We hope you will join our new blog and keep updated with our sermons, blog series, and other posts reflecting the ministries of this community.
In our to keep our sermons currently posted, and to be creative with our outreach, we are joining with other Unitarian Universalist ministers in the Westchester on the blog site "Voice for Liberal Faith". You can visit our blog posts by follow this link: http://www.voicesofliberalfaith.org/.
We hope you will join our new blog and keep updated with our sermons, blog series, and other posts reflecting the ministries of this community.
Dancing Into Jerusalem
Rev. Peggy Clarke
Palm Sunday, 2016
Hastings on Hudson, NY
Reading from Christian Scripture:
Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Jesus is riding on a donkey, entering the city of Jerusalem. The people knew he was coming and they were at the gate to greet him. They’d lined the road with cloaks and leaves and were waiving branches from palm trees and singing, dancing and celebrating. This wasn’t random. Kings travelled with great processions while the people made their path easier to traverse and celebrated their arrival. Jesus was planning to celebrate Passover with friends and family in the holy city, and he was being welcomed like royalty.
Jews in Jerusalem were a significant and often persecuted minority. It was heretical and therefore treasonous to remain outside the established religion. Jews lived in Jerusalem with great trepidation. During Passover, people travelled from all over to celebrate these holy days near the Temple. The population of the town swelled and the people celebrated. Of course, Passover is also a feast in celebration of the Jewish escape from slavery and victory over their oppressors. It’s a season of empowerment especially poignant as they were living in an occupied territory.
With that in mind, Jesus has staged a piece of political theater. He comes riding into town on the back of donkey. This scene would have been especially exciting because it brings to mind the prophet Zechariah who proclaimed that the King would come to town just like this. And that is how people imagined their Messiah. He was to be a king. They saw him and danced.
At about the same time, on the other side of town Pilot is riding into Jerusalem at the head of a column of Roman troops to keep order in Jerusalem during Passover. Thousands of Jews will be celebrating a triumphant moment in history. Pontius Pilot understood the potential for unrest, and so, he entered the city armed for battle, demonstrating his own great power.
Jesus’s entry is seen in direct comparison to the Roman entrance. Jesus enters softly, walking on fabric. The drums beating around him weren’t calling for war, but for peace, for the beginning of a new world, a world in which love and healing and hope were commonplace. He started with a tiny circle of friends but now had thousands of followers, all of whom were ready for the end of the broken system that kept them poor and the beginning of a system that was wholly different from anything they’d known before.
Two processions. One a parade of war from the systems in power, a parade of unquestionable dominance. The other, a parade of peace, of love and healing and hope for a new world. Jesus has been on a journey of speaking truth to power, even the power of his own people, of challenging societal norms like the place of women and the value of people regardless of physical ability and the need for humility and clarity of place and purpose. He challenged norms around money in a culture that assumed having access to money gave someone value. In fact, during his time in Jerusalem, Jesus visited the temple with a knotted cord and drove the merchants, the money changers, the bankers- out. He was pushing a new vision for the world that moved money out of religion and shifted the shared cultural value system toward care for one another over profit. He welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned and fed the hungry and healed the sick and he told his followers that they could and should be doing that too.
And when he brought his message to Jerusalem, the capital city, where both Romans and Jews had staked their power, Jesus was offering a living alternative to the current power structure and the people were dancing in the streets.
The thing is, Jesus was dead in a week. It’s a good thing he’s not the most important part of the story. The people in the streets are what this story is really about. If they weren’t, this would all be a fairy tale we’d be telling to our Jewish or Pagan children- or more likely, it wouldn’t be remembered at all. But the story isn’t about Jesus. It’s about the people who were dancing, the people who were singing, the people who surrounded him and later carried his message of love to the world.
Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan did some great work many of you might be familiar with called The Jesus Seminar in which they state:
“It is important to realize that what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. [As] empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is simply the way domination systems behave. So common is this dynamic that it can also be called the normalcy of civilization. Good Friday [meaning the execution of Jesus as a political prisoner] was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization.”
I’ve been wondering during this election cycle about the normalcy of our civilization. In the lead for one party’s Presidential nomination is a candidate who incites violence during his rallies against people who disagree with him, who thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is “disgusting”, who has started to remove black people from his rallies even if they are silent, has called Mexican people rapists and criminals and has promised to kill entire families. But, this isn’t about him. It’s about the people in the streets.
A few weeks ago, students were chanting “Trump” to intimidate black high school students during a basketball game and lest you think it’s just high school kids, the same chant with an added “Build a wall” was used by adults during a Celtics game after a Latino player missed a shot. The normalcy of our civilization is invoking hate crimes and sometimes it’s not just a threat. Violence against black and Latino people is on the rise as is the White Power movement. A Muslim cab driver was recently killed by a Trump supporter. On Friday, two sixteen year old Muslim boys were beaten badly at a gas station while people shouted “Trump”. Taking the rhetoric to its logical conclusion, a lawmaker in Iowa has put forth the idea that people in the US without papers should be executed.
Hate gives us great power. When the world is changing, when we are afraid we are losing dominance, when we are defeated by a system that keeps us poor and working harder than is healthy or even possible, hate give us back our power. We can find someone to blame and we can do something about it. Mexicans. Muslims. Black people. We can deny women self-determination. We can build walls. We can dominate.
But the same way this isn’t about the candidate, this also isn’t about this moment in history. What’s happening isn’t new. We don’t suddenly have a candidate who is coming in from the outside with a new strategy. This is the normalcy of our civilization. We’ve been watching racism play out on the national stage since 2008. But, that’s not the beginning either. The American stage for the institutionalization of hate and domination was set 500 years ago. This is the normalcy of our civilization.
When Hitler was elected to office, even some Jews voted for him. Plenty of people wanted change, felt defeated and exhausted by their lives. Those who didn’t vote for him knew he was going to do things that they didn’t approve of, but the nation, and really all of Europe, had been through a lot over the centuries and they couldn’t imagine it being any worse. They figured they’d just get through it like everything else. The violence rose slowly and in response to problems stated rather than as directions. Hitler was a charismatic leader who talked about problems and those around him found solutions. He railed against “outsiders” like Jews and Gypsies. He didn’t like people he saw as a drain on society like those who were mentally or physically challenged. He didn’t like people who were different like gay or trans people were. He wouldn’t tolerate people who got in his way like Unitarians. He didn’t talk about genocide. He talked about having a problem for which his allies found solutions. Final Solutions so he would have no more problems.
Someone I respect asked me on Friday how I was handling the election cycle with my congregation. I told him, I’m not. It’s enough. We get enough of it everywhere. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for all of us to have one place we don’t have to think about the violence, the rise in hate, the xenophobia, the homophobia. He said, “You are American clergy with the gift and responsibility of a pulpit during a dangerous and volatile time. You don’t have the privilege of hiding your head in the sand, telling us you’re tired. You have been called to speak truth, to bear witness to what is right. You are a moral mirror for society and it not your time to take a break.”
But I want a break. I’m betting we all do. I’d love for this to be a sanctuary not just in name but in practice, a place we can go to get away from it all. But this man’s comments made me wonder what ministers in 1930s Germany were preaching about. If they were tempted to provide pastoral care and create a safe place of peace in their churches as xenophobia was empowered by violence in the streets and by the rhetoric of their political leaders. Were they tending to individual crisis or sadness or joy or just going to a lot of church meetings while ignoring the storm brewing outside their doors. Were they thinking that the political world was irrelevant or temporary or that it wasn’t theirs to worry about? Were they too busy to get involved, maybe wishing they could and being grateful some colleague of theirs would step out and say what needed to be said? And when his colleagues did that, and when they were killed for it, did he regret not standing with them? Not giving them some backing, not charging his congregation, his own community of moderates and middle class Germans with busy lives to take a stand? At what point did he realize his fatal mistake? And how did he live with it? Did he keep his mouth shut because he was afraid of losing his job?
Do you know a UU minister spoke out against racial profiling happening in her town just a few days ago and her board wrote a letter to the local newspaper admonishing her and declaring themselves in solidarity with the police? They recognized racial inequity but wanted two things to be clear: one, this woman was not speaking for them and two, they don’t want to challenge the status quo. It was a public shaming of a minister for challenging a practice most of us see as opposed to our First Principle affirming human worth and dignity. And it was an act of restoring the congregation back to the normalcy of civilization. I know where that congregation would have stood in 1930s Germany and where they stand as we begin to slide into similar territory.
Yesterday, hundreds of ministers, myself included, wrote a letter to that board calling them to stand with us in the work of justice. We called them back into our faith and covenant and we reminded each other of the necessity of solidarity during these difficult times. We cannot let the normalcy of our own civilization become the normalcy of our faith. We are called to challenge systems of dominance, not to support them. This is especially true when those systems violate human rights and dignity or inspire or even just passively allow violence.
The minister is an interim and therefore not called to her pulpit. Knowing that, she was very clear she was speaking for herself alone and was not representing her congregation. It’s a shame she had to do that; in my ideal world, congregations and ministers stand together in the fight for justice. But, she knew they wouldn’t so she distanced herself appropriately. Yet, they still couldn’t risk that anyone thought it was the congregation standing up for racial equity.
And, in case you’re wondering, I know that our board would never issue such a letter to our local paper about me. If nothing else, we don’t do things that way although that’s not the only reason something like that won’t happen here and it’s not why I’m telling you this. I’m telling you this because ministers often worry about the costs of speaking truth to power. Hell, look what happened to Jesus. We are called to be both prophet and pastor but I know I’m not alone in wanting to be pastor more than prophet. It’s so much safer.
But if things get any worse, I’m going to regret that. If my ability to speak or to be heard ends, I’ll know I squandered my chance to say what needed to be said.
And right now, this is what needs to be said: We might be tired. We might be overwhelmed with our own lives. We might have had enough of national politics. But it’s not time for us to take a rest. It’s time for us to push through, to stand together and to be clear that violence is not an acceptable response to a changing world, that racism and homophobia and xenophobia won’t be further institutionalized on our watch.
When Jesus and his followers were dancing and Pontius Pilot was marching, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been one of the soldiers maintaining the power structure. I like to think I’d be dancing with those liberated souls filled with hope for the new world. But, I wonder if I would have been one of the thousands of people not playing a role in our story at all. One of the women at home tending to her garden and children, making matzah for the holiday, not particularly aware of who’s coming or going at the city gates. Would I have been someone who allows violence to happen because I’m just not ready to speak against it? Would I have been silent? Am I being silent? Are you?
Our faith has never felt more relevant, has never been more necessary. We are the ones with the good news. We are the ones entering the gates of Jerusalem, dancing and singing and celebrating our counter-cultural hope in the face of the normalcy of civilization.
We are moral mirrors, reminding ourselves that this is not the time to disappear into our lives, this is the time to be bold, to speak out, to take risks, to speak truth to power. We are needed and we are in great need of each other. We have to be strength for each other, hope for each other, love for each other. I for you and you for me. Together we are strong. Blessed are we who come in the name of love.
Tomorrow after worship, I'm heading to DC. I'm one of 90 religious leaders invited to a meeting sponsored by the State Department about climate change. The meeting will focus on the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris in December. I'll be listening for where the cracks are, where there's still room to negotiate. I've been privy to all kinds of conversations with environmental organizations poised to declare the UN meeting a failure. I'm hoping the recent decision to defeat the Keystone Pipeline is a precursor to more bold moves to save our fragile planet's ability to maintain human life. I'm not ready to accept defeat- yet. (I continue to believe that our shared desire to breath will win out.)
I'll keep you all in the loop all through the month!
The only thing that makes the end of summer bearable is autumn. October is wonderful as Earth becomes a festival of color. Trees aren’t just spectacular with their oranges, yellows and reds but many of them are also heavy with apples, peaches, nectarines, and pears. Acorns are dropping and squirrels are scurrying and the waiting for slow growing crops like squashes and melons is finally over. The laziness of summer has given way to busyness as we all get ready for winter.
Our theme this month is wonder, an easy experience to access in October. Or, maybe I should say it’s easy, if we want it to be. It might be even easier to ignore it, to be too caught in the daily busyness of our lives. But an invitation is being offered, an opportunity is extended. May we all be wide-eyed this month, recognizing the glory and wonder of October.
The District Annual Meeting was the first weekend in May. The theme was multi-site congregations. You can learn more about them here. Multisite can mean one congregation planting a new church in an under-served area or a large congregation yoking with a smaller one to share staff and resources or two or more congregations partnering to create more effective economies of scale.
As it happens, the UU congregations in Westchester have been working on more intentional relationships over the last year or so. Our religious educators have been sharing programming and in the spring we engaged in the Great Pulpit Swap of 2015. All five ministers exchanged pulpits and preached on the same subject. It was so successful we've agreed to do it twice a year. We've even started a shared web site.
Being in relationship is part of congregational polity. Instead of the radically independent silos we've become, congregational polity calls every congregation to greater responsibility and accountability to our neighboring churches.
We are making great strides to living into our theology of interdependence as we move deeper into the 21st century.
Unitarian Universalism has roots in the Puritan tradition. We continue to use the Cambridge Platform from 1648 as a founding document which is a good thing since it has some gorgeous language about covenant and how we are to be in relationship with each other.
Aside from the covenanting we will be doing between congregants, the Cambridge Platform describes a need for strong bonds between congregations. Healthy congregations (like healthy people and healthy families) are not isolated; they are in real relationship with others.
The ministers of the five congregations in Westchester county are taking this charge seriously. We are working on many ways to be in relationship with each other. It started about 18 months ago when we started to meet monthly to seek each other’s council and begin more intentional connections.
The fruits of that have already been seen. Last year, Rev. Garmon from White Plains and I switched pulpits and our choirs joined together for a joint concert. Just last week members of Mt. Kisco joined us for our Head, Heart, Hands series and members of White Plains joined us for our CommonRead. Both were greatly enriched by the diversity of faces and voices in the room. And we’ve been invited to a myriad of events in other congregations including the upcoming environmental film series in Croton. I look forward to the day we venture out and join with our fellow UUs.
On Sunday, March 29, all the UU ministers in the county are exchanging pulpits. Unlike last year, this is a county-wide exchange. I’ll go to Croton, Rev. Lenzi will go to Mt. Kisco, Rev. Tino will go to White Plains, Rev. Garmon will go to Mohegan Lake and Rev. Brammer will be in our pulpit in Hastings. We’ve agreed to preach on the same thing: Unitarian Universalism 100 Years From Today.
This is an exciting next step. I’m thrilled that we are extending our boundaries a little bit to include our colleagues in faith. And I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Vision is an important piece for a congregation- any congregation. When religious people get together, it’s good to have a plan. No, more than a plan. It’s good to have a fantasy about what the world could, even should, look like.
People who belong to congregations have more than most. We have each other. Our visions for the world aren’t just ours; they are shared. And more than shared, they are possible because we aren’t alone in it. John Murray, a long-time member who passed away about a year and a half ago, once said that there’s great possibility in congregations because 150 like-minded people can really get things done if they put their minds to it.
This is why, on Sunday, March 1 after the service, we started to create a shared vision. No, a fantasy. We dreamt together about who we want to be both within our walls and in the world. It was a fabulous conversation even though it was only 45 minutes of our planned two hours, thanks to the incoming snow.
After listening to people, we honed on three things.
1. We all want First Unitarian to be a place of spiritual seeking and finding.
2. We all want First Unitarian to be a place we can be cared for and care for each other.
3. We all want First Unitarian to be a place we can care for the world + work for justice.
I’m looking forward to part two as we discern together what this will look like and where we’re heading, together.