Skeletons (in our buildings, in our bodies, and in our closets)!
Rev. Jane Page
October 27, 2013
My Primary Sermon Series this year is entitled, “Building Our Church; Building Our Faith” – and I’m attempting to use the building metaphor – especially as it relates to OUR building renovation process – and tie it to our Unitarian Universalist faith – and/or our personal faith. So – since this is the Sunday before Halloween, I decided it would be a good Sunday to look at Skeletons (in our buildings, in our bodies, and in our closets).
On November 10, we will caravan after a short service here to our new building to “claim our space” there. And what you will be able to see when you walk into that big empty space is the SKELETON of our building. You won’t be able to see it later when we cover it up with walls, but you WILL be able to see it then. Now we are fortunate in that we have a STURDY skeleton. In fact, our building skeleton is made of STEEL. The skeleton (or steel frame) provides the framework for keeping this building up right and in shape. Just as the skeletons in our bodies do for us
Actually the skeletons in our bodies do more than just provide us structure. According to my sources, there are six primary functions of our skeletons: support, movement, protection, production of blood cells, storage of ions and endocrine regulation. Our Skeletons are super-important. And if you’ve ever broken a bone, or had some skeletal problem, you know this! Then why are skeletons scary!
Well, of course, skeletons represent death. Because when we die, our bodies return to dust leaving nothing but the skeleton.
The most famous use of skeletons to scare folks were the Jolly Roger flags pirates used to scare their victim ships, hoping when folks saw these they would go ahead and surrender everything. If they did not, they next would put up a blood red flag that meant that all would die.
Here are some other scary skeletons.
But not all images of skeletons are scary. The skeleton images used in Latino Day of the Dead celebrations are quite happy. You’ll hear more about the Day of the Dead next week – but I’ll share a few of the images with you now.
Why is there a difference in these images with other more traditional scary images? Well, I suppose it has to do with how we all VIEW death. And the Mexican view of death seems to be a whole lot happier!
Then what about that common phrase “Skeletons in the Closet.” What’s that about? It was first used in England. Then when they started having water closets in the houses, they changed it to Skeleton in the Cupboard. We still say “Skeletons in the Closet” here. In any case, it implies that you are hiding dead bodies that you don’t want folks to find out about. And it has come to represent anything in a family or group that you keep hidden.
Since we Unitarian Universalists are folks who more likely like to COME OUT of closets – or at least curious enough to explore them, I decided I’d take a look in our famous Unitarian Universalists and see what’s in the[JP1]ir closets and share that with you today. Because, yes, we have some skeletons in our UU closet!
Now we are very proud to have some of the founding fathers claim Unitarian as their theology. And they did some great things that we can be proud of. Here’s one of them. This is John Adams, second president of the United States. And here is his wife Abigail, also claimed by the Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, they held both Unitarian and Universalist ideas. Some have called them the grandparents of our country for the many, many good things they did for this young democracy. But that is not what this sermon is about. What we don’t lift up about Adams is his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
At the time, America was threatened by war with France, and Congress was attempting to pass laws that would give more authority to the federal government, and the president in particular, to deal with suspicious persons, especially foreign nationals. So disgusted was Jefferson with Adams' enthusiastic support of the Naturalization law that he could no longer support the president and left Washington during the Congressional vote. The first three of these acts were more related to aliens – strengthening citizenship requirements and making it easier for the administration to deport folks. There was much opposition to those, but the 4th act – the sedition act – was the one that really got him into trouble. And the outcry reminds me of those who now feel their rights are being abused in the name of security. This Sedition act gave Adams tremendous power to define treasonable activity including any false, scandalous and malicious writing. The intended targets of the Sedition Act were newspaper, pamphlet and broadside publishers who printed what he considered to be libelous articles aimed primarily at his administration. And many were arrested, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. Citing Adams' abuse of presidential powers and threats to free speech, Jefferson's party took control of Congress and the presidency in 1800.
So we say – YAY to Thomas Jefferson for standing up for our rights – right? Well we do applaud Thomas Jefferson for many great things that he did. Because of his Unitarian sympathies and theology, we claim Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian and include him in the “Famous Unitarians and Universalists” on the UUA web page. And our UUA district was even named the Thomas Jefferson District before finally being changed in recent years, after considerable struggle, to the Southeast District. After lauding his grand contributions, the UUA page devoted to him ends with this paragraph outing the skeletons from the closet.
Thomas Jefferson's genius is everywhere apparent in his thirst for and his comprehension of the best enlightened philosophy, history, science, political theory, agriculture and religion of his age. Tragically, he failed utterly to engage, in any substantively practical way whatsoever, the massive realities of American racial oppression and injustice. Jefferson's writings display deep reservations as well as moral anguish concerning Negro slavery; yet he never freed his own slaves. Much attention, in Jefferson's time and in ours, has focused on his …relations with his …slave, Sally Hemings, the …half-sister of his wife. There is now compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings' children. He did free two of Hemings' children in his will and Hemings was given her freedom shortly thereafter. But millions of African Americans have had to suffer many more decades of cruel economic slavery, even after legal slavery was ended in the 1860s, because of the common, absurd notion, which Thomas Jefferson shared and only mildly questioned, that the "dark" races were inferior to the "white." Moreover, Jefferson's presidential removal policies proved horribly destructive to Native Americans. They set the pattern for the Bill for Indian Removal, signed by President Jackson in 1830, whose cruel enforcement resulted in the Trail of Tears of 1838-39 and other atrocities. Jefferson's prophetic advancement of human liberty is deeply tainted by his shameful legacy in matters of race.
South Carolinian Senator John C. Calhoun was a Unitarian and co-founder of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC. He was a leading American politician and political theorist during the first half of the 19th century. He began his political career as a modernizer and he was a proponent of a strong national government. In fact, in 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators.
But here’s the skeleton – quoted from Wikipedia:
After 1830, his views evolved and he became a greater proponent of states' rights, limited government, nullification and free trade; as he saw these means as the only way to preserve the Union. He is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as something positive, his distrust of majoritarianism, and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union. And yes, he himself was a slave owner. Whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, Calhoun asserted that slavery was a "positive good." He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism. All societies, Calhoun claimed, are ruled by an elite group which enjoys the fruits of the labor of a less-privileged group.
Also, my friend and colleague Rev. Gordon Gibson pointed out this conundrum to me. He said, “We can be proud that when the Amistad case was argued before the Supreme Court the men and women who had liberated themselves and taken control of the ship were represented by Unitarian John Quincy Adams; but we also need to own that opposing counsel was John C. Calhoun, also Unitarian.”
Well, enough of politicians! There are others like Millard Fillmore (who passed the fugitive slave act) and William Howard Taft, who frustrated some Unitarians when he served as the association’s president; – but we’ll leave them and their skeletons alone for now.
What about other figures we brag about?
Well, there’s the famous architect and Unitarian - Frank Lloyd Wright, who even designed some of our churches. In addition to some unscrupulous business dealings, Wright abandoned his family and ran off to Europe with a women who was married to another man.
And there’s the popular showman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Universalist P.T. Barnum. Barnum was credited with the phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and he used that understanding in his business and entertainment practices. He rationalized that he used fraud and deceit as a way of getting attention – then gave folks the entertainment they desired. One of his hoaxes was Tom Thumb, who traveled through Europe with him as a “little man.” It was actually a little kid – that began his career at age four – and was taught how to act like a man, even smoking cigars and drinking. Here’s a picture of the two together.
And what about the women? Weren’t there Unitarian or Universalist women with skeletons in their closets? Oh yes, and there still are—of course. You can read my sermon on Julia Ward Howe to uncover some of hers. But today I’d like to tell you about Lydia Pinkham, who began as a Quaker but became a Universalist.
You may not have heard of Lydia Pinkham but in the 1880’s, she was one of the most famous women in America. Lydia Pinkham was a household name because she sold her famous vegetable tonic, a home brewed herbal remedy for female problems, under the name. The elixir promised to cure every womanly ailment possible including infertility. Advertisements claimed there was “a baby in every bottle.” And some men took it for ailments too. Lydia’s skeleton was uncovered, however, when the Food and Drug act had them reveal the ingredients and 20% of the tonic was alcohol.
SO – someone wrote a drinking song about her – and the Ballad of Lydia Pinkham became famous in the taverns. I’ve got the chorus on the wall – and you can sing it with me when you catch on.
Ballad of Lydia Pinkham
Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham
The benefactress of the human race.
She invented a vegetable compound,
And now all papers print her face,
Mrs. Jones she had no children,
And she loved them very dear.
So she took three bottles of Pinkham's
Now she has twins every year.
Lottie Smyth ne'er had a lover,
Blotchy pimples caused her plight;
But she took nine bottles of Pinkham's--
Sweethearts swarm about her each night.
Oh Mrs. Murphy (Oh Mrs. Murphy)
Was perturbed because she couldn't seem to pee
Till she took some of Lydia's compound
And now they run a pipeline to the sea!
And Peter Whelan (Peter Whelan)
He was sad because he only had one nut
Till he took some of Lydia's compound
And now they grow in clusters 'round his butt.
Well, enough of those so-called famous UUs. What about US? Do any of you have skeletons in your closet – things you are kind of ashamed of or don’t want folks to know? Well, I hope so – or otherwise you may just not quality to BE a Unitarian Universalist!
I recently sent you all an article by my colleague Rev. Tony Larsen entitled, “Why You Should Not be a Unitarian Universalist.” Did you read it? Well, I’m going to close out this sermon by quoting Larsen in this article – because I think it speaks to the acceptance of the skeletons we have in our closets. He says:
My friends, not everyone can be a Unitarian Universalist. Not everyone should be a Unitarian Universalist. Because the first criterion for getting into this church is: you've got to know how to sin. That's very important to us; and not everyone knows how to do it. We don't want people here who never do wicked things. We don't want people here who are holier than thee or thou. We don't want people who have made it in the salvation department and are just waiting around to get picked up. Because people with too much heaven in them are hell to live with.
Now don't get me wrong. If there were any perfect human beings around, we might let them in. But since there aren't any, anyone who claims he/she doesn't do wicked things is either trying to fool others, or trying to fool themselves. It is the nature of the human to be evil as well as good. And you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're not willing to admit that about yourself.
As a matter of fact, recognition of your evil has great power for mobilizing compassion. I say that from my experience in counselling. Some of the best therapists are the ones who know how to sin a little - maybe a lot. They're more tolerant of the human condition. They react with compassion rather than self-righteousness, with understanding instead of judgement.
Now, if you think you're too good - you won't like it here at UU. But with a little bit of hypocrisy and selfishness and deceit, you'll do fine. We're not asking you to try to develop those qualities, because you don't need to. Each and everyone of you already has them. We're just asking you to recognize them in yourself. It'll do wonders for your tolerance of others' foibles.
So folks – look in your closets, examine the skeletons in there, and tell them how much you appreciate them keeping you humble. And I’ll do the same.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
I was so excited when the congregation voted to accept the gift of the building on the corner of Cypress Lake Rd and the by-pass to renovate for our new home. And I’m still very excited. But I’ve had to overcome a little uncomfortableness along the way – and it’s related to our topic for today – tearing down walls. You see there are some interior walls on the south end of the building where the office area was separating three rooms, a storage area and a bathroom. In my own mind, I had envisioned that perhaps we could USE these rooms for RE space. But while planning with the Building Committee, others pointed out the need to have the sanctuary meeting space on that end of the building – and Matt even pointed out that the spacing with the walls wasn’t best for our purposes even if the RE classes were on this side. I knew they were right. For us to best utilize that space for worship and teaching and other aspects of our mission, those walls would need to be demolished.
What I did not admit to the building committee – or even to myself – was that my initial hesitancy about tearing down the walls was probably more related to my personal history of having been involved with putting them up in the first place when we built that building with the hopes of my son having a successful body shop business there. All those shelves back in that storage area,… I put them up myself. But that dream died. Fortunately, there is new life and purpose for that building, and those walls WILL come down.
The theme for this series of sermons is “Building Our Church; Building Our Faith.” And sometimes, that does require tearing down walls.
Now I’m not hesitant about tearing down all walls. I love tearing some down. We Unitarian Universalists have worked on removing walls for decades – especially those that unnecessarily divide us and lead to oppression – all those ism walls: racism, sexism, classism, and also phobia walls, built with bricks of FEAR: xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia, and on and on… Yes, all those walls that prevent folks from honoring that first principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all. And we celebrate the success we’ve had working with others to knock down some of these walls today. Many of you are wearing Rainbow colors in honor of 25 years of National Coming Out Days. Brick by brick we are tearing down those walls and we will continue to do so. I don’t have the same kind of hesitancy about tearing down those walls that are clearly obstructing a loving future.
But there are others that bring that same feeling of hesitancy to me that I felt about tearing the walls down in our building. That’s the same feeling of hesitancy I had when I first heard of some new ideas about the future of Unitarian Universalism proposed by our current president Peter Morales. Now – you know, we have congregational polity. And just because our president says something – doesn’t mean it’s so. But we did democratically elect him, so I thought I should listen to what he had to say. Let me share a little about this vision he has for Unitarian Universalism.
It starts with a look at the rapid change in our religious culture as discussed in a sermon he preached called “Breaking Down the Walls.” Peter is just a little older than me so I can also relate to much of this. He says:
"When I went off to college in the 1960s, only five percent of young adults said they had no religious identity. In other words, 19 out of 20 young adults at least claimed some religious label. By the year 2000, the number who said they had no religious affiliation had grown from five percent to 12 percent—from one in 20 to one in eight. That is significant, but nothing compared to what has happened since. The number of the “nones” (in this age category) has jumped to more than 30 percent today. The “nones” are, by a large margin, the fastest growing religion in America.… Make no mistake, this is a sea change in our culture."
Here’s more specific information I found from the Pew foundation.
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
Now Peter, with the help of some others, did a little research on these Nones to find out who they were. And this is what they discovered:
While the tens of millions of nones are skeptical of religious institutions, they are not hostile to spirituality. All kinds of surveys show that nones often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They want depth and meaning in their lives. They want to connect with ideals that transcend their narrow lives in service of something beyond the banality of consumer culture. In addition, the nones are open minded. They accept glbt people without a second thought. Marriage equality is no big deal.
The nones are also accepting of racial and ethnic diversity. They grew up among immigrants. And the nones are also accepting of cultural and religious diversity. They have no patience for a perspective that says one religion has all the truth and is the one and only way.
And the nones care about economic justice and the environment. We see their involvement in such things as the Occupy Wall Street movement. They care about issues like global warming and sustainability.
Who do they remind you of?
US! They are US – but they are not here. My initial thoughts are: Well, let’s bring them in. And we may be successful with some of them – but others aren’t coming here. And these nones are in addition to approximately 500,000 folks who IDENTIFY as UU’s but who are not affiliated with any congregation. All of these folks “out there” – beyond our walls – are like the WOLVES in our children’s story. They may be starving for spiritual nourishment, but they will not come in our walls for fear of losing their freedom. So what do we do to harness our resources with their resources and ideas to make a positive difference in the world and nourish one another spiritually?
That’s what prompted Morales and others to take another look at the walls we have in our congregations – and encourage us to take some of them down or at least lower them. These ideas are outlined in a document entitled “Congregations and Beyond.” In this document Morales makes it clear that he still considers the congregation to be the base for what we do. But to be effective today, we Unitarian Universalists need to move beyond our congregations.
The main gist of this is how we view ourselves. We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. Morales says that instead – “we need to think of ourselves as a religious movement. The difference is potentially huge.”
Associations and institutions are just not sexy enough I guess. Here’s an example of something that happened to Morales that probably affected his reasoning on this.
A couple of years ago, hundreds of Unitarian Universalists, all wearing their bold yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, joined in a huge protest of immigration policies in Arizona while they were at the Justice GA in Phoenix. Morales said that the news media were there in full force. His assistant was trying to get him interviewed on television by asking if they wanted to interview the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association – but before she could get “association” out of her mouth – they were gone. Then she had an inspiration and asked the CNN reporter if he’d like to interview the leader of the Yellow Love shirts --- and Morales was on live at the top of the hour.
I’ve also found in many of the things I’m doing with others in Statesboro – that I can often get a WHOLE lot more done, if I’m willing for some larger movement to get the credit – rather that highlight my own church. Now I’m still evangelizing for Unitarian Universalism – but I’m just sayin’… Sometimes, you have to let that go and just flow for goodness sake.
According to this “Congregations and Beyond” document, the implications of thinking of ourselves as a religious movement rather than only a collection of congregations are profound and liberating. Here is a few of the ways:
* We focus more on connection and less on “membership.” Paying attention to who our ministry serves, how many lives we change, and the difference we are making in the world can help us redirect our efforts outward.
* We invite people to connect to our UU movement whether or not they choose to join a congregation. We can reach out to young adults, students, snow birds, people living in foreign countries, linguistic and ethnic minorities, etc. They can all be part of the UU movement.
* We continue our efforts to connect with UU college students. We would make clear that they are still a part of our movement.
* We have a good way of taking in people through such portals as Standing on the Side of Love.
Now one reason I’m feeling better about this document and idea of lowering our walls is that our congregation is already doing it. That really became evident to me as we prepared our chalice lighter grant. Our Chalice Lighter Coordinator, Leon Spencer, suggested that we include a visual that showed our “footprint” – how we connected with others outside our own congregation. Here’s the visual he came up with after getting input from committee members.
These are groups outside our congregation that we have worked with in the past or that we continue to connect with in many ways. Indeed, we have lowered our walls at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.
We plan to be part of the bigger community this month by sharing our values in the upcoming Ogeechee Fair Parade – with our theme of growing our values. And we’ll also be sharing at the community Trick or Treat at Mill Creek on October 31. Of course our children will Trick or Treat for UNICEF on October 27 and we’ll pass on our gifts to the international community. Yes, we’ll partner with Magnolia Baptist Church in Feeding loads of hungry folks on October 15 – that’s this Tuesday folks. Your minister has also been invited for the very first time to take part in the Community Thanksgiving Service and she has enabled them to move it from the “main street churches” to the Averitt Center, so that it will truly be a community service. We also plan to work with Voces Unidas in having another wonderful celebration of Las Posadas in early December. And we’ll work with the pagan community in the celebration of the solstice. We’ve set up a “pagans in the boro” Facebook page for these folks to use to connect and make their planning easier. Additionally we have a virtual study group that is open to all called the Statesboro New Jim Crow Study Group on Facebook. Just this month alone, I’ll be representing you as your minister at two Georgia Southern events – presenting there at an LGBTQ conference and on a panel. Plus – our virtual outreach is wider than you think. Our “Just Jane” blog which has my sermons and other postings has had almost 23,000 pages viewed by folks from all over the world. We HAVE moved beyond the walls are widening our outreach-- and if you are not doing it with us, we encourage you to get involved.
Help us tear down any walls that are hindering us so that we can heal and nurture our congregation, our community, and the world.
Oh, may it be so.