So a part of this year will be figuring out how to observe the holidays and Shabbat in the context of a family that is not.  We have agreed as a family that there are things we will do together like celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the candles and enjoying latkes and hopefully make sufganiyah (fried jelly filled donuts) and Donna loves the festival of Shavuot because it means I will make cheesecake.

While I do not know all that this next year will hold, I do know I am both at peace and excited about the journey. Unwritten says it well:
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Celebrating Giving Thanks - Revisited

As I am striving to get back into my routine of Throwback Thursday posts and new posts, I offer this sermon from November 2014.  I know this Thanksgiving is complicated one for many and that families have been torn apart due to the recent election.  It can be hard to feel grateful when so much, to so many of us, seems to be wrong. Also let us remember the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Once again, in the interest of "progress" and outright greed the land of Native Americans is being taken.  The pipeline threatens clean water and sacred burial grounds. Once again violence is being used to suppress the voices of those who only desire is to have their land left undisturbed, their water clean, and the burial ground left in peace. 


This sermon was preached Sunday, November 23, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  

Readings:
Story for All Ages: The First Thanksgiving, adapted and drawn from this piece from National Geographic.
Reading: Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Oct. 3, 1865

Celebrating Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday.  As a child I believed with my whole heart the image of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting down to a wonderful feast, celebrating cooperation and friendship.  I was taught little about the settlements at Roanoke and Jamestown.  It seemed to me that American history began with the Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims.  My understanding of the relationship between the colonists and Native Americans was also rather simplistic that did not encompass the genocide inflicted on the Native people of this land by the Colonists.

Now my understanding is much more complex. Yes there was a Fall Feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans. There was cooperation for many years until the Colonists decided they did not want to cooperate any longer and wanted full scale control of the land.  In our reading for today we learn that the agreement between Wampanoag  and the English settlers for mutual support and defense, lasted only for one generation.  Many Native Americans in New England and other places refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving and instead gather together to remember and grieve the broken promises and those who lives were lost.  A powerful reminder that Thanksgiving is complicated filled with both celebration and grieving.

It was for this sermon that I first read Abraham’s Lincoln Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. Funny how that while I knew well the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, I knew little or nothing about Lincoln and Thanksgiving.  So Lincoln offers this Thanksgiving Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War which will not end for another two years.  It was a woman, Sarah Joespha Hale, who began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving after discovering the 1621 fall festival labeled as the first Thanksgiving back in 1846.  Lincoln actually declared two Thanksgivings, one in August of 1863 following the battle Gettysburg and the second for General Blessings in November of 1863.

Here in the midst of much suffering on both sides of the Civil War – with young people dying, with families pitted against each other and the unity of the country at stake, Lincoln calls us on to stop and give thanks.  He acknowledges all that there is to be grateful for – bountiful fields, riches from the land such as coal and precious gems and a growing population despite the loss of life on the battlefield. He makes clear that resources that could be used to further peaceful industry are going to war.  He calls upon people not just to remember that is not ultimately themselves that created this bounty but rather to remember that these gifts come from God.  He called for Americans to be humble and thankful.  Secondly he called for people to remember those suffering the most during the war – widows, orphans, mourners and suffers due to the war.  It was not just to be a day of thanks but also a day of penitence, a day to remember what injury we had inflicted on others.  He wrote “And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

This afternoon I will be preaching at the Ecumenical Thanksgiving service and the Hebrew Scripture reading is from Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Jewish Torah.  It is a record Moses’ final instructions to the people of Israel as he won’t be leading the people into their entry into the Promised Land.  In this particular reading from Chapter 8, Moses instructs the people that the purpose of their wandering in the desert for forty years was a test of their faith and faithfulness. It was to humble them and prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in this new land.  They had known hunger and eaten Manna – a new food to them.  Moses tells us that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. In short God had provided for them during the wilderness and now finally long promised and long awaited here was the Promised Land.

One cannot help but draw parallels between the Israelites and all the various peoples who ventured forth to find a “new to them” land.  The English, French, Dutch and Spanish all found their way to this North American continent.  They wrote letters home describing the riches.  See if any of these descriptions sound familiar as I read the description from Deuteronomy of the land the Israelites are about to enter “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.”  Who would not want to enter such a land?  Who after a long journey of searching would not want all of this?  Does this not resonate with the letters the colonists wrote back to England, France and Spain about the abundance of the land on this new to them continent?

Lincoln, like Moses, warns the people to not become arrogant, to not forget that they are not self-forming and self-creating, to remain humble, to remember that all of this bounty is a gift.  Moses reminds the Israelites to remember where they came from – for the Israelites, they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Lincoln reminds the people to give thanks to God for all their blessings.

Like the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, the story of the Israelites and the Promised Land is a complicated one. A story that continues today in both lands as Native Americans continue to suffer in this land of plenty and war continues in Israel as well.  All of us would do well to be humble and penitent as well as grateful.

So as we go into this week let us give thanks for the many blessings in our lives, in our families and in our community. May we enjoy time with friends and family.  May the food, storytelling and laughter be abundant.  May we stop and take a moment to give thanks. 

Let us also remember those who are suffering – those who will be working to serve the ever growing hunger of consumerism rather than being with their families, those who are working to continue to keep us safe, to put out the fires, to care for the ill and the dying.  Let us remember those who are hungry in body and hungry in spirit, those who are alone, those alienated from family, those who are without homes, those who are grieving, suffering in body and spirit. 


Do not let suffering diminish our own gratitude but rather deepen and fire our commitment to do our part to heal this hurting world.  Let us hold the paradox – hold the complexity. Even within our own lives let us hold the paradox of abundance and want.  Some of us may be celebrating a first holiday without a beloved friend or family member, others may be far away from children or parents and yet may their love and memory fill our hearts.  Let us commit ourselves to doing our part to heal this world.  May we work for a community where there is a little less suffering, fewer people alone, fewer people hungry in body and spirit.  Let us give thanks for the ability to make a difference so that this land becomes a bountiful and abundant place for all of life – human, plant and animal.  


May it be so!



Thursday, November 10, 2016

So What Comes Next

November 9, 2016

It has been a long, sad night and morning here in my household. We proudly voted yesterday to elect the first woman President and that didn't happen.  While Virginia went blue (maybe those phone calls paid off) and she won the popular vote, she will not be our President. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with grief. There are many of us who are afraid of what this means for ourselves, our families and for so many others who have been mocked, scapegoated and vilified throughout this election by the man who will be our President.

I was not an immediate Hillary supporter.  I supported Obama in 2008, Bernie in the primary and I was disappointed with the primary results.  Yet then I started reading and listening, I watched all the debates, I heard her story, and then I got excited.  I was not just voting for the lesser of two evils, I was voting for an intelligent, prepared, and qualified person, who would also be our first woman President.  I made phone calls to get out the vote (I had never done that before), and we gave a tiny bit of money.  I read articles, shared them, argued with people on the internet (ok that may have been less than productive), I voted and I prayed.

I have been grieving and crying. I am so impressed again with Kaine, Clinton and Obama and the way they are graciously stepping up and working for a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.  I can't even imagine what they are feeling.  If I am this sad what is it like for all of them and their families? I have never grieved like this over an election. I have been disappointed, I have been angry but never have I feared so much for myself and for so many others.

In terms of the most outrageous of Trump's policies, I do trust that our system of checks and balances will prevail.  I know that this is the time, to organize and work together for the country that we do want - one of inclusion, diversity, and prosperity for all.  It is going to be a challenging and difficult time. We will need to organize and those of us who have been a little more on the sidelines, will need to step up and out of our comfort zones.  I had never made phone calls before, and from this first experience I know that I will do it again. Today I am figuring out what I can start doing right now to work for a more inclusive, diverse community.

Even more so than Trump, I fear those who attend his rallies, who believe his message, who are looking to "get their America back."  I think they too are in for profound disappointment as walls are not built, Muslims are not barred from entry and deportation forces do not remove millions of people and then in other moments, I fear that the deportations could happen. I fear their anger and their fear that somehow while women, people of color, LGBT people have pushed their way to the table they have somehow lost something.  I fear the violence they have threatened.  I fear for the example Trump has set for our children, making bullying acceptable since our President has engaged in it.  I fear a rise in sexual harassment and assault and women feeling even less safe. I fear what happens when there are no jobs coming back or trickling down and those who supported him finding themselves paying more taxes. I fear what happens when his supporters start realizing they are losing insurance with employers less likely to pick it up again or they find that 'private' insurance does not cover existing conditions. And most importantly I fear the creation of a more entrenched us vs them.

See this election was not just about Trump or even Clinton - as Hillary said it was about the kind of country we want to be.  And the pain from many of us comes from knowing now that our beloved country harbors such deep seated racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. because given his rhetoric how can we not feel that those who voted for him believe these things. I do find comfort in the fact that he did not win the popular vote - most of us who voted did not want him.  I have hope that we still really want a diverse, inclusive and just country.

So today there are tears and some anger and yes there is some hopelessness.  Yet I take strength and comfort from the overwhelming number of people including the amazing Pantsuit Nation, that we will in fact stand up and work with everything we have to stop Trump and the the agenda he has for this country.  It is not just Trump, it is every lawmaker who actively works against women, people of color, immigrants, the working class, the poor, the LGBTQ community.  The work for justice, inclusion, a prosperous and just place for ALL will continue and new people, groups and organizations will arise to push it forward.

So today I will not let grief stop me from doing my work as a teacher, preparing for class, grading papers.  I will reach out to get involved with an organization to further diversity and inclusion.  The full time job search will continue.  Education may be even more important now than ever.

So if you are grieving today, know you are not alone. If you are angry, you are not alone.  If you are scared, you are not alone.  To the people outside the United States who read my blog - first thank you and I am sorry you are seeing such a dark side of our country.  It seems that just like we are seeing in many places around the globe the fear of the other, the fear of difference, it has taken power here too. It is not new, just like it is not new around the globe.  I don't know what will happen over the next four years. Just know that he does not represent or speak for the majority of us, who value our global connections and allies.

So today we grieve, then we will pick each other up - because we cannot do this alone.  We join together and we get to work.

Blessings,

At the polling place after casting our votes!


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Drowning - A Poem

Now I do not think of myself as one who does creative writing - poems, stories, etc. - that I am more of a creative prose writer who likes to reflect in long paragraphs on life.  However, not too long ago, this poem came to me.  I have edited it, tweaked it, changed the formatting. I have sat with it, wondered if I should share it.  Is it too personal? Would it make me too vulnerable?  On the other hand, there is another part of me that wants to share it, thinking that it needs to be heard.  Maybe there are others who have felt this way and have been searching for words to express what is in their hearts. So the need to share it has surpassed my fear. What is the saying - "the magic happens outside your comfort zone?"  So here is me, stepping outside my comfort zone.

Drowning


I am drowning...
      it seems like it has been for all time
I am hanging on with the two others who are counting on me,  
      on a thin ladder
This ladder keeps us from going under...but it is missing rungs 
      and the waves keep battering us
We can't yet reach a place above the water
There are those that have life preservers
     they throw them to us
     we hang on a little longer.....until they break
Some have no life preservers but they hear our cries,
They send love and prayers
Some have given us life preservers 
     but they no longer have any to share
Others have life preservers 
     but tell us that if they were to provide them it isn't a solution; 
     just giving you life preservers doesn't work

Meanwhile the storm rages,  the waves get higher and a few more rungs get knocked down
Once again we are slipping off the ladder,  
     once again we need life preservers to keep us going
Others don't know us,  they believe we can just haul ourselves back in
That if life preservers are provided 
     we will just want to get life preservers instead of working our way to dry land
They tell us this is our fault,  my fault
They call me lazy,  
     they don't really believe me that I am doing all the things I could do
     to get us to dry land
Trying every solution we know and trying ones others suggest     
     yet still we can't reach dry land,  
     getting out of the raging water 
     remains out of reach

I am drowning....there are two others counting on me
I am screaming and struggling
some just stand to the side and tell me to keep up the good work
They don't know how tired I am
They don't know that I don't know 
     how much longer I can tread water or
     if I will come up the next time the waves push me under

Dear G-d I am drowning
Do you hear my cries? 
Are you listening?
Can anyone hear me?
I am drowning...can you help?

We are not the only ones.
Some have just fallen in,  shocked,  
     unknowing of what to do
We can see them and remember how that felt
Others have been in here longer,  they are more tired,  
     more despairing
Some this is all they have ever known.   
Firm land under their feet is no more than a fairy tale.
I don't know if they still pray for relief,  for help,  
     for something different
Maybe they just pray to make it this day,  
     this hour,  
     this minute

Most do not want to see any of us
We remind them that the firm ground under their feet may not be so firm
Our cries for help are heard as a demand that they give something up,  
     something they "worked for" something "they earned"
     That we wouldn't be drowning if we had just
     "worked hard" and "played by the rules"
     instead we just want "a hand out"

I am drowning
We are drowning
Is anybody listening?
Is anybody seeing?
Can anybody help?