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.

The liberative, spiritual resistance of Pride!

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the Spirit of Life and Love. Happy Pride Sunday! A festival of remembrance and resistance; a festival of “I will be seen!” and “We will never forget!” As we celebrate this holy day of Pride, the liberative work of love and justice is still in progress. But don’t worry; it has been at work since the beginning of humanity. Once in a while, as an act of spiritual resistance, we choose laughter over weeping, turn up the music and dance as if our lives depend on it. Pride is a festival of love and it is a festival of justice. Justice was demanded 50 years ago at Stonewall, justice was delivered four years ago by the supreme court. Justice is still overdue for queer lives broken and taken.

Many a prophet have said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But what is this “justice” with a gravity capable of influencing the course of humanity? Some synonyms are “fairness, equity, egalitarianism, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality, right-mindedness, trustworthiness, incorruptibility.” With so many aspirational definitions, we easily forget that justice is complicated and messy. And it is different in every culture and every age. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is as old as Babylon and is still alive and well today, and so is the first Century Palestinian Jewish call to love those who persecute you and turn the other cheek when harmed.

We have many tools at our disposal to help our discernment. Distributive justice seeks only the proper dispersal of goods in transactions. Punitive justice seeks to punish offenders for wrongs committed. Retributive justice wants restitution. Social justice attempts to bend society toward equity and equality. Restorative justice focuses on the complex needs of both victims and offenders. But when injustice happens, which one do we choose?

If I am driving down the road and somebody makes a mistake and hits my car, I would like them to pay for the damages. Certainly, that’s fair. But what if it’s a family that is scraping by with children to feed and medical bills to pay? Or what if it’s a tech executive driving a Tesla? Or a person who is living out of their car? There are so many “what if’s” justice quickly becomes complicated and messy, and let me make it messier. What if it is a drunk driver? Or a woman who has just escaped from an abusive home and is in crisis? What if my son is in the back seat of my car and is killed? Friends, the narrative of justice is rarely a dualistic, right vs wrong, one size fits all episode of Law and Order.

In our first reading we heard the story of the holy night at Stonewall. Here is a narrative of oppression and violence by the very system that is supposed to dispense justice. Still, was the riot just? Is it justice when violence is payed back with more violence? Is it justice when violence is payed back with the destruction of personal property? Narrative and context matter. For too many years to be queer was to be a criminal. Just as it used to be illegal for women to vote. Or for people of color to drink from water fountains labeled “white only.” Was it a riot or was it a rebellion? Which brings to light that laws are only as flawed as the community who creates them. The power of moral justice, when righteous, can supersede and challenge unjust legal codes and civil law.

Friends, I quote from Rev. Theodore Parker: “look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” And to orient my conscience toward the kind of justice I want to see in the world, I look to our Unitarian Universalist faith.

We are a people who believe that justice should uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It strives for equity and compassion in human relationships. Our justice holds diversity and the capacity for nuance and growth. It seeks to balance freedom with responsibility, is democratic, and respects the conscience of both individual and community. Our justice promotes peace, and takes into account a holistic view of life and creation as intrinsic parts of human flourishing. Siblings in faith, this is the kind of justice that continues to bend the arc of the moral universe. It is this kind of justice, a queer justice, a justice that is able to contain multitudes, uplifts complexity, and restores the human person, that when found, evokes a response of singing and dancing, of hips swaying and hymns announcing “let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

Which is why Pride is such a raucous, joyous celebration. Because queer justice is human justice. Its victory over adversity is a holy call to jubilee. It is an eruption deep within the human spirit that, when witness to injustice, refuses to accept a universe that turns a blind eye to suffering. We curious mammals have a proclivity for creating newness in the world: we make powerful love manifest through our blood, sweat, tears and relationships. And when we reap the fruit of such arduous labor, our only response can be one that celebrates life lavishly. Certainly, today we celebrate Pride Sunday! Because it is a victory of the human spirit over those who say, “You’re too loud,” “Too liberal,” “Too politically correct.” “Too flaming.” “Too ghetto.” “Too emotional.” “You’re moving too fast.”

Often times, these are the same voices who believe bootstraps are a proper response when “life isn’t fair.” It’s a finger-wagging magical wand ingrained in childhood. Growing up, when I felt that someone or something had delivered me an injustice and I would scream “it isn’t fair!” I would inevitably hear from an adult, “Well, life isn’t fair.”

I understand the point; not getting my way is not necessarily injustice. But arguing to be recognized as person with worth and dignity is not the same as throwing a tantrum because I didn’t get cookies after dinner. Yet some hear the call from the margins, “We are suffering and dying! Help us!” as flippantly asking for “wants” rather than standing up for “needs.”

Now that I am grown with a child of my own, I agree—life isn’t fair. Because in my experience life shrugs at such metaphysics like fairness and equality. I can’t distill its finest points into atoms of compassion or electrons of generosity. Our universe goes about its clockwork business of laws that govern energy and matter. It leaves the messy business of humanity to us.

Perhaps because life isn’t fair, and that rubs my spirit the wrong way, I look toward the heavens and say “Hold my beer.” And commit to bringing fairness into the world. Just as I have the power to make love real, I also have the power to make justice real. Because isn’t that the point of all this? Our governments and institutions and civil society and churches and laws and constitutions and covenants are all human creations that attempt to bring some kind of justice into the world. And if the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, then that arc was fashioned long ago by humanity and it is our literal bodies lending weight to its completion.

Through the lens of human history, we know about many of those beautiful human bodies who refused to accept that “life isn’t fair.” Prophets have been nailed to trees for standing up and demanding justice. In our own tradition it was holy bodies seeking religious and spiritual freedom against a world who would burn them at the stake for heresy. There were the mighty bodies of abolitionists who risked life and limb in opposition to the injustice of slavery. There were the resilient bodies of suffragists who demanded women have full agency in the destiny of their communities. There were the prophetic bodies of civil rights activists who gave their lives for freedom. And among them all, there were the holy, mighty, resilient, prophetic, beautiful queer bodies of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, fluid human beings. We are filled with Pride!

At the Stonewall Inn fifty years ago when the queer community stood their ground against state violence and demanded the system uphold their inherent dignity and worth, their bodies bent the moral arc of the universe and human destiny would never be the same. Let me uplift our own victories as a people of faith. In 1863, our tradition was the first to recognize the ordination of a woman to the ministry. In 1969, we were the first major denomination to ordain an openly gay minister. In 1988 we were the first to ordain an openly trans minister. Our tradition, with a justice rooted in our covenanted principles, has been at the front of movements of freedom since our founding. In the celebration of the holy day of Pride is our own call to celebration as a people of faith, love and justice.

Celebration is necessary for a people who are committed to bending the arc of the moral universe. Without joy and laughter and fun, we will succumb to the temptations of futility and despair. There is a destructive lie in the mantra: “How can I laugh and enjoy myself when so many are suffering.” Especially in a country with concentration camps on our southern border, trans people of color being murdered, and ecological apocalypse at our doorstep. Of course my inner critical voice tempts me into despair, as if the only way I can be in solidarity is to suffer in solidarity.

No. A queer love and justice rejects all attempts at dualistic, fatalistic thinking. A queer love and justice is able to hold the human reality that we can experience joy and mourning simultaneously. Which is why we are a gentle, angry people who sing. Which is why we are a justice-seeking people who sing. Which is why we are young and old together and we sing. Because we recognize that our joyous singing and celebration are acts of holy resistance against the cultures of death that would refuse dignity and worth to all our beloved siblings. Certainly today, we celebrate Pride!

But just because we celebrate Pride, does not mean we are absolved of our sins and responsibilities. Yes, I recognize that “sin” is a loaded word for our post-Christian faith. And I believe a queer love and justice invites us to acknowledge our sins; it asks I take responsibility for the harm I cause other people regardless of intentionality; that I admit to my very human failings in the form of phobias and prejudices and anger and hate that creep in due to my insecurities and fears of difference, otherness, and the unknown. Yes, my siblings, I have sinned; against you and against the Earth. I commit, with your loving guidance, to being better.

It is only through the painful process of humility and vulnerability that I find forgiveness for the harm I do to my siblings and to the Earth. Some believe that by leaning into vulnerability I make myself weak, powerless and deficient. But that is not what qualitative researcher Dr. Brene Brown finds in her years of studying vulnerability. Her data suggests that something queer happens when I choose curiosity and possibility; I become stronger than I could possibly imagine; that my letting go of my sins makes space for the difficult penance of transforming my heart, mind, body and spirit toward an orientation of love and justice. And when this happens, is it not a cause to celebrate?

Siblings in faith, we have so much to celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to love. The freedom to be seen. The freedom to laugh, and sing, and dance for victories won and victories yet to come. Our joy is a sacrifice on the altar of the Spirit of Life and Love in praise for the strength and resiliency to stay the course and not lose our humanity in the process. Today we celebrate the conversion of hearts and minds toward a beautiful, sensual, queer, love and justice which has oriented the arc of the moral universe from the very beginning.

Pride Sunday is a call to repent and hear the good news: love and justice will emerge victorious! We will emerge victorious! Because of the beautiful, sensual, queer bodies who lend their weight to the transformation of humanity. Let us go out, in humble solidarity, and refuse to accept the despair of the cultures of death. Instead, we go from this church with joy in our hearts and laughter in our bellies, to engage in the spiritual resistance of Pride. Amen, and hallelujah!