Finding one of her students making faces at others on the
playground, Mrs. Smith stopped to gently reprove the child.
Smiling sweetly, the Sunday School teacher said, "Bobby, when
I was a child, I was told that if I made ugly faces, it would
freeze and I would stay like that." Bobby looked up and replied, "Well, Mrs. Smith, you can't say you weren't warned."
That joke really has virtually nothing to do with the sermon topic. Originally it fit, and then I held on to it for no apparent reason.
Sometimes it's a long journey from starting to write a sermon to its delivery. This was one of those times. I began with an appreciation of the way UUS have embraced families of all shapes and sizes. I figured we could find some encouragement and challenge there. Then I was reading an update from the UUA campaign “Standing On The Side of Love.” This Valentines day, UU congregations made public witness to lift up the power of love to heal our world. Instead of focusing on chocolates and romance, 100 congregations chose to make public witness with a call for the day when there would be love and acceptance for everyone. Many congregations stood on the side of love for the rights of lgbtqs. Some advocated for immigrant rights. One congregation held a peace rally. Another sent a “To Haiti With Love” message.
I was happy to re-think Valentine's Day to talk about standing on the side of love with families. Around Valentine's Day there seems a lot of pressure to conform. There is an assumption that we are all supposed to want the same things. We all are supposed to want to get married; and not to a person of the same gender. We're all supposed to want 2.5 kids, one SUV, one nice big house. Now I am not knocking you if you own a large house, or an SUV. I am not knocking you if you and your spouse happen to be heterosexual, or if you have 2.5 kids. What I am doing is remembering with gratitude that UU congregations celebrate that loving families come in all shapes and sizes.
We want to give thanks for all the ways there are to bring love into this world. We honor the love that you single moms and dads have for your children. We celebrate love in families with lgbtq parents. We honor those who for the sake of children make efforts to have amiable relations with former spouses. We give thanks for children and acknowledge the power of the love they bring us. We want to mention the love and support that gets sent to sons and daughters and parents living miles away. We celebrate extended families, blended families, mix and match families. We give thanks to those of you who have made this world a better place by adopting and foster parenting. We honor the efforts of families who have a member struggling with disease, trauma or misfortune. We acknowledge the love expressed in the creation of families of choice; informal adoption of aunts, uncles, or grandparents. We celebrate lovers who are single, and people that have few or no immediate family. We give thanks to those who courageously claim the human race as family. We celebrate that loving families come in many shapes and sizes!
When I think of the way we embrace divesity in families, it makes me glad to be UU. Our AoC is helping a spiritual power to emerge in this world. When it comes to promoting tolerance of differences with regards to families, we UUs are bringing the spirit of love and acceptance to life. It's not the first time and it won't be the last that we are on the forefront of America demonstrating that being ethical, righteous, and compassionate sometimes requires us to let go of long held beliefs and behaviors. Love and faith encourage us to reconsider ideas that we were taught as “the way that things should be.”
We are striving to show this world how to be welcoming of the changing face of families in America.
We can be grateful that our religious tradition offers a haven of love and acceptance by celebrating diversity in families. We lift up these values and challenge each other to bring them to life. We want to challenge each other to bring our values into places that need them.
We are here for encouragement and challenge. What's that you say? You have enough challenge in your life? You came here for the acceptance? Really that's probably why most of us keep coming back. Because we found a place that offers acceptance. We found a place where there is some room for us to show who we are, to discover who we are, to let that unfold naturally. We can never be too grateful for the acceptance we find in our congregation. But UU congregations promise each other not only to promote acceptance of one another but also encouragement to spiritual growth. In other words, we hope you get lots of warm fuzzies here, but let's be honest,... if you stick around long enough or if you simply listen deeply enough on any given Sunday, you're going to get more than encouragement. You are going to be challenged. We hope you find love here, a love that asks you to stretch, to learn and grow. You know sometimes that isn't easy to do. Sometimes it doesn't feel good to even try.
But to participate in the living tradition of UUism, we are asked to promote acceptance and love for all of humanity. Our faith calls and challenges us to be agents of peace and justice, to go into places where prejudice and moralistic judgment gets in the way of love. We come together to encourage and challenge each other to bring love into places where people are mistreated.
This mission is central to who we are as Uus. I want us to have enough pride and self esteem about our tradition, that we become willing to continue it. This means holding tolerance and diversity as sacred, and bringing an experience of these values to people who won't always respond with gratitude.
It's not easy to accomplish, and that's why we need church. And let's be frank. It's not just that it's challenging to bring love and tolerance out into the world. It's challenging to do it right here. Sometimes the barriers to love, I'm referring to moralistic judgments, attitudes of superiority, talking about people, ...Sometimes these barriers to love exist, not just out there with them, buts right here with us. (pause)
Now, I also believe that we can be proud of our progressive culture. But we are not here to form a club for people who think they are better than the rest of society. We are here to accept one another and encourage spiritual growth. And as we strive to create and sustain a loving accepting religious community, we must also challenge one another to bring tolerance, love and acceptance into our families, into our schools, into our workplaces and even into public and political arenas. We need to do this and the world needs us to do this too. (Can I hear an AMEN?)
If you go to a school where you see kids get picked on and mistreated every day, what can you do about it? That is not a rhetorical question. I would be totally delighted to help you discuss this question, as no doubt your RE teachers and youth advisors would. It's not always easy to stand on the side of love.
But who else is going to bring UU values into your classroom? Perhaps the others present have never been to a place like this. Perhaps they can't imagine doing anything differently than what they have been taught to do. You have experienced a congregation that celebrates families coming in different sizes and shapes. You just might be the only person who is going to bring the good stuff found here into your worlds out there. Your classmates, your workmates, and the people in your life might not be able to show their appreciation, They might not even appreciate your efforts to bring about peace and justice. Do it anyway.
Now I know that things have changed since the days of Leave It To Beaver. These days it's normal to be from a blended family, to have one parent or divorced parents. But is your school or work place the kind of environment that people celebrate their gay or lesbian family members? Do people celebrate family members with disabilities? Yes, it's getting better, but is your school or workplace an affirming and welcoming environment? If not, you may be the only UU experience those people will ever get.
Now that I've turned the pressure up on you, let's be honest about the challenge. When it seems like the kids from the “right” families are more popular, when people are mean to each other, when cruel is cool, what can you do about it? When insults and put downs are start flying, your impulse may be to hurl some back. Maybe you are more inclined to become silent and invisible. Maybe you are just barely hanging in there. Maybe because you are smart or pretty or because you play the guitar really well, it seems like you have a fragile little bit of status.
If you open up your mouth when some kid is getting picked on because he has two moms, if you start spouting that liberal UU stuff, what will your friends do if they have been taught different rules than the ones your parents taught you? Will they turn and run, or worse, will they turn on you? Sometimes it's challenging to stand on the side of love.
Sometimes we just feel like smashing the opposition. Sometimes all we can imagine is that we will get creamed. Sometimes we can't think of a way to bring the spirit we've found here with us. Sometimes we try to bring UU values to school or to work and it doesn't go very well. Sometimes we decide that the best we can do is stay out of trouble. We're trying hard to get good grades, or to make money to provide for our families, or we are trying to choose wisely how to use our energy to exercise positive influence where we can. And probably we aren't chomping at the bit to become martyrs.
So sometimes we go running from places where people mock us. And we are so glad to find some safety and kindness like we find here. Sometimes we use the shelter of this place to talk about how bad "those" people are. We create enemy images of the people we think are not like us. We use this place to feel better than those people. Maybe we blame them for the way it is out there.
After all we do our part. We gave money to Haiti... Oh wait, a lot of “those” people who have different rules than us, did that too. Well, we recycle, we care, we are compassionate, we vote for people who care about people. We come here and we accept others no matter what the shape or size of their family.
I give thanks for these things. I really do. And you know where I'm going next. We don't stop there. We dishonor what we have found if we don't work to keep it alive. We can admit we're not perfect. We can become willing to change- ourselves. It means realizing that just like them, we too are prone to categorize the world into the good guys and the bad guys, and that once we have identified the bad guys, it becomes so tempting to justify treating them however we feel like.
Practicing what we preach as UUs means admitting that we don't have all the answers or all the skills to create the world we would like to live in. It means being willing to admit shades of grey. It means admitting that we don't always act in ways that are consistent with how we want the world to be.
Being UU isn't about conforming to one set of beliefs. Its about having a shared commitment to work to create the beloved community. We bind ourselves together work together to be stewards of this congregation and what it stands for. We know that this congregation isn't perfect, but it is a place that encourages us to bring love and tolerance into this world. We keep coming back here because we have found hope and encouragement, but also challenge. Hopefully we are here because we have some faith that we can learn to become more like the people we want to be. Hopefully we want to be someplace that asks us to go beyond society's limited focus for Valentine's Day, and shift our focus to working toward the day when there is love and acceptance for every person.
And whenever we see people being treated in ways that deny or obscure their inherent worth and dignity, we will do what we can to make things better. When people are discriminated because they are not from the right families, because of the composition of their families...because someone is gay or lesbian, or disabled, or from a different ethnic group, we will strive to act as a force for love and tolerance.
And sometimes we will not have what it takes to make things all better. And then we can grieve. Rather than hate those people who we think are to blame, or beat ourselves up, we can have the courage to grieve the times when we couldn't find a way to act with the spirit and skill that we want to have. I suggest we then make a commitment to figure out how to hang in for the long haul, to do what it takes to learn to bring more love into this world. We may not know what to do today. It may be hard to imagine that we can do anything differently. But we will keep coming back to places like this that encourage us and challenge us to believe that we can learn. That encourage us to have faith that a better day is coming, and to do our part to bring about the day when there is love and acceptance for every person.
So be it.