Pentecost Sunday: Gifts of the Human Spirit

This sermon was delivered via Zoom with Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasco, WA on 5/31/2020.

Good morning Community Unitarian Universalist Church and thank you for inviting me to share in word and worship with you all. I say these words with the spirit in which they were written: in the spirit of life and love. Siblings, today Christian churches throughout the world are celebrating Pentecost Sunday. And as Unitarian Universalism emerges out of the Christian tradition, we too share in this day that marks the closing of the Easter Season. A season focused on rebirth, renewal, and hope. Which have been difficult to hold onto over the last three months. As scenes of anger, hurt, rage and pain play out across our country, I am called back to our siblings of the first century.

Translated from the Greek Pentekoste, meaning “fiftieth,” Pentecost became a Christian celebration 50 days after Easter Sunday. Derived from its Hebrew roots marking the “Feast of Weeks,” fifty days after Passover, Shavout is a day of remembrance of Yahweh gifting the Torah to Moses. Both feasts mark how a Holy Spirit of Life and Love inspired humanity into new ways of being as their worlds seemed to crumble beneath them.

As we heard in the story for all ages, Pentecost is a retelling of how the Holy Spirit granted the disciples and friends of Jesus of Nazareth with remarkable gifts: of language, interpretation, understanding and communication. All necessary gifts for compassion and empathy, helping bring an emerging religious tradition into the world; one with a focus on love of God and love of neighbor. A beginning that was marked with hiding in isolation after the state execution of the disciple’s teacher and friend. For centuries Christian communities would have to gather in small groups; huddled in their homes, afraid to go out in public.

Millennia later we too find ourselves hunkered down in isolation, wondering what the future may bring, and not knowing when an end to the hiding will come. These times are heavy not just with COVID and a failing economy, but reminders of the price of oppression on communities of the margins, with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Amid the tumult of our world, we need powerful spiritual gifts more than ever. And like the Apostles of the first century, who were also afraid for their lives, we Unitarian Universalists have holy gifts to face crisis and oppression with a gospel of love and justice. In these difficult times I wonder; what gifts of the human spirit are emerging for you?

As a chaplain working at the VA and Harborview medical center, patients and clinicians have been asking me “Why is this happening?” and “Where is God?” I recall holding the hand of a COVID patient gasping for air from a ventilator, and a nurse asking, “When will this end?” They are looking for answers that our current systems fail to give. In fact, it is because our systems are failing that we find ourselves grasping for meaning and security. The answer I give to these existential and theological questions is a reframing: “How are you getting through this?”, “How is God showing up for you right now?” and “What hope are you holding on to?”

We know that when fear and anxiety rise, and human beings feel unsafe, we can react with fight, flight, or freeze. A gift from our primordial origins to help us survive. And we are no longer in caves against a frightening and unknowable universe. We know we are not our fear. We are human beings experiencing fear. We have a choice in how to respond. Which I believe is a gift of the Human Spirit.

The question of “What did I do to deserve this?” becomes “What will I do with this?” Which allows all our emotions, like Rumi wrote, to be guests in the house of our being, giving us access to new ways of responding and learning. There is nothing wrong with your sadness. Or pain. Or anger. They are gifts of your being asking to be noticed. Today, my heart is broken and I am scared, for myself, my partner and my son. How might I choose life and love today? Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is choosing to act even while experiencing fear. However, the gift of agency is not enough.

Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl noticed that in the concentration camp, he could predict who would give in to despair based on the person’s capacity for resiliency. Resiliency being “the ability to recover quickly from crisis and trauma.” He found that lack of meaning in crisis could create an “existential vacuum” which then devastates a human experiencing extreme stress and despair.

Siblings, what grounds you in this moment? For some, it is the belief in a loving and powerful God. For others, it is the human will to live and flourish. For myself, I refuse to live in a universe or society devoid of love or justice. I may not be able to find a quark of compassion or an atom of empathy; that does not mean I cannot imagine these qualities into being. Therefore, another gift of the Human Spirit is our capacity for creativity – being able to make our hopes and dreams a reality. Not only can we choose powerful love, but we can also manifest it where it does not seem to exist.

Which points to the human ability to hold multiple truths at one time. I can be both heartbroken and hopeful. Our faith tradition is rooted in an ethos of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” A good example of this is through the research of sociologist Brené Brown. Her data reveals there is an intimate connection between the ability to be psychospiritually strong and our capacity to be vulnerable. She defines vulnerability as “experiencing uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” and that is it the source of courage, love, empathy and belonging.

In this time of uncertainty, can we choose vulnerability? It seems counterintuitive. When under assault we want to build our walls and raise our drawbridges to protect us from suffering. However, as we know, walls only serve to disconnect us from one another. As Pink Floyd sang: “All alone, or in two’s, The ones who really love you, Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand and some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

Our Unitarian Universalist principles provide a path to choosing vulnerability, allowing us to not only consider our own experience of dignity and worth, but put ourselves into the experience of another human being. When we take off our armor, we are open to com-passion: the capacity to suffer-with another. And only vulnerability will allow us access to this miracle. Because when we recognize our own suffering in the suffering of our sibling, we can choose to meet it with belonging. And research has shown that a key to easing the suffering of addiction, homelessness, mental illness, racism, sexism, greed and hate is in human connection.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded of the gifts of the human spirit; of agency, creativity and vulnerability. The sources of courage and compassion. Yesterday as I witnessed protests around our country, many of our Unitarian Universalist siblings were there. Choosing to show up and support communities of color and speak out against injustice and oppression. Filled with the human spirit of agency, creativity and vulnerability while marching in the belief that Black Lives Matter. Friends, as you go into the world this week, how might you use your gifts of the human spirit?

You woke up today worthy just as you are; what will you choose to do? Outside of the typical routines and reactions, what creative response of courage and compassion can you dare to imagine that will ground you in this moment? And how might you show up with family, friends, the stranger beneath the bridge and the person of color on the street, in intentional vulnerability, laying your heart open? We all have this power every second of every day.

Therefore, in this time of trial and suffering, you have the right to your joy. To your sadness. To both find hope in the flowers of Spring and cry over weeks of isolation. You have permission to breathe. To love. To look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I am worthy of belonging.” You are wonderfully and beautifully made in a universe open to your gifts. And nothing can take that from you. Because that is the foundation and vision of our faith; a faith of agency. A faith of creativity. And a faith of vulnerability. A human faith in which we covenant with one another to grow in gifts of the human spirit. May we go out into the world, like the disciples of old, filled with the fire of powerful love, a light that shines in the darkness which will never be overcome. May it be so. Amen.

New Year’s Revolutions

Originally given as a sermon at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Sunday, Dec 29, 2019. A link to the sermon audio recording can be found HERE.

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. Welcome to the last Sunday of 2019, a rollercoaster of a year with tremendous highs and devastating lows; it certainly lived up to that ancient blessing, or perhaps curse, of “May you live in interesting times.” For the time we share together, here in this space and in this place, I am happy to be with you all at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Thank you for welcoming me to your church of beloved community and common-union.

In just a few days, we enter a new decade: the 20’s. Which sounds strange to my ears. When I think of the 20’s, I am reminded of the “Roaring 20s”. A time in the 20th century marked with prosperity and abundance following the Great War. We received many blessings in the decade; the advent of Jazz, the height of Art Deco. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby which embodied the generation’s decadence, idealism, and struggle with cultural and societal change. Automobiles, radio, telephones, movies, and aviation blossomed, changing our world forever.

Now, almost one hundred revolutions around the sun later, we are facing our own 20’s. The 1920s were ushered in after four years of World War. Our own 2020s are marked after four years of intense political and cultural war in our country. We see the rise of artificial intelligence, a new interest in space travel, and miracles of medicine. With an election looming, and a world in environmental crisis, I wonder what we will choose as a people and a faith in 2020? Will we roar like the last century, or will we aspire to be different? Remember, the roaring 20’s ended in collapse. So maybe… just maybe… our story can be different. Friends, I invite you to the revolution!

A spiritual revolution. Which may sound strange for a religion that holds our powers of reason as a source of our living tradition. However, I experience no dissonance between my human capacity of reason and my intrinsic human spirit. I reject any kind of cartesian dualism that divides the realms of spirit and matter. I believe the human spirit is found not in some magical essence but in our unique ability to transcend our incarnate limitations. A capacity to reject either/or lines drawn in the sand and find new ways of becoming in the world through gifts of agency, empathy and compassion.

The Islamic mystic Rumi writes about this capacity in his poem A Great Wagon: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.” Rumi understood the transcendent human experience as one of interconnection, interdependence, both/and rather than either/or. This season before the New Year is filled with traditions that call us into that field beyond division. The season leading up to the New Year invites people of good faith and good will into a new-ness after a period of spiritual hibernation.

For Christianity, the season marks the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who represents a healing between the sacred and the mundane and offered the world another way to respond to violence and persecution, not with an eye for an eye, but with non-violent resistance. The winter solstice offers sacred imagination reminding us that darkness cannot last forever, and that just as the sun will rise in the morning, our own days can become longer and filled with light.

Hanukkah responds to oppression and destruction with a celebration that honors the mutual work of God and human beings in keeping our sacred fires burning even when it seems impossible. Kwanza with its own seven principles is a creative response to holiday consumerism and colonialism, calling communities of color into a remembrance of family, tradition, and interdependence. So many religious and spiritual traditions mark this time as “sacred” – set apart from the mundane.

A time to contemplate and encourage our capacity of agency in transcending “what is” in order to achieve “what can be.” All rooted in our ability to choose even when it seems there are no more options. As a hospital chaplain, I’ve found that a key to resiliency when facing the unfaceable is in finding options. At the bedside with a patient who is dying of cancer, questions can shift from “Why is this happening?” to “This is what I need to die well.” It’s a pivot of perspective; from fear to hope. Claiming responsibility. Part of my ministry is working with patients in realizing they have agency no matter what cards are dealt. Which is very hard to do when overwhelmed by pain and suffering. Fear can be paralyzing. And so can despair.

The powers and principalities of the world really do create an illusion of powerlessness. I struggle with a newsfeed of dystopic narratives wondering what I can do about the world’s pain and suffering. I am just one small person. Yet I cannot forget that I am an individual with inherent dignity and worth, empowered by my own agency. Regardless of the systems surrounding me, I have choices: over my thoughts, feelings and responses.

Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl lifted this capacity up as a unique gift of the human spirit which even the Nazis could not crush – he found that those human beings who could hold onto a spirit of hope and transcendent connection could survive the horrors of concentration camps. I have seen this first hand. When I am with incarcerated children at our own juvenile detention center, I work with them in developing the resiliency Victor Frankl wrote about.

I remember one thirteen year old boy incarcerated for murder with a gun, with a life marked by abuse, addiction, homelessness, and violence. He had reached out to jail chaplains because he had hit what so many incarcerated youth talk about, as “rock bottom.” That place of choosing between life away from the hustle and death on the streets. He asked me if he could still be loved. Could he still be forgiven. Was he damned to the life he was given in punishment for his sins?

In my own social location of power and privilege, I have no concept of what this child had gone through. In front of me was not just a lost child of color, but the human result of generational systems of oppression in which I am a part. I believe he was asking me: “After what we have done to each other, can you love me? And can I love you?” At thirteen years old, facing life in prison, a question of love was his only hope.

My response came from my Unitarian Universalist theology and Roman Catholic upbringing, where the God of Jesus responds to sin with forgiveness and mercy. I told this child that I believed in one powerful source of love in which, regardless of deed, no one was unworthy. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about this love in his speech Where do We Go from Here? “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”Powerful love is always an option; and often the hardest choice. Because it means being changed ontologically; becoming a new being in the world.

Together, the child and I explored how we usually use our lives as excuses, giving up our power to the powers that be. I can’t change his life of poverty because I’m powerless; I’m not rich or connected, a lawyer or a judge. He can’t change his life of violence because he struggles daily to find food, water, and shelter. In our excuses, we could come away from our encounter unchanged; only feeling guilty as I return to my warm home and he returns to his 10×10 cell.

We then explored how we can use our life narrative through the lens of sacred imagination. Is it possible to take our excuses and transform them into reasons? Reasons to change? Reasons for hope? Reasons to choose something different? There are reasons for our social locations and how we ended up across the table from one other in a juvenile detention facility. And we can choose to no longer let our excuses define our lives. For me, the meeting with this child was transformative, because we explored beyond what we were given and entertained something new: the possibility of redemption. Committing to waking up in the morning and asking ourselves: “What will I do different today?”

Siblings in faith, this is the difference between the sacred and the mundane. While the mundane is ordinary, dull and routine, the sacred always overflows the barriers and boundaries holding it at bay. Our key to accessing the doors of the sacred is found in our own capacity to reject excuses of either/or and to recognize our sacred power to invite both/and. The sacred always connects; the mundane maintains; and therefore the profane divides. And in our own time and place we are overwhelmed by profanity. Not the childish words that middle schoolers snicker in the back of the classroom. I am talking about the profanity of hate.

A hate in which I am guilty. These last four years of concentration camps on our southern borders, mass shootings in our high schools, white supremacists in the white house and rapists on the supreme court has had me so fearful and angry that I have broken bonds of family and friendships. It has felt so good to be “us” versus “them.” So confident that I am on the right side of history, I have forgotten the sacred command to love my neighbor as I love myself.

My favorite example of this is found in the Christian gospel of Luke the Evangelist. This is where we get the phrase of “Good Samaritan.” Which has become saccharine in its “niceness” of going out of our way to help people. However, the original story of a Samaritan helping a Jew on the bloody pass between Jerusalem to Jericho was a holy reminder that we are all neighbors; even to those who we hate. This is from Luke 10:25-37

Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

It is our capacity to be merciful which transcends fear and anger. Remember, the profane divides, while the sacred unites. The sacred will always challenge and reject hate, and any other power that demands division. It is not democrats OR republicans. Progressives OR conservatives. White supremacists OR anti-fascists. My capacity for empathy and compassion cannot be drawn between group lines, not if I want to maintain my humanity. If I want this world to be a better place for my 5 year old son, than I have to model for him kindness and compassion to all people, not just the ones I like. In surrendering my hate, I regain control over my own story.

I am learning how to choose that field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. It has taken sitting with veterans in the mental health unit at the VA, children at the detention center, and gunshot wound victims at Harborview, to soften my heart. Where I can hold the hand of a dying man with a MAGA hat and pray with his family for love and forgiveness. Where a black child is offered a chance at freedom despite jail cell walls. And where a person with a swastika tattoo can find a presence who will listen to his grief over his mother who had just passed away. Because empathy does not equal endorsement.

Siblings in faith, our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us into the world as bearers of a sacred light of truth. Which is why I propose that for this new year into a new decade, we commit not only to the tried and true resolutions of a healthy lifestyle, weight loss, less screen time and more vegetables, but to a powerful and transcendent love: a New Year’s revolution. A spiritual revolution in which we commit to reject our mundane excuses and instead embrace our sacred human capacity of agency. A commitment to respond to brokenness with curiosity and compassion. A commitment to be transformed by each human connection. A decade of change, where every day we wake up and ask: “What will I do today that is different?”

May it be so. Amen.