A central aspect of our UU faith is the goal of universal love as a basis for how we move in the world; ours is a tradition not based on belief, but on where we stand. On this Sunday we will explore what it means to truly stand on the side of love in order to live our first principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
The complete sermon can be read below:
We begin again in love. February is a great month to consider the concept of being in love. Because of Valentines Day, our minds may first go to the romantic kind of love.
We know, of course, that love goes beyond romance, and that it can be a noun, such as The love we share began with a rose. Or it can be a verb, a word that depicts action, such as I love you.
If its the action kind, then love happens through the words that come out of our mouths, the work completed by our hands and the destinations found by our feet.
Often this all occurs in the mind and heart and life of an individual, but sometimes its a collective love that finds the words, does the work, and is carried to the farthest reaches of the universe.
This is a story about collective love, a story that involves your own spiritual family.
It was a hot summer day… July 27, 2008 to be exact. People had gathered in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville to watch the children and youth of the congregation present the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, many thought the noise was part of the musical, but they quickly realized there was a gunman in the sanctuary. Some people ran from the room, others threw themselves and their children under the pews. The gunman killed Greg McKendry when he moved in front of others
to shield them from gunfire. The gunman wounded several other adults including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the congregation, who later died of her wounds. People in the sanctuary tackled and subdued the gunman, who had concealed his shotgun in a guitar case as he entered the church. The police arrived and took into custody the shooter, David Adkisson. Adkisson, an Army veteran, had left a letter in his car expressing his frustration with being unemployed, and stating that he was motivated by hatred of liberals, democrats, African Americans, and homosexuals. The police affidavit reports that Adkisson later stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country. Adkisson further stated: “This isn’t a church, it’s a cult. They don’t even believe in God. They worship the God of secularism. The UU church… embraces every pervert that comes down the pike, but if they find out you’re a conservative, they absolutely hate you. I know. I experienced it.”
In early 2009, Adkisson pled guilty to two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Following the shooting, a witness said, “Everybody did exactly what they needed to do. There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It’s a remarkable congregation of people. I’ve never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.”
The loving response was that both Knoxville UU congregations pledged to remain open and welcoming. In fact they chose to embrace their inclusive and loving spirit even more boldly in the days that followed.
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was born out of this tragic shooting, created to confront oppression and violence that occurs based on ones identity; it is a call to pursue social change through public advocacy and witness… speaking out in solidarity with those who are publicly demeaned.
In the case of this story, Unitarian Universalists were the oppressed and demeaned, the victims of violence based on our liberal identity.
For a change, we, a largely white, educated, higher wage earning demographic, were the victims of bloodshed because of who we are.
While this shooting in Knoxville was obviously tragic, it does have the potential of helping us to appreciate what it feels like, not to be the helper of the oppressed, but instead what it feels like to be the oppressed.
Perhaps because of our own victimization our hearts can be a bit expanded, our minds and eyes keener to note instances of others marginalization that surround us each and every day.
We are called, though, to not only notice and feel deeply about oppression, but to also rise up, walk boldly and witness publicly against oppression.
It’s like Cornel West’s quote in your order of service…
Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.
Has there been a time when you boldly and publicly responded to a call to witness by taking a stance that put your feet squarely on the side of love?
Has there been a time when you received that call, that tug on your heart, but your feet didn’t respond with movement?
If you did respond, what inspired your choice to do so? What internal experience deep within you occurred that resulted in the clarity and courage and conviction to move you to love’s
And if you didn’t respond, what kept you from it?
Often we Unitarian Universalists are among those who actively respond to such a call. And thus, we see ourselves as the good guys, the do-gooders, blessed with insights to recognize injustice and to work toward its eradication.
On a caring and insight-o-meter, we’d rate high.
There actually is a tool like that, called the Intercultural Development Inventory, which measures intercultural competence – how we perceive the world and how we respond to cultural differences that result in oppression.
On this inventory there is a continuum of competence. As I present the levels of competence or development, listen for the category that you think you best fit in.
The lowest is denial, when one denies that there’s any cultural diversity and isn’t interested in addressing the topic.
The next level up is polarization, where one acknowledges that there’s diversity, and approaches these differences by creating us and them categories where the us-es are privileged and the thems are the not-so-privileged (to put it generously).
Next is minimization. People here recognize cultural differences, but find those differences to be unimportant, and choose to emphasize commonality. The Golden Rule fits here, because , “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” assumes that the other person would want to be treated like you, instead of being treated as they would want to be treated. A typical thought here could be, “We’re all basically the same in our shared humanity.”
After minimization is acceptance, where one is able to conceptualize cultural differences and similarities accurately, but remains largely in the theoretical stage of understanding without doing anything to foster change.
And the highest level is adaption, where you not only correctly understand cultural diversity, but you are able to adapt your behavior to cultural commonality and differences, and to thus work proactively to end injustice that stems from those differences.
You might be surprised to learn that a most Unitarian Universalists fall into the category of minimization.
IDI administrator and UU minister Tamara Lebak says that people often see themselves in the upper levels, but taking the inventory reveals limitations in the way we approach cultural diversity.
She reports that the scoring ends up to be a bell curve, where there aren’t many people who are in the denial or adaption levels, with more being in polarization and acceptance, and the majority being in the well-intentioned but ineffective level of minimization.
The continuum is a great roadmap to the side of love. If we are to truly stand on the side of love, we’re not actually just standing. We are proactively moving toward becoming more educated, then adapting, and then working for change.
Perhaps a better name for the campaign would have been “Working on the Side of Love” or “Marching on the Side of Love”.
The inspiring march of other people’s feet can deeply influence where our own feet take us. This is certainly true in my life.
I was inspired to work harder for change after witnessing Lizzie, the 9 year-old girl who would stand on the side of love in the school cafeteria when she would leave her table of well dressed peers and go sit with and share food with the children at the “poor kids” table.
I was stirred to become more active after meeting Beth, a woman who entered seminary in her 60s so that she could stand on the side of love by filling the gap of ministry offerings to individuals who struggle with mental illness.
I was inspired by Sam, who, when others were fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, decided to move to that beleaguered city to help the victims of the hurricane, many of whom started out marginalized and poor, only to be further marginalized by the government’s response and to become even poorer after the storm took what little they had.
These are but some of the instances that inspired change within me. What in your own past serves as levees that successfully hold back the flood of injustice?
Perhaps you now are inspired to stand on the side of love for Syrian refugee families. It can be any injustice that causes a welling up of passion within you that causes you to emerge from the role of a passive bystander on the side-lines of love.
This is a question that we must continually address within ourselves and our communities, if we are to live out – not just believe in – our first Principle of recognizing and proclaiming the worth and dignity of every person.
I will now share with you a prayer that invites us to feel our sadness about injustice, to examine our own lives and contributions to it, and to work toward healing.
It’s based on a prayer written by Krista Taves, Canadian UU minister who served the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Ellisville, Missouri, near the town of Ferguson, which has been fraught with racial tension in the past few years.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of Life that flows through our hearts like a never-ending stream,
On this blessed day we are filled with gratitude to find ourselves together once again in this sacred time and place,
unified in our diversity by the hope and compassion in our hearts, as well as the sadness that injustice and violence brings.
We know the brokenness of our world, even if we struggle to know what our part in that is, what there is for us to do.
We ask for forgiveness for the ways that we have helped to create this brokenness,
perhaps even benefited from the injustice.
We ask for clarity in discerning how we as a community move forward, how we reach out in our community,
seeking possibility in every corner, especially those corners we would be prone to judge,
for in the places that we neglect and judge, there is our salvation.
May we hearken unto the waters of justice and the never-ending stream of peace,
may we be part of the promise and part of the healing.
We are called to this not only by the imperatives of our beloved religious tradition,
but also by the calling and the urgency in our deepest conscience.
In the spirit of justice and peace and transformation, and the love that unites us, this we pray.
Indeed, we all have a role in contributing to our world’s brokenness. Our call, however, is not to be mired in those realities.
May we instead be heartened that we are still the blessed recipients of a call to let our cries for justice ring out, to reach out with our hands, to march with our feet to a place of lasting love.
So may it be.
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