Bad on Both Sides?

8.16.17 bad on both sidesWhen the President addressed the nation about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying that there was “bad on both sides” it was disorienting to people of goodwill everywhere. To equate the actions of nonviolent protestors to Nazis is to make a comparison that would have been deeply offensive to every President of every political party from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barrack Obama.

The Southern Poverty Law Center described the rally of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Confederate revisionists as “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” It was a gathering that quickly turned violent. One young woman, Heather Heyer, died and many others were injured when a car plowed into a sea of counter-protesters.

Heyer died on Saturday. On Sunday there was a rally organized on Market Square here in Knoxville to “Stand Against Hate.” If you had divided the crowd of hundreds of people into groups of ten every single one of those groups would have contained a member or friend of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Rarely, have I seen so many of us turn up for something so important on such short notice. There we joined people of conscience of every faith and belief; finding common ground and organizing for the common good.

By temperament, I am a peacemaker not a polarizer. However, there are times when we need to ask ourselves the question made famous by an old labor organizing song, “Which side are you on?” The Unitarian Universalist church is often described as a liberal church. It has been said, “Liberals are people who know both sides of an argument so well they are unable to take their own.” I reject this notion of liberalism. I believe there are times to say with the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell the words set to music in our hymnbook, “Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Heather Heyer made a decision. She knew which side she was on. She fought the good fight. She finished the race. She kept the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Minds, Loving Hearts (or How Not to Be a Troll)

If you read your church newsletter – or what I like to call fake news – then you will be under the impression that this morning’s sermon is about how to practice a religion of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands – and it will be eventually.

But first I want to speak about building bridges. This season our chalice lighting song is named Building Bridges and it speaks of “building bridges between our divisions” and Lord knows we need some bridge builders in our divided society. But on the first Sunday we sang this song, Will Dunklin, our church organist, said to me, “If we are going to talk about building bridges when are we going to talk about trolls?”

He has a valid point. According to mythology and folklore bridges often serve as shelter for trolls. Add to this that we live in an age that has turned the word troll into a verb so that it is common to hear people talk about trolling or being trolled. So it seems irresponsible to talk about building bridges unless we are willing to confront the reality of trolls.

So this morning I want to talk about what we can do as a people of faith to keep open minds, keep loving hearts, keep helping hands and keep building bridges in time when we might be tempted to troll or be trolled.

As I was meditating on this sermon topic I was inspired to compose the beginning of a modern folktale, which I posted on my Facebook page and I will share with you now.

Once upon a time the Little Billy Goat Gruff posted something on Facebook click-click-clickety-click-post. “WHO DARES POST AN OPINION CONTRARY TO MINE,” commented a troll in all caps. “It is I the Little Billy Goat Gruff,” the young goat replied, “But please don’t flame me and gobble me up. I am too small. Soon the second Billy Goat Gruff will be posting on her page and she is much bigger than me,” and so the troll said, “VERY WELL I WILL BIDE MY TIME.”

You can finish the story for yourselves in your own imaginations. After I posted my beginning on my Facebook page a friend commented, “Can Billy goats be female?” and I replied, “In my stories Billy goats get to choose their own gender identity.”

Suffice it to say that we live in a peculiar time in our history when trolls are not just mythological creatures. Indeed it is hard to go through an entire day without encountering a troll.

But it was not until this month that I realized that there are actually those who self-identify as trolls, indeed, there are troll meet up groups, troll forums, troll conventions and even troll celebrities.

Up until this month I had always assumed that being a troll is something every one of us could be if we happen to be in a bad mood. Every one of us is capable of being snarky, overbearing, petty, angry or spiteful. We do need reminders of that.

For instances, when you drive up to our church on Sunday morning you see that many words are engraved on the outside of our building, words like love, joy, justice, humility, hope and peace. John Bohstedt has suggested that we need to engrave words on the other side of our building, words like withering sarcasm, belittling put downs, snide condescension. In other words, we all need some kind of reminder that every single one of us is capable of becoming a troll.

And I do believe that –that everyone of us is capable of becoming a troll. But it never occurred to me until recently that someone might actually chose to be a troll, relish in being a troll and even be admired for being a troll.

So what does it mean to be a troll to those who admire the name and who aspire to live into the role. To be a troll is to be provocative. The ultimate goal of a troll is to get a reaction. Trolls love to live out their own aggressiveness, to lay waist to conventional ideas about civility and destroy anything that smacks of political correctness or even polite restraint. Trolls pride themselves on being offensive. Trolls love to be inflammatory. Troll comments are often insulting, degrading and belittling. Trolls are the consummate name callers. Because trolls love to get a reaction the more you react the more you will get trolled.

During the last election season it was hard to tell the difference between politicians and trolls whether you were a nasty woman or in the basket of deplorables. Our political campaigns have become less a contest of ideas and more a banquet of insults.

It seems that almost anyone could be drawn into the fray. For instance here in East Tennessee our usually congenial and considerate congressman has taken to calling some of his own constituents “kooks, extremists and radicals.” He claims that in our current political atmosphere it is impossible to have a civil conversation in a town hall meeting. He seems oblivious to the fact that his own name-calling contributes to that atmosphere he says he deplores.

Here is the problem with the politics of name-calling. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words to the Declaration of Independence declaring, “all men are created equal” he was considered a radical. When Susan B Anthony and other suffragists rewrote those words to declare that “all men and women” are created equal she was considered a kook. When John Lewis and thousands of others marched in the civil rights movement he was considered an extremist.

Friends, history is on the side of the kooks. History is on the side of the extremists. History is on the side of the radicals.

I don’t see our congressman as someone who aspires to be a troll but someone like you or me who is capable of going there. Our congressman prides himself on being a conservative and so this morning we might do well to remember that conservative icon Barry Goldwater who once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is not vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” And when Barry Goldwater learned that his grandson was gay he became a fierce champion for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Goldwater loved his grandson the way many of us love our neighbors and love our family and friends and for that reason when it comes to basic human rights I know I speak for many when I say we will not be moderate in our pursuit of justice. We will be proud to stand with our Founding Fathers, our reforming mothers and our brothers and sisters from Selma and Stonewall and be extremists on behalf of liberty.

However, to be an extremist does not mean that we have to be a troll. We do not have to insult our way into political power or belittle others in order to feel strong ourselves. We can seek to ground our power in something deeper than political power or economic power or military power. We can ground our efforts in spiritual power.

We can remember the conviction that helped John Lewis stand toe to toe with vicious racists and armed thugs, “Each and everyone of us is imbued with a divine spark…that spark links us to the greatest power in the universe. It unites us with one another and …Creation.” With this conviction we can stand against all who seek to separate and divide us, all who seek to build themselves up by tearing others down.

When we are guided by the still small voice within and illuminated by this inner light then we know that withering sarcasm, belittling put-downs, snide condescension, police dogs and fires houses will not be enough to turn us around.

We will not troll or be trolled but live up to a higher standard and strive to align ourselves with the better angels of our nature.

There is an important message that comes out of the freedom movements all over the world. When we strive for freedom and justice we must not see this as a distant goal to be achieved in the distant future, we must live with the conviction that we are already there.

When we insist on following our conscience and doing the right thing we’re already there.

When we refuse to be silenced but instead speak truth to power we’re already there.

When we do not falter or fumble or waiver we’re already there.

When we feel courage instead of fear, hope instead of despair, energy instead of apathy, love instead of compassion fatigue we’re already there.

We may sing, “Come and Go with me to that Land where I’m bound.” We may sing, “There’ll be freedom in that land.” We may sing, “There’ll be justice in that land,” but as we sing we must ground ourselves in the conviction that we are already living in that land, breathing in that land, moving in that land. We’re already living in the land where we’re bound. We’re already there. We’ve already won.

On Valentine’s Day Suzanne and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures, which I highly recommend. The movie is based around the life of Katherine Johnson, the African American physicist and mathematician, who worked for NASA and did the calculations that allowed John Glenn to become the first American man to orbit the earth and return to earth without burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. In many scenes in that movie she is clearly the smartest woman in the room but she often has to undergo the indignities of racism, segregation and sexism simply to do her job.

There is a moment in the film after the first successful manned orbit when her boss a white man named Al Harrison turns to Katherine and asks her if she thinks they can do the next impossible thing – is it possible for NASA to put a human being on the moon and she replies to her boss, “We’re already there.”

And that’s my message this morning. We may not have done all of the math. We may have not computed all the calculations or solved every problem or done all the work but we are already there.

And this is why we gather here on Sunday mornings to remind each other that we are already there. February is black history month, a time to remember our ancestors, to remember how their lives continue to enrich our lives.

Recently our President said something that suggested that he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive. Historically, he is wrong but spiritually he is right. In many ways Frederick Douglass is still very much alive and is still empowering us to speak out for justice.

So it is important to remember that the themes I have been preaching this morning are not new or original for we are aligned with our spiritual ancestors. These themes are as old as the spirituals that empowered the Underground Railroad and as fresh as the convictions that launched humanity into space. Ours is a faith that is informed by those who struggled before us and this month and every month we can avoid the temptation to be a troll but instead aspire to live out the values I recently saw printed on a t-shirt (Friends, sometimes the words of the prophets are in the holy scriptures and other times they are on t-shirts.) We can aspire to…

Speak like Frederick

Lead like Harriet

Think like Garvey

Educate like W.E.B

Believe like Thurgood

Write like Maya

Fight like Malcolm

Dream like Martin

Challenge like Rosa

Build like Oprah

Change like Obama

And we might add do math like Katherine.

For this morning we can hear the harps eternal and we can sing together in the choir invisible and we can celebrate that our church news is not fake news but good news because…

Ours is a church of the open mind.

Ours is a church of the helping hands.

Ours is a church of the loving heart.

Together we care for our Earth

And work for friendship and peace in this world.

So be it.

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 19, 2017 by the Reverend Chris Buice)

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Roots Holds Me Close

“Find the good and praise it,” Alex Haley often said. The words are engraved on a stone near a statue of him in Morningside Park here in Knoxville. For over a decade this statue was the largest statue of an African American man in the United States until the dedication of the King Memorial in Washington DC in 2011.

Many years ago I took my mother to see the statue and she loved it but she noticed that while there was a plaque marking the month of the dedication of the statue April 1998 and a list of every single politician present at the dedication ceremony – there was no plaque explaining exactly who Alex Haley was, what he accomplished or why he should be remembered. My mom said, “That makes me mad! That makes me furious!” and then she looked at me like I was supposed to do something about it. After a long pause finally I said, “Well maybe what we can do right now is find the good and praise it.”

All humor aside my mom had a very valid point. Even so, I think Alex Haley would have appreciated this off the cuff response. He was known for similar kinds of observations. Once he was interviewing George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi party for a magazine article who was using lots of racist language including the N-word. Rockwell told Haley it was nothing personal and Haley replied that he had been called that word his who life but then added “but this is the first time I’ve been paid for it.”

Alex Haley got his start as a professional writer when he served in the Coast Guard and his fellow crewmembers would pay him money to write love letters home to their girlfriends. Having had this brush with success he started submitting material to Reader’s Digest and gradually this became a substantial side income.

When I was a student at the University of Tennessee in the late 80’s Alex Haley was an adjunct lecturer and I went to talks he gave that were open to all students and the general public. So I heard him talk a little bit about his early days as a writer.

He said, that early on he decided that when he got a rejection slip that he would post it on his wall like wallpaper. That way when he got a rejection slip instead of beating himself up over it he would look at it like a new piece to his unfinished puzzle saying, “Now I can cover that part of the wall.”

His career took off when he began doing interviews for magazines with leaders like Martin Luther King, Myles Davis and Cassius Clay (who would later be known as Muhammad Ali.) At some point he decided to expand one of his interviews into a book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and this involved even more interviews with the famous leader of the Nation of Islam.

Before I say anything more about that book I should say it would be almost impossible to find two people more temperamentally different that Alex Haley and Malcolm X. If Alex Haley’s philosophy of life was, “Find the good and praise it,” Malcolm X’s was, “Name the evil and condemn it.”

In ministry we often talk about the difference between a pastor and prophet. To adapt a well-known phrase we might say that a pastor comforts the afflicted while the prophet afflicts the comfortable.

Alex Haley had a particular gift for putting other people at ease and this probably helped him get such good interviews. He was remarkably accessible and friendly even to complete strangers, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown. When I talked with him after his lectures at UT he did not seem to be in a hurry to be anywhere else. He was present with you and affirming of you.

Recently, I read the new book Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation by Robert Norrell in part to see if the Alex Haley I met was the Alex Haley everyone else knew. The answer to that question is yes. While I am sure everyone has off days, he was by most people’s remembrances a remarkable open, accessible and friendly person.

Alex Haley and Malcolm X were very different people. Despite these differences, the two men became very good friends, so much so that after Malcolm X’s assassination it was Alex Haley who put Malcolm’s daughter through college.

Malcolm was someone who was not afraid to meet the violence of white power with the counterpunch of black power. In our age when leaders have proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country he would remind us that many Muslims came to this country for the first time against their will, in chains as part of the slave trade.

In the autobiography Malcolm notes that the dictionary definition for the word black is negative, “destitute of light, devoid of color, enveloped in darkness, utterly dismal or gloomy, soiled with dirt, foul, sullen, hostile, forbidding, outrageously wicked.” The dictionary definition of white, on the other hand, is positive: “the color of pure snow, the opposite of black, free from spot or blemish, innocent, pure, without evil intent, harmless, square deal, honest.”

Malcolm X looked over the history of our country, slavery, lynching, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. He named the evil and condemned it. He was not afraid to say that the word white can be defined as foul, hostile and wicked. It was the power and strength of his condemnation that was an enormous source of his power.

The paradox is that one of the reasons we know so much about the fiery critique of Malcolm X is because the pastoral presence of Alex Haley who did what pastors do. He paid attention. He listened intently. He heard the pain. He felt compassion. And then he told the story.

Even the most pastoral minister must tell the story of the crucifixion of Christ and so Alex Haley assisted Malcolm in telling the story of the crucifixion on the slave block, the crucifixion of the whipping post, the crucifixion of the lynching tree, the crucifixion in the electric chair, the crucifixion stories that are a part of our nation’s history.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a bestseller. His next bestseller would be Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It was his family’s history from their roots in Africa to more contemporary America. His aunt once said to him, “Our history needs to be writ. We can’t expect white folks to write our history for us. They are too busy writing about themselves.”

Haley grew up listening to his aunts and family talk about their family history over the years on the front porch of his childhood home. There were many references to the African and some of the Mandinka words that he had been passed down to them. The adult Haley took on the task of researching these stories and piecing together a more detailed family history, one that would read like a novel.

There has been much controversy over whether Roots is fiction or non-fiction. It would probably be most accurately categorized as “faction.” Because the outline of the story is based in solid research, however, Haley also wrote dialogue between people and described the interior thoughts of the characters, which no one can really know.

The story is about Kunte Kinte who was captured by slave traders in Africa and endured the unspeakable trauma of the Middle Passage. According to records 30 percent of the captured slaves died on board that ship. Kinte was one of the survivors. Haley said that writing about the Middle Passage was a traumatizing experience so much so that considered suicide. Later the actors who acted out those scenes for the television mini-series had a similar level of trauma, so writing this book and telling this story was an emotionally distressing experience.

Kunte Kinte was sold into slavery in America. After repeated escape attempts his master took an axe and chopped off part of his foot so he could no longer try to escape. Kunte Kinte’s grown daughter Kizzy was raped by her master and she gave birth to a son who would be known as Chicken George.

Chicken George eventually earned his own freedom through his prowess as a chicken fighter and helped his extended family find a new home after Emancipation. My copy of Roots is 899 pages so there is no way to summarize it succinctly. But I mention these details because in this book he does name the evil and condemn it, or at least he tells the story in a way that the evil is so self-evident that the reader has no choice but to condemn it.

The book won a Pulitzer Prize, spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and inspired a television mini-series. The show debuted in 1977. This year marks its 40th anniversary. I recently re-watched that series on DVD. It stands the test of time even though I couldn’t help but notice that the American South looked more like Southern California and the soundtrack sounds like it comes straight from 70’s television detective show.

The acting is stellar with an all-star cast and a then new and unknown actor Levar Burton. The spirit of the book shines through if not the letter as the television writers took some liberties with the story in their adaption. The History Channel has put out a remake of Roots this year. I haven’t been able to watch the remake because I do not have cable. The music on the preview is much better built around African drumming rather 70’s muzak. Possibly it will stick more faithfully to the letter as well as the spirit.

Robert Norrell argues convincingly that Roots has shaped our culture even more so than other works that are given greater credit like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind and I might add To Kill a Mockingbird in part because it reached more people. It was viewed by 130 million people, which to date is the largest television audience in our country’s history.

Before Roots TV depictions of Africa were often negative caricatures leading Haley to say, “One of the most important things about Roots is that it replaced Tarzan and Jungle Jim with Kunte Kinte.” Haley fundamentally changed the way Americans look at Africa. One way to say it is he rewrote the culture’s dictionary so that the words black and Africa are now unambiguously positive words.

Alex Haley’s reputation has suffered since his heyday with accusations of plagiarism. Norrell points out that the parts of Roots in question amount to less than one percent of the text of the book. Some of Haley’s research conclusions have been question by scholars. Of course, research is always being questioned by scholars. That’s what scholars do.

Personally, I think we need to remember Haley not as an academic or a scholar but as a story teller, someone who reached a far larger audience than most academics ever will and thus he affected more people transforming our culture by ensuring that when we do history we tell the whole story and not just part of it.

On a personal level and a spiritual level, let me say that Haley’s phrase, “Find the good and praise it” is my working definition of worship and describes what we are doing here this Sunday and every Sunday. His wallpaper of rejection slips reminds me to always respond to experiences of rejection with creativity. And that moment in the book and the mini-series where Kunte Kinte holds up his baby daughter to the starry night above and says to her, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” informs how I feel we should all treat our children both as parents and as a church.

February is Black History Month and a Los Angeles Times reporter once called Alex Haley, “The Man February Forgot,” which brings me back to Morningside Park and the wonderful statue of a storyteller and why it is so important that we remember him.

So this week I wrote to the State Historical Commission to ask how I could apply for a historical marker to be placed near the statue. Also this week I will be meeting with the Mayor Rogero as part of KICMA (Knoxville Interdenominational Christian Ministerial Alliance) and I will raise the same question and I will bring this sermon to a close by offering a first draft of what the marker might say.

Alex Haley 1921 – 1992 spent his last years in East Tennessee. He was a journalist known for his interviews with luminaries such as Myles Davies and Martin Luther King Jr. He was the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family books that profoundly changed the way the nation viewed African American history. He was a consultant on the Roots television mini-series that reached the largest television audience in history. He was our neighbor, our friend, our teacher and encourager who constantly reminded us even in the most difficult times to “Find the good and praise it.”

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 12, 2017, by the Rev. Chris Buice.)

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What’s in a Name? The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups there is an acronym KISS that stands for Keep it Simple Stupid. But in the Unitarian Universalist church we don’t do that (or at least not all the time.)

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote Shakespeare BUT have you ever tried to teach a preschooler to say the name of our church – the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church? To quote Shakespeare again, the words do not come trippingly off the tongue. If you have ever tried to teach our name to a youngster then you can understand that this business with names is more complicated than the bard suggests.

This morning Bob Porter has asked me to preach a sermon about why we should change our congregation’s name. Our name is a mouthful. So, this morning I am going to honor Bob’s request and make a powerful persuasive argument for why we should change our name AND for no extra cost I will tell you why the very prospect fills me with a nameless dread.

Here’s another way to say the same thing. Once a complete stranger came up to me and said, “”Do you know the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?” I took the bait and answered no. “In the Baptist church when the preacher really gets to preaching someone may shout Amen or Hallelujah whereas in the Unitarian church when the minister really gets to preaching someone may shout out Bullshit!

So today, it is my goal to preach a persuasive sermon arguing that we should change the name of the church but if you object (and one hopes that you will be more diplomatic that story suggests) no one will be happier than me.

As a former Sunday school teacher I totally get how cumbersome our name is especially for the very young. Indeed when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into one denomination in 1961 they entertained other options. Some names considered were The Liberal Church of America or the Council of Liberal Churches. In the end, it turns out both the Unitarian and Universalist congregations where too attached to their distinct historic names leading to our current denominational name the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

This name creates a paradox because as Unitarian Universalists we like to say that “ours is a religion of deeds not creeds.” Ours is a non-creedal tradition. The reason we do not have a creed can be summed up in the words from a conversation between Michael Wohlfahrt and Benjamin Franklin. When asked why his church did not have a creed Wohlfarhrt replied, “we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should print our confession, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.’

Benjamin Franklin would later write of this encounter, “This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong.”

So for similar reasons as stated the Unitarian Universalist Church does not have a creed or a doctrine that can be used as a test for membership BUT our name involves to two specific theological positions. Historically, the word Unitarianism is an affirmation of the oneness of God in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise Universalism is an affirmation of the universal salvation of all souls in contrast to the idea that some souls will be damned to hell for all eternity.

I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead who once said that “Unitarians believe in one God at the most.” Here’s the problem with the word Unitarian, in every congregation I have served there have been people who have told me, “I am a Trinitarian Unitarian,” Similarly, there is always someone who says, “I am a Unitarian atheist.” Because I am a Unitarian minister I honor such independent thinking. In other words, as your minister it is not my job to limit the scope of your thoughts.

The same principle applies to the word Universalism. Many people will think outside the box of these two historic theological positions and it is not my job to try to prevent this from happening.

Thus we live with a paradox. The name for our noncreedal tradition seems to imply we do have a creed or a doctrine. Contrast this to the names of other denominations like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, none of which have any doctrinal connotations but are all about organizational structure.

Another problem with the name Unitarian Universalist is that it means we are sometimes confused with the Unification church or the “moonies” or the Universal Life church which is an on-line church that sets a low bar for leadership including a place on the website where you can “Click here to be ordained.”

For all these reasons the name Unitarian Universalist is a problem. So now let’s take a closer look at the word church. In the Unitarian Universalist Association not every congregation calls itself a church. According to the UU world magazine almost half (474) use the word “church.” Just over a quarter (273) say “fellowship,” while 146 use “congregation,” 104 “society,” and 58 “parish.” Thirty-four use “community.”

The word church can be an obstacle if you are coming through our doors from a Jewish upbringing or Buddhist or Muslim or humanist or some other tradition that does not use the word church. The word is a reminder that although ours is a free faith we do have our roots in the Christian tradition otherwise we might be the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Synagogue or the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist mosque or Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Sangha or ashram or temple or pagoda. So by using the word church we do identify with a particular tradition from which our free faith emerges.

So these are some very good reasons for changing our name. It’s a mouthful. Our name is an albatross around our neck. It’s a curse. It’s a vexation. It is hard for kids to say. People mistake us for other faiths. It does not accurately convey what we believe and think to the world. Add to this the trend that many church are distancing themselves from denominations or their denominational names by choosing names like One Life or The Table or All Souls. And so let me state categorically that it is imperative that we change our name.

Now let me tell you why the prospect of changing our name fills me with a nameless dread. Many years ago I serve a church that decided to undergo the process of changing their name and it was during this process that I learned it is possible to take offense at every conceivable name that you can imagine. I learned that the word church was too traditional, the word fellowship was sexist because it had the word fellow in it, the word congregation too formal, the word society to abstract which eventually left us with the word community. Thus we chose to be the Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community – but the truth is even the word community was not universally popular. One argued it made us sound like a subdivision or a condo complex.

The process was more excruciating than I can possibly communicate and it took forever. And while the congregation was leisurely debating its name it was almost completely neglecting it’s long range planning process and establishing goals and objectives and missing opportunities for social action and outreach.

And it occurred to me that this whole process of deciding a name has an adolescent quality because it focuses on the questions of identity, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” BUT once we have a sense of identity then we are focused on being who we are, knowing why we are here and taking action to fulfill our purpose.

And let me make it clear here at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we know who we are, we know why we are here and we are actively engaged in fulfilling our purpose. Of course, there is a paradox here too. I often say “At our church we know exactly what we believe even though we may not be able to explain it to you.” But I do believe our beliefs are nicely summarized in the words we say each Sunday,

Love is the spirit of this church,
And service is its law. To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another,
This is our great covenant.

We have freedom of thought and common values. Earlier this year I got a call from a reporter when I was travelling out of state who asked, “Is it true your church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington DC?” I told the reporter that I was driving and I would call back when I pulled over somewhere safe. So I pulled into a parking lot and called the church office and asked, “Is it true our church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington?” And the answer was, “Yes.”

I tell this story because it illustrates that here at TVUUC we know what we are doing even when we don’t know what we are doing. Our congregation has roots in the suffragist movement. We know who we are, why we are here, what our purposes is, so much so that we can act decisively when the minister is out of town or out of touch.

We can show up for a march for refugees on Market Square on a Wednesday at noon in large numbers with our churcg banner in the air on almost no notice because we know who we are. We know why we are here. We know our purpose.

Here in Knoxville the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means something. When I was a brand new minister I would walk into a room somewhere in the community I was immediately given more respect than I deserved because the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means over half a century of commitment to civil rights, it means a spirit of resistance to segregation, Jim Crow, bigotry and hatred. Our name means a spirit of resistance to sexism and discrimination everything that belittles, undermines and oppresses the sacred worth of every human personality. Our name means that fear will not silence us nor hate crimes deter us for we will meet hatred with love, fear with courage, prejudice with understanding, hostility with goodwill, chaos with community.

Here in our community the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church really means something and I am unspeakably proud of what it means. We are not a perfect community. We are a progressive community, which means we are a church in progress, always growing, always changing, always learning as we go.

I would go so far as to say that the abbreviation TVUUC means something. In most cases the use of an abbreviation obscures the meaning of an organization. For instance it is common in our city to shorten the term Vacation Bible School to VBS. Once a member of this church drove by a congregation that had a sign out front that gave the dates for their “Vacation BS” Just one way an abbreviation can be a problem.

But here in our community the abbreviation TVUUC means something. The term TVUUC is a brand. If you say it people will know what you mean. So while I wholeheartedly agree with Bob Porter on all the reasons we should change our name I also believe that ours is a name to be proud of. And when I say that ours is a name to be proud of it’s not just bullshit.

Of course, I also agree with the bard, that rose by any other name would smell as sweet and just as Romeo was willing to give up his name in order to be with Juliet I would be willing to give up any name that was an obstacle to love and say as he did, “Call me love, and I’ll be new baptized.” Or we can say together to each other, “Call us love and we will be new baptized.”

But just in case you think it is impossible for us practice simplicity let me share with you something I learned from watching Jeff Mellor teach our preschool class. He would begin the class by asking the kids to repeat after him some opening words that he would break down into bite size pieces.

“Here we are/at the Tennessee Valley/Unitarian/Universalist/Church/with our friends/and we hope/that one day/all the people of the world/can be friends.”

Which just goes to show that when we try we can keep it simple.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 5, 2017 by Rev. Chris Buice)

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The President and the Apostle

Today I want to talk about someone who is known for being temperamental, authoritarian, bombastic, mercurial, combative, hypersensitive, vindictive, pejorative, self-promotional, insensitive–and- no, I am not talking about the President of the United States. I am talking about the apostle Paul.

Love him or hate him, the apostle Paul has a larger than life personality. He commands our attention. He sucks up all the air in the room. Almost two thousand years after his death Paul is impossible to ignore.

Paul’s personality is so powerful that it can overpower the life and teachings of Jesus. In the New Testament there are 4 gospels about Jesus whereas there are 13 letters attributed to Paul.

Jesus was an oral teacher who never wrote his teachings down on paper. Paul spread his message through letters that could be duplicated for mass distribution.

Just as today a shoe leather politician who campaigns door-to-door can be kicked to the curb by another politician with a Twitter account so too the oral teachings of Jesus find it difficult to compete with the mass communication techniques of Paul. Jesus was called the Christ but many believe it is Paul, who never met Jesus, who has defined Christianity.

I imagine that if Jesus and Paul had ever shared the same stage for a debate Paul would have interrupted Jesus over and over again.

Before I get into some of the more troubling passages of the writing attributed to Paul let me say there are some very beautiful passages in the letters of Paul. The passages of Paul that speak to me most profoundly are those where he tells us that love is more powerful than law.

In the Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”a and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

When we read this passage we can see why Saint Augustine once summarized the message of the scriptures in the sentence, “Love, then do what you like.”

It is ironic that many religious leaders have used Paul’s words to impose a form of religious legalism over others because in his second letter to the Corinthians, a document our president once called “2 Corinthians,” Paul invites us to become “ministers of a new covenant— not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

However, the letter of Paul’s writings has often been more dominate in our culture than the Spirit. This week I came across a website called, “Scriptures that Turn Believers into Atheists.” While many of Paul’s teachings are on this website including the following.

“Wives, obey your husbands. This is the right way to live when you belong to the Lord,” Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” Another verse, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” He goes on to say that if women have any questions about church they can simply ask their husbands about it later. He also told women they needed to cover their heads in church but he told men they did not have to because “men are the glory of God and women the glory of man.”

Suffice it to say that if the apostle Paul were to run for office today he might inspire a Million Woman March. And if he were to try to implement the teaching about slaves obeying their masters then civil rights leaders would not recognize his legitimacy. You can see how the legalistic interpretation of Paul could lead a young woman to pick up a sign that says, “A woman’s place is in the revolution.”

A while back I was talking with a friend who was struggling with forgiveness and he said to me, “I picked up this book about forgiveness but I couldn’t get through it. It had a whole lot of teachings of the apostle Paul.” I understood his dilemma because let’s be honest the apostle Paul can be very difficult to forgive.

So if you’ve been hit over the head with his teachings one too many times I get where you are coming from. If Paul is not your favorite biblical writer I will cut you some slack.

However, one of the strange paradoxes about Paul is his tendency to contradict himself. One moment he is for the submission of women and the obedience of slaves and in another he writes one of the most eloquent Christian arguments against racism and sexism and for human equality ever written.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

This scripture was the central text used by abolitionist in their campaign against slavery and by the first generation of women who broke through the stain glass ceiling in the 19th century in order to become ordained ministers all of whom preached the gospel with their heads held high and their heads uncovered.

And to make matters even more complicated there are passages in Paul’s letter where he praises women for their leadership in the early church – Prisca, Priscilla, Aquila . Mary, Phoebe, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Junia, Chloe, Euodia , Syntyce and Julia using terms of equality calling them co-workers, fellow laborers and in the case of Junia an apostle.

Trying to understand Paul can be quite confusing and even maddening. One minute he is speaking emphatically for one thing and the next he is doing the opposite. In the early days of the church when many people felt it was a small fledgling faith against a hostile world he was combative and would pick fights with other leaders of the church. Trying to understand him can be a very frustrating experience.

Part of the problem is he had a way of adapting his message to different audiences saying, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

So here is an idea that can help make Paul more comprehensible. Recently, I heard a political scientist say something about our new president that I have heard biblical scholars say about the apostle Paul, “Take him seriously but not literally.” When we try to take him literally nothing adds up and confusion reigns. When we try to take him seriously then new avenues of thought become possible.

Now don’t get me wrong taking him seriously and not literally is not going to address all of our concerns but it could set us on a course that lends itself to more personal sanity. Sometimes a personality is so much larger than life that he can work his way into our heads.

It is sort of like the situation with Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, he has a way of working his way into every conversation and every head.

At the risk of TMI – Too much information, the other night I had a dream that my wife Suzanne and I were in the bedroom and Donald Trump was trying to move in with us, moving our bed over to make more room for his bed. Now that is a larger than life personality when someone can work his way into my head like that. It’s crazy making.

And as I look out at the congregation today I think I can see more than a few people who would not want to see the apostle Paul move into their bedrooms not even in your dreams. One verse that has been used to beat people up over the years comes from his letter to the Corinthians; words that have often been hurled at members of the GLBT community.

“Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God”

These words have been used to try to stymie the cause of gay rights for many centuries even though biblical scholars disagree over whether the word translated as homosexual is accurate. Right now there are legalists in our state legislature who are trying undo the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality by ensuring that words husband and wife in Tennessee law are interpreted literally so they don’t have to take the Supreme Court decision seriously.

However, I have always been partial to the words Paul wrote that are an affront to every form of legalism and any kind of legalist religion, “wherever the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” Wherever the Spirit is there is freedom. During the civil rights movement, activists evoked the memory of the apostle Paul as they marched for freedom singing,

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on

And after the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and the euphoric rallies where the signs read, “Love Wins,” I began to hear the words of Paul in a different way, words which are so often used in weddings, words that challenge every form of legalism empty of love.

‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.’

And as we remind each other every Sunday – it is the truth that sets us free.

Love is the spirit of this church

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Love wins.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 29, 2017 by Rev. Chris Buice.)

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Anger: To Build a Bridge or Burn it Down

The other day I saw a sample ballot on the Internet where you could check a box if you are a Republican or a Democrat or Pissed off. Of course, whoever designed this ballot also provided their personal answer.

This morning I want to talk about anger because there seems to be a lot of anger in the air these days. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs they have a way of describing those moments when we should pause before doing something stupid. We should pause when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, H-A-L-T halt.

We’ve just been through a very angry election season and this weekend we’ve experienced the inauguration of a new president, a moment marked by both ceremony and protest, both of which had elements of anger. So it occurs to me that now might be a good time for America to halt, or pause before we do something stupid.

We live in an age of polarization, a time when we have to make a choice; shall we build a bridge or burn it down? Let’s at least pause before we make that decision.

Anger has always been a powerful emotion but we live in an age when anger can be amplified. With the invention of the Internet anger has found a major megaphone. It is so powerful it sometimes feels like anger can overpower all other emotions. For instance, recently the Defense Minister of Pakistan got so angry over a fake news story he read on the internet that he threatened nuclear war on Israel. For this reason, we might be tempted to paraphrase the words of the poet T.S. Eliot,

“This is the way the world ends – not with a bang or a whimper but with a tweet.”

 However, anger and the Internet have this in common, they can be used for good or ill.

In many ways anger is like fire. Fire can be used to warm a home, prepare a meal, feed a family, illuminate the darkness or it can become a raging out of control conflagration that devastates an entire community.

Anger can help us meet opportunities or miss opportunities. It can help us build a bridge or burn it down. So as we pause or halt, let’s consider some of the ways that anger can lead us off course and make us miss opportunities.

This week I saw a picture of someone on Facebook who described herself The Passive Aggressive Witch. Her post read, “I don’t curse anyone, I just bless everyone else around them.” I think we’ve all met someone like that and maybe we can all be that way sometimes as well.

One way to deal with our anger is to repress it but when we do this we miss the opportunity to be authentic. Honestly is always the first step to spiritual growth.

Here in the South we know that a great deal of aggression and anger can be disguised by good manners. A good friend from a congregation I served in South Carolina who once said to me, “In the South we love you, we love you, we love you, UNTIL WE HATE YOU!”

Since I am a Southerner you will not hear me say an unkind word about good manners but I will say this, it is better for all concerned if we do not use politeness to let anger build up until the point of explosion.

At this point I do want to apologize to the environmentalists among us because I am aware that when I describe anger as a fire I am not using a carbon neutral metaphor, and to make matters even worse, I am going to say we can also compare anger to the workings of a internal combustion engine. Anger can either be an uncontrolled explosion that blows up the entire car or it can be controlled explosion that moves the car forward and helps a driver arrive at a desired destination.

However, as global climate change science reveals, even a controlled explosion can have damaging consequences that are not immediately apparent. Just as there are climate change deniers there are also anger deniers. We may think we have our anger under control but everyone else can see that our polar ice caps are melting and our sea levels are rising. Anger is hard to hide.

Anger can be damaging to both our bodies and our spirits. Anger can lead to increased stress, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. Our anger, more often than not, damages us more than it damages anybody else. This is why I say during every election cycle, “If you don’t like a particular political candidate don’t let your emotions put you in the hospital.”

Anger can be damaging to the spirit. Anger can make us magnify the faults of another while minimizing our own.

Recently I was reminded of a line from the 1973 movie the Exorcist where two priests are about to deliver a young girl from demon possession, and the older priest says to the novice, it is especially important “…to avoid conversations with the demon… The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological…and powerful. So don’t listen to him…do not listen.”

While these words were meant to describe the exorcism of a demon they also sounded like a lot of rhetoric surrounding Election 2016, where the primary difference between opposing camps seemed to be a disagreement over whether the demon was a he or a she or could be described using gender neutral pronouns.

The only response I know to the politics of demonization is what we might call the politics of humanization. Bill Sinkford, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has said that in order to understand the anger in our culture we need look for the hurt beneath the hate because it is hard to hate someone after we’ve listened to their story.

This applies to self care as well. Zen Buddhism teaches that anger is a very destructive emotion but also teaches that instead of repressing our anger we should look at our anger the way a mother looks after her child. In other words when we become angry we need to look within ourselves for the hurt behind the hate; to soothe the angry and hurt child within us.

This is why the civil rights activist and social gospel theologian Ruby Sales tells us that the most important theological question for our time is not, “What do you believe?” but “Where are you hurting?” Anger is often a secondary emotion. We must look for the hurt behind the hate, the vulnerability behind the vitriol.

Ruby Sales is African American and a left of center activist but she argues that one reason that the Trump campaign had so much power is because he spoke to people’s pain. He did not try to speak the language of the academy or of policy institutes but the language of emotion and outrage. He spoke to where people were hurting.

The slogan for the Trump campaign was “Make America Great Again” but perhaps we need another slogan that will speak to all of us across a broad political spectrum, “Make America Safe Again.”

Make America safe for the transgender kid who needs to go to the bathroom and the young adult in Appalachia who is watching all the good jobs go away.

Make America safe for Black Lives – for nonviolent citizens pulled over by the police -but also make America safe for the police officers, 12% of whom are black and 87% of whom will never ever draw a weapon in the line of duty.

Make America safe for women from verbal abuse, harassment, sexual assault and a heavily fortified testosterone poisoned glass ceiling and make America safe for young men like Zaevion Dobson and his cousin Jujuan Latham through the Save Our Sons movement.

Make America safe for the native and the immigrant, for healthcare providers and those who desperately need their services.

Make America safe for this generation looking for jobs and for future generations who will depend on a good environment.

So let’s make America great by making America safe and secure and filled with mutual respect so that we can live out the full meaning found in the Pledge of Allegiance that there will be liberty and justice for all.

Anger can be spur to action or it can be a pathway to Armageddon. Our anger can be a slow burning fire or it can consume us. Being angry over injustice is not a bad thing. We want that fire to illuminate the world, illuminate our understanding of justice, illuminate our conscience. We want a refining fire that will refine us like silver is refined and gold is tested.

This is why Ruby Sales says we need to learn to make a distinction between redemptive and nonredemptive anger. To bring her concept close to home let me say that when we say “love is the spirit of this church” on Sunday morning it needs to be love that leads to outrage so that we will be outraged by injustice, outraged by cruelty, outraged by bigotry, outraged by all the of hurts in our world that can so easily turn to hate.

Lately, I have been meditating on the life and example of Nelson Mandela in South Africa who could emerge from 27 years in prison without bitterness, resentment or uncontrollable rage but with a clear vision of the good of the country and a willingness to build bridges with others when it would have been just as easy to burn them down. I don’t think I can be that good. Anyone who’s seen my Facebook page knows I am capable of counterproductive snarkiness. But I can aspire to be that good. There is no question that Nelson Mandela had a creative relationship with his anger and everyone is his country and the world benefited from his refined fire.

Anger can empower us. Even so anger can be compared to that prescription you heard about on television. The prescription that offers a cure to a disease but also comes with a long list of side effects. Somewhere in my imagination I can hear the TV announcer say, “Anger: It can empower us to work for justice. Side effects may include nausea and vomiting, feeling tired, drowsy, irritability, high blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, insomnia etc. etc. etc.”

So let me say to you, whenever you hear me speak about redemptive anger, whenever you hear me give that prescription – remember to first consult your doctor. For I want you to make the best decisions for your life, your body, your mind and your spirit.

I went to the Women’s March on the campus of the University of Tennessee on Friday and to the one on Market Square on Saturday. I marched not because I want us to re-litigate the past but because I want us to re-imagine and re-envision our future.

Someone was handing out signs that said “Why I March” where you could fill in your own reasons for marching. I realized in explaining “Why I March” I could write a long detailed treatise in very small print or I could answer in one word – Mom.

My mom knew how to be angry. But she did not always use that word. She was a Southern woman who knew how to be gracious and polite but on more than one occasion I remember her using the term “pissed off.”

But she got angry about the right things. She got angry about injustice, angry about oppression, angry about unnecessary war, angry about poverty, angry about misogyny and racism. And let’ be honest sometimes she was angry with me. But hers was an anger filled with love – the love that leads to outrage. And this weekend I knew if she were alive today she would be marching just I marched in Knoxville and her granddaughter Sally marched in Washington DC in one unbroken circle of commitment to social change.

Anger is a powerful emotion. Anger is a fire like the Holy Spirit is a fire. I could write a long treatise about anger but if my mom were alive today she might summarize this entire sermon in one word – love – and that’s why we march just like the suffragists marched at the inauguration of a Democratic president in 1913 and so many women marched at the inauguration of a Republican president this weekend because the work of democracy is unfinished and no one can be free until everyone is free. So let’s remember the suffragists. Let’s remember our mothers. Let’s remember our sisters. Let’s remember all the other activists of blessed memory and faithfully continue their work. Presidents come, presidents go, the work of love continues. Let’s build a bridge illuminated by an unforgettable fire.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 22, 2017 by the Rev. Chris Buice)

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Soul Force: Life Lessons from MLK and the Chicago Cubs

When the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale was chaplain of the United States Senate he was asked the question, “Do you pray for the Senators?” and the Reverend Hale replied, “No, I look at the Senators and I pray for the country.”

This week the Senate was sworn in but Hale’s statement made all the way back in the 19th century reminds us that regardless of the winners or losers in any given election cycle of any given year we often have ample reason to pray for the country.

We live in polarized times. The politics of demonization mean that one person’s candidate is another person’s devil. One person’s hero is another person’s villain. Is there anyone we can all admire and respect? This week I was in Chicago for a conference pondering this question when an answer dawned on me – the Chicago Cubs.

This year the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years ending one of baseballs longest losing streaks. Up until this year the Cubs were most famous for losing. Somehow they managed to keep their fans thus becoming known as the lovable losers. Everyone loves an underdog so I suspect there were even some Cleveland fans who felt a certain satisfaction in seeing the Cubs win the World Series.

Human beings need hope to survive. This week I was scrolling the Internet when I saw a list of things to give everyone hope in hopeless times and prominent on the list were the words: Remember the Cubs!

Let’s say that together: Remember the Cubs!

So sports fans (or even if you don’t like sports) in this age where groups are often pitted against each other, and society is divided into winners and losers, let us remember the example of a team who know how to be lovable losers and gracious winners.

Walking around Chicago I thought of another person who can inspire us all Dr. King, who was often reviled in his lifetime but is rightly honored in our time, a man who had rocks thrown at him in Chicago, was stabbed in New York, assaulted in Alabama and shot in Memphis, a man who taught us not only to pray for our country but to put our prayers into action overcoming evil with good, hatred with love, physical force with soul force.

Dr. King’s nonviolent approach has always had skeptics. Many of his critics consider Dr. King a mere dreamer, a hopeless idealist. For this reason this morning I want to offer a cynic’s case for nonviolence. So if you are angry, cynical, jaded or bitter then all I can say about this sermon is– this one’s for you.

I am the youngest of five kids. Are there any other youngest children here today? I thought there might be. Being the youngest meant I was always the smallest and weakest member of the family. For this reason I learned how to speak up for myself, state my case, advocate for my cause, but also minimize the chance that someone was going to beat me up.

My older brother Bill was a football player in high school. I tell people that I really enjoyed watching my brother play football because it was refreshing to watch him do violence to other people. Call me a cynic but having an older brother who played football helped me to become a strong believer in nonviolence.

Unlike my brother I was a kid who read comic books and watch sci-fi TV shows. Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I felt at home in the Unitarian Universalist church when I found it. Whenever I am asked to explain my faith to others I will sometimes say, “In the world of religion Unitarian Universalism is closest thing you will find to a Star Trek convention. We are the nerds. We are the geeks. We are the ones you picked on in high school. And while we may not always turn the other cheek – we are almost always willing to set our phasers on stun.”

Since I did not have a workable phaser with a stun setting as a child I had to rely on diplomacy. If my brother ever proposed a violent solution to a problem it fell to me to come up with a nonviolent alternatives, to say as A J Muste said, “There is no way to peace –peace is the way.” This wasn’t idealism. It was self-interest.

So I know from personal experience that you do not have to be an idealist to champion nonviolence. All you have to be is the runt of the litter. If you know anything about the world of nature and animals then you know that runts have it hard. The runt is the smallest, weakest member of the siblings. This means in any competition for scarce resources the runt will be the loser. Often this is question of life or death.

The runts of the litter are not popular in our time. We live in an age that glorifies the Alpha Male, the guy on top, the person who is the highest in the pecking order. Jesus, on the other hand, offered a different message in his time. Jesus identified with the runts of the litter. Rather than basking in the light that always shines on the man in charge Jesus chose to shine the light on the blind, the lame, the lepers, the widows, the orphans and the outcasts saying, “What you do to the least of these you do also unto me.”

We are told that working for peace is idealistic but the truth is war is even more idealistic. As William Sloane Coffin once said, “All wars are fought for self-interest or national interest but justified in the name of ideals like freedom or justice.”

This week I went to Chicago Art Institute where we saw an exhibit on military and political propaganda in which there was a picture of very young children dress in surprisingly realistic military garb alongside a quote from a World War II era Japanese newspaper, “Even three year old children must when they play war, be taught how to use guns and sabres and be instilled with the feeling that war is pleasant and that one must love war.” We call the peacemakers of the world romantics but I believe it is those who teach children to love war who are the purveyors of a most destructive form of romanticism.

This is the Sunday before the inauguration and we have just been through an extremely divisive election. There are times when our current culture wars begin to feel like a civil war and we are reminded of the words that Abraham Lincoln spoke in his inaugural addresses, words that remind us to bind up the wounds of our nation, to bear malice toward none and charity for all, to return to the better angels of our nature.

But how shall we do this? During the last Presidential Debate each candidate was asked to name something they admired about the other. …It was an awkward moment. Donald Trump said the thing he admired about Hillary Clinton was that the fact that she is a fighter. She never quits and she never gives up and that is something he respects. Hillary Clinton said she admired Donald Trump’s children and felt their abilities and commitments reflected well on their father. Perhaps these statements can help us know how to move forward as a nation.

If fighting for what we believe is admirable then let’s do admirable things. If raising our children to be good people is admirable then lets be admirable. In the days ahead we can fight physical, political and economic force with soul force knowing that the power in you and the power in me is greater than any power we will encounter in the world.

This week our country will witness the inauguration of new President. When comedian Chris Rock played the President of the United States in a movie called Head of State he would sign off his speeches by saying “God bless America and nobody else.” The President of the United States is often called the leader of the free world – but this title hasn’t always been accurate.

When Harriet Tubman led the Underground Railroad she was the leader of the free world. When Sojourner Truth spoke out for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women she was the leader of the free world. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus challenging segregation laws she was the leader of the free world. When Fannie Lou Hammer organized sharecroppers in Mississippi and delegates for a national political convention in Atlantic City she was the leader of the free world. When John Lewis stood at the front of the line on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a face-off with the Alabama National Guard he was the leader of the free world. When Martin Luther King wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail he was sitting in a prison but he was the leader of the free world.

So as we go forth from this church today remember to pray for our country, remember to pray for our world, remember to pray with our actions but also …remember the Cubs.

Remember the Cubs. Remember the underdogs. Remember the runts of the litter. Remember that life is full of upsets and surprises -and remember, whenever President of the United States does not want the job- we, the people, can be the leaders of the free world.

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 15, 2017)

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A New Conspiracy Theory for a New Year

My latest conspiracy theory is that feng shui was invented to trick Sensitive New Age Partners into moving furniture. Some spouses need a little nudge to set aside the latest spiritual self-help book and engage in manual labor. Statements like “Honey, we need to move the couch,” do not sound like nagging when you add, “… so the room will have good feng shui.” Rather than balking at another mindless household chore most of us are inclined to say, “Who am I to stand in the way of metaphysical peace and harmony?”

I have to confess I am one of those partners who need incentives to do the drudgework of life. Tell me that Zen Buddhism teaches that inner peace can be found while doing the dishes and I will do the dishes. Tell me that medieval monks taught we must practice the presence of God while sweeping and mopping the floor and I will pick up the broom and follow up with the mop. I am like the method actor who is always asking the question, “What’s my motivation?” Give me some inspiration and I’ll get ‘er done.

The philosopher William James taught that the most important question about religion is not, “Is it true?” but “Is it useful?” which is why his philosophy is called pragmatism. So if we adopt this mode of thinking we won’t need any conspiracy theories about feng shui or reductionist explanations for Zen meditation or contemplative living. We can simply ask, “Is it useful? Does it help our relationships? Do we feel greater peace and harmony in our lives?” If our answer to these questions is “Yes,” then we are definitely on to a good thing.

Even so, I have a little bit of a rebel in me. If I ever start a rock n’ roll band (which I occasionally threaten to do) I am going to call it Bad Feng Shui. My idea is that the band will open up our shows by striking a defiant pose on a stage full of poorly arranged furniture. We will wear dark sunglasses that convey our complete indifference to the tabletops, counters and open closets full of clutter. The expression on our face will say, “spirituality be damned.” In my imagination our audience will scream with delirium as crowds so often do for anti-authoritarian rock stars. Beatlemania will seem like a tempest in a teapot compared to Badfengshuimania!

This is my pipe dream. When it comes to day-to-day reality I am more of a pragmatist. I think I will keep moving furniture, mopping, sweeping, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, folding the laundry, running errands and all the other usual drudgery. It is good for my relationships. It makes for greater peace and harmony in my home. For a lack of a better term I am going to call it good feng shui.

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Charity to Solidarity

Last week I was hiking in the Smokies, climbing up to a ridge on the Anthony Creek trail, where the sound of cascading water flowing over rocks offers a kind of calming meditation. When my path connected with the Bote Mountain Trail I was struck by the fact that while everything around me was stone cold gray – the thicket of mountain laurel in front of me was still green.

Perhaps it was an unexpected encounter of this sort with unanticipated greenery -somewhere in the distant past -that provided the genesis of so many of our holiday traditions. Decking the halls with bows of holly, decorating evergreen trees, kissing under the mistletoe. In a season of barren, desolate landscapes it is encouraging to encounter signs of life.

Many of the traditions of Christmas predate the birth of Christ and the spread of Christianity throughout the Western world. Some of those traditions have to do with generosity. There is something elemental about this impulse. Winter reminds us of our interdependence. In the cold we need each other for warmth. In the midst of the harsh winter winds we need each other for shelter. In a time when our provisions may be running low, we need each other in order to be fed. During this season we are aware that the impulse to hoard everything for ourselves makes the world barren and our impulse to share gives us life.

This time of year is a season of generosity. Many charities collect almost all their money this time of year to fund programs year round. I’ve heard many community organizers say that this spirit of generosity should be spread more evenly throughout the year. However, I feel a certain resonance with this seasonal phenomena, as the days grow colder our hearts grow warmer.

The tradition of Christmas caroling has it’s roots in the tradition of wassailing, where people go door to door to share a song, but also in the expectation that the community will share it’s wealth. The words, “So bring us some figgy pudding” are not so much a request as they are an expectation. That’s why the next verse in that song is, “We won’t go until we get some.”

There is a dignity to wassailing that is different from common begging as the song Here We Come A-Wassailing about the tradition includes the verse,

We are not daily beggers
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before

The underlying spirit of wassailing is that we are not beggars- we are neighbors. We are not strangers -we are members of the same community.

There is a story that is often told in Appalachian churches that illustrates the attitude behind wassailing. One Sunday morning the preacher told his congregation, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to fund all our church ministries. The bad news is it is still in your pockets.”

The wassailing tradition is based on a similar premise. There is good news we have enough food for everyone but some of that food may still be in your cupboard. There are enough resources for everyone but some of those may be in your bank account. As another verse of the wassailing carol tells us.

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.

In our contemporary culture the tradition of wassailing might seem like a shakedown, a very polite form of extortion. But this is because in our culture we prize our independence over our interdependence, our sense of mutual obligation, mutual connection, shared responsibility and community.

Yesterday was International Human Rights Day. I have been impressed with the Knoxville Homeless Collective’s process for drafting a Homeless Bill of Rights – people in need are not objects of our charity but human beings who deserve our respect. The rights outlined therein are not special rights but basic rights, rights that everyone should enjoy. And the efforts to restrict these rights impact everyone.

In San Antonio, Texas, a chef was fined $2,000 for feeding the homeless. A church is Maryland was fined $12,000 for helping the homeless. A 90 year-old World War II veteran in Florida was fined $500 and is facing the possibility of a sentence of 60 days in jail for outreach to the homeless. According to the National Coalition on Homelessness 71 cities have passed or attempted to pass laws criminalizing feeding the homeless. It is in response to these kinds of efforts that the Homeless Bill of Rights asserts that every one of us has,

The right to give food or water to others, and the right to eat, share, and accept food and water in public spaces; The right to give shelter or assist those in need by helping them find shelter

While there are sometimes legitimate concerns about food safety and neighborhood zoning laws these concerns must be addressed in ways that are consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And while there may be disagreements on the best way to honor these rights at the very least I think we can agree that we do not want the government to become The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

The government and the Grinch are not the only ones who can steal Christmas. We can do it ourselves even when we have the best of intentions. Robert Lupton has written a book called Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help in which he tells the story of delivering toys to needy children during the holidays. He was feeling good about this act of charity. However, he noticed after many visits to a variety of different homes that the fathers of the families would disappear into the back bedroom when the toys arrived. He wrote, “I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before: how a father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family…even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated giving…can exact an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity.”

Even with the best of intentions charity can reinforce a sense of superiority in the giver and a sense of inferiority in the receiver offering an unintended insult to injury of poverty. The gift may be offered in humility but received in humiliation.

Robert Lupton would probably describe himself as a compassionate conservative but I have heard similar sentiments at the Highlander Center just down the road, an institution that helped to train Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, labor unions and environmental groups, and many other people and social change groups known and unknown who work for justice. I was out at the Highlander Center this week for a workshop where I heard one of the participants say, “It is not what we do for each other it is what we can do with each other that’s important.”

For this reason, I think it is important for us to know that when our congregation supports the work of SEED (Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development) which trains young people in our inner cities for green jobs in a green economy on a green and peaceful planet we are doing the work of Christmas. When we pay a living wage and when we advocate in our community for a living wage for everyone we are doing the work of Christmas. We may not get to see the eyes of children light up on Christmas morning but nevertheless our efforts are instrumental in creating a world where children wake up on that morning with excitement and joy and are embraced by parents who feel good about themselves and the world. It is a gift when we move beyond charity to heart felt sense of solidarity.

So whenever you see a rally outside of a fast food restaurant where people are demanding a raise in the minimum wage holding up the Fight for 15 signs I hope you will remember the tradition of wassailing where it is perfectly appropriate, and completely respectable to cry out for social justice and say, and you can say it with me.

We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
So bring it right here

We see some of that same spirit of solidarity in the thousands who gathered at Standing Rock last weekend for an interfaith prayer service to oppose a pipeline going through the sacred lands of Standing Rock Sioux; the power of prayer facing the power of militarized vehicles; the power of prayer facing the power of tear gas, fire hoses and military weaponry. The Corp of Engineers gave the tribal leaders good news last week. In all likelihood the pipeline will be rerouted, although vigilance will be required to ensure that this decision is not undermined by a new presidential administration in January, but for now the decision is a welcomed gift.

The movement at Standing Rock reminds me of a story told by the Native American leader, scholar and author Vine Deloria who often wrote about how white people just don’t seem to “get” Native American culture. Once when Deloria was on a radio talk show he got this question from caller, “Before white people came to America how did the Native Americans celebrate Christmas?” Fortunately, it was a good time for a commercial break because Deloria just couldn’t stop laughing. He couldn’t control himself. He had tears streaming down his face.

At the risk of stating the obvious before Christians came to America there was no celebration called Christmas but that does not mean there wasn’t any religion here. When the Christian missionaries tried to convert the Seneca Iroquois leader Red Jacket he told them,

“We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers…We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive; to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.”

This week I heard a conservative Christian commentator crow about the election results by saying, “The war on Christmas is over and we won.” So what can I say, unlike the Seneca tribe, we do quarrel about religion. Too often in our culture we celebrate Christmas with a culture war.

So if you ever grow tired of the sanctimony of television commentators or weary of the vitriol of talk radio or disheartened by the diatribes on social media, I recommend that you go outside for a walk in the forest. If you do, you may discover that in an otherwise barren and desolate landscape there is still some green. Most trees will have lost their leaves but if you pay attention you may still see signs of life, and what you experience on your walk will be similar to what people have felt long before you were born, long before anyone came over to this continent from Europe. If you keep your eyes open you will see what the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Seneca and the Sioux saw before you and you will discover that before there was Western European religion in this land there was already a religion here. And before there was anything called Christianity there was an experience that we now call Christmas. In that spirit, let me say to everyone of every faith and every belief of every kind, Merry Christmas.

(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on December 11, 2016)

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God Loves Donald Trump (But I Don’t) Part II

I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t hate him either. I don’t take pride in my position, quite the reverse. I believe whenever we dislike someone it makes us seem smaller and causes the other person to loom larger. Indeed, disliking someone can make that person even more powerful than they would otherwise be.

When I was parenting children in my home I learned that it is better to tell a child “Do this,” rather than, “Don’t do that.” In other words, instead of saying, “Don’t leave your clothes all over the floor,” you say, “Please put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket.” This is because people think in pictures. When we make the first statement the listener sees ‘clothes on the floor’ and when we make the second statement the listener sees ‘clothes in the basket.’ Even when it is just in our minds a picture is worth a thousand words.

Whoever invented the hashtag #NeverTrump may have unintentionally boosted the candidate’s campaign. The name repeated is Trump. The picture in our mind is Trump. Whenever we give someone our ire we are in danger of letting that person dominate our lives. When we let someone dominate our lives then we help to pave the way for that person to dominate others.

The commandment to “Love our enemies” is not necessarily altruistic. Our enemies have a way of living in our head rent-free. Loving our enemies can be a way to get our apartment back.

Spiritually speaking, being a Never Trumper or a Hillary Hater or a Bernie Basher is to be in danger of losing our center, our grounding. To despise any candidate is to put the focus on someone else when the only power we really have is in ourselves. We can shine the searchlight outward or we can shine it inward. Right now, might be a good time to shine it inward to see what resources we have in ourselves to bring to the challenges of our times.

We all have to start somewhere. To paraphrase Howard Thurman, “Sometimes I pray to be able to like a person. Other times I pray to want to like that person. Still other times I pray to want to want to like that person.” Spirituality is about being open and honest about where we are with an openness to change, growth, healing and wholeness. So I am where I am – but I am also open to moving in a more positive direction.

It is not enough to oppose a person. We must propose new possibilities. Action is more potent than reaction, affirmation more powerful than negativity. Donald Trump clearly wants to be liked so maybe the least I can do is want to want to want to like him.

As I write the “Defend the Sacred” movement at Standing Rock has received the good news that the oil pipeline is likely to be diverted from sacred lands protecting the water for future generations. The sacred has been defended and will need our continuing vigilance. On inauguration weekend there is going to be a Million Women March in Washington DC, not unlike the suffragist march when Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated. The first march was for a Democrat. The second is for a Republican. As citizens we may belong to different political parties but perhaps we can continue to move forward together as a nation in a positive and powerful direction.

(This is the second part of a pastoral letter written by the Reverend Chris Buice to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

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