Recording of our July 26, 2020 online worship service
This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (firstname.lastname@example.org), unless otherwise attributed.
Good morning, and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am the Reverend Mandy Beal, this congregation’s Senior Minister. Making his debut as a Worship Associate this morning is Tom Raffel. We are joined in worship leadership by our Accompanist, Forrest Howell, with technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis, and our new Zoom "bouncer," Drieka DeGraff.
BUC is a spiritual home for all people of good will. We believe in justice and hospitality and have earned such designations from the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are a Green Sanctuary Congregation, which means that we have educated ourselves and taken action to protect our environment. We are also a Welcoming Congregation, a term that means we are intentionally inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals and families. Our commitment to both of these programs was renewed in this year. And although there is no such designation for racial justice, we are deeply committed to that work, as well.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook. After the service, we invite you to stay for a virtual coffee hour. You will be randomly sorted into breakout groups and we hope that you’ll participate in this opportunity to connect with others. If you are worshiping us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you. We hope that you’ll stay after the service and get to know us.
Today’s service is an exploration of one of the sources of our Unitarian Universalist faith: the Judeo-Christian tradition. At our silent auction in March, Neb Duric won the chance to choose a sermon topic, so here we are.
Thank you, again, for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
And with that, our service will begin.
As we worship in our separate homes this morning, we are joined by Unitarian Universalists around the world as we light our chalice.
We light this chalice as a reminder of the light that gives life to all people. That light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
“As We Gather Together This Morning” by Bets Wienecke
As we gather together this morning,
May we learn to recognize and affirm
The pieces of possibility ―
The bits of good ― we bring.
May we encourage rather than control;
Love rather than possess;
Enable rather than envy.
Allowing our individual gifts to weave a patchwork of peace:
The soft deep blue of sensitivity and understanding;
The red energy of creativity;
The white heat of convictions;
The risky, fragile green of new growth;
The golden flashes of gratitude;
The warm rose of love.
Each of us is indispensable
If we are to minister to a broken and wounded world.
Together, in our gathered diversity, we form the whole.
So be it.
As the months go by and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to fold, we hold fast to this Beloved Community. Here, we foster relationships that support us in times of challenge. Here, we are renewed and affirmed by a moral and ethical grounding that values truth and human dignity. Let there be an offering to support the good works of this congregation.
Your contributions can be sent using Venmo, username @BUCMI, or through our website. Giving through either platform is easy and free. You can also put a check in the mail to us. I ask you to consider how much you’ve relied on BUC and ado what you can to support our good work. Please give generously
Joys and Sorrows
A joy from Joy Powell: Thanks to Ancestry.com, my Texas cousin Carolyn and I have reconnected after 64 years. We last saw each other in 1956 when, at age 9, we became instant friends. We never had contact again until now.
A sorrow from Nancy and Richard Schmitt: Our dear friend, Francisco Murillo, 69, died this past week. Francisco and his wife, Sara, were friends who became our ‘family’ while we lived in Saltillo, Mexico for over 6 years!
"Prosperity Gospel" by Kenyan poet Kennedy Kiarie
"Cash, credit and Christ"
They worshiped an idol
Coveting lay their eyes idle
"Give more - to receive more"
Pride and boasting covered the well of life
Jealousy, envy and strife
Multiplied gluttons and greed
Telling of every single deed
And putting aside people in need
To them lay wisdom in their works
Knowledge, civilization and technology
Overpowered spiritual primitivity
Adding multiplicity in the perception of partiality
Despising social infidels
In favor of money filled cartels.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Rev. Mandy Beal
Several months ago, in what seems like another life, Neb Duric made the winning bid to choose a sermon topic. Neb wanted to know my thoughts about certain aspects of Christianity, especially conservative or right-wing American Christianity. Neb was raised in Communist Serbia without any exposure to this religious tradition, and so he has questions. And don’t we all?! Among other things, Neb was curious about how conservative Christians justify harmful actions done in the name of Jesus. This is a subject that is very close to my heart and I’m absolutely delighted to explore this with you.
Like many of us, I came to Unitarian Universalism from a relatively conservative Christian background. The version of Christianity that raised me started to feel tight somewhere in my mid-adolescence, maybe even before. I had a hard time understanding how what I learned about Jesus connected to how we use the idea of Jesus in our lives. Jesus loves me, this I know, but if I don’t do what a theologian who died hundreds of years ago said is right, I’ll go to hell? That doesn’t make any sense.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the chasm between Jesus’ ministry and the way that Christianity functions as a power structure, specifically in our cultural context. The awareness of this disparity began when I was young and it continued through my experience in divinity school. Early into my master of divinity program, it became clear that my Christian colleagues and professors were also dismayed by the disparity between the ministry of Jesus and what currently passes for Christianity in the United States. Admittedly, I went to a rather liberal school, but it wasn’t at the outermost edge of radical liberalism. I got really curious about this. If Christian ministers had the same reservations about Christianity, and we sat in the same classes and heard the same lectures about mistranslated words and misunderstood concepts, why hasn’t the public understanding of Christianity changed?
Capitulation is the answer to that question. I heard a lot of “you’re learning this now, but if you lead with this in your congregation, you’ll lose them.” This seemed like an equivocation to me and it affirmed my decision to pursue Unitarian Universalist ministry over a liberal Christian ministry. And yet, I maintain a Christian identity. My Christianity is influenced by other philosophies, but it is firmly rooted in the ministry of Jesus and it’s location in the development of Judeo-Christian thought. Christianity as an institution, however, and what passes for Christian thought in American culture, are beyond my grasp.
There are so many ways to faithfully live as a Christian and I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush. It’s easy for Unitarian Universalists to think we have all the smart and thoughtful people, but I invite you to disabuse yourself of that triumphalism. There are smart and thoughtful people in all places and times with all manner of identity and belief. Today, we’re looking into a specific corner of Christianity, that of the hegemonic, self-righteous, violent variety that is so prevalent in the United States. I mean the people who use religion as a tool of power and oppression. Those who collude Christianity with social capital and financial wealth. The type of so-called Christianity that I cannot reconcile with the description of Jesus’ ministry as found in the Gospels.
One of the passages that most clearly demonstrates this disparity is the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the passage I read earlier. The sermon begins with a set of aphorisms called the Beatitudes. This is one of my favorite pieces of Christian scripture. It is a sharp and concise exposition of the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There is very little to argue about here. Except... there kind of is.
This passage is most often read with the emphasis on the word “they,” which implies an exclusionary tone: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of Heaven.” You may have noticed that my reading puts the emphasis on the verbs instead: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Rather than implying that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs exclusively to the poor in spirit, this clarifies that the poor in spirit are also inheritors of the Kingdom; not only, but also. I derive this meaning of the text by considering the syntax. The verbs are parallels - are and is. This conveys a sense of now and then, which is appropriate to a text that outlines the goals of Jesus’s ministry.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus begins his first public sermon by letting his audience know what he hopes to accomplish. He starts by acknowledging that some people are on the edges of the human experience, but he envisions a different world. God’s activity in the world, as described by Jesus, is the upending of human power. That doesn’t mean that humans have no power, it means the end of human power structures. We have organized ourselves, relentlessly and repeatedly, into those who have power and those who do not. And Jesus sets up his ministry in opposition to that paradigm.
The first thing out of Jesus’ mouth in his debut as a public theologian is that everyone is included in God’s ultimate plan for a radically different world. Including and especially the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers; the ones without power, starting with “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That means the kingdom of Heaven is not just for the happy, wealthy, and pious; it is for those who are downtrodden, the indigent and obscure, and those who have little faith. The people who you might not think of as being in the Kingdom of Heaven are exactly who you will find there.
Jesus dedicated himself to this message. His ministry critiqued religious authorities and political leaders. And his work benefited women, children, the disabled, and total weirdos. He lived what he taught and what we taught was radical, risky inclusion of everyone.
But over time, the personhood of Jesus, the Rabbi who lived in a particular context and preached about inclusion and freely given love was lost. Jesus became Christ, the sole means of salvation, and his teaching, surrounded by the doctrine of those theologians who lived so long ago, became Christianity.
If Christianity is understood as the single path to salvation, it inevitably becomes a tool of power. Power and oppression will find their way into everything that humans do. Powerful people learned to bend Christianity to their will as a means to solidify their control of others. The church was seduced by the ever-present allure of human power. In this way, it became unmoored from the ministry of Jesus. Just a few centuries after Jesus walked this earth, Christianity became aligned with the very institution that persecuted and eventually executed him; the all-oppressive Roman Empire.
Undoing oppression, upsetting those human power structures, is precisely the appeal and the power of the ministry of Jesus. That is why we have remained fascinated, if not compelled, by his teachings for two thousand years. The very nature of that message is that it must exist at the margins. In order to be a refutation of earthly power, it cannot be aligned with earthly power. Jesus’ ministry was a critique of a society that centered wealth, strength, conformity, and hierarchy. He taught the untamable love of God that operates outside of human attempts to codify and control. And that message has been tamed and pasteurized to make it fit for mass consumption. And people only want to consume things that they like.
This process has gone on until Christianity is now a grotesque caricature of itself. It rings hollow to us because it is hollow. When something becomes hollow, it cannot withstand criticism or inquiry. Therefore, the main task of so-called Christians has shifted from radical love to acute defensiveness. They need to feel unassailably right because they’ve built their lives on a fragile theology that says God’s love is limited and they must protect it. The hateful mockery of Christianity that is so prevalent these days is the result of spiritual insecurity that drives people to prove they are God’s favorite.
You can’t make yourself God’s favorite by telling others how awful they are. Jesus began his public ministry by saying you are already God’s favorite. And so am I. And so is the drug addict and the sex worker and the undocumented and the queer and the person that makes you nuts, yes, even those who try to keep God’s love for themselves. Whoever it is that you want to say you’re better than is also God’s favorite. The kingdom of heaven is already yours and it’s already everyone’s. It’s not something you can win or buy. It’s not that easy. It’s as hard as realizing that we’re all here together and none of us are winning because none of us are losing.
There is no scarcity of God’s love. There’s a wideness to God’s mercy, as we sang earlier. The very first line of the very first sermon at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” God’s love is not evident in wealth or power, but explicitly in those who do not have wealth and power.
There is an enduring power in the ministry of Jesus, but it’s not the kind of power that the church uses to control people today. It’s a kind of power that we can’t even imagine without the use of story and metaphor. Jesus’ ideas have been twisted and misappropriated, but if we push that aside, his ideas are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago. The message of Jesus, the truth he would rather die than renounce, is a radical, untamable, all inclusive Love that finds and holds us always, always, always. It exists outside of those who would hold it in bondage and it surrounds us all. Always.