Recording of our November 1, 2020 online worship servicde
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. I am joined in worship leadership by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing and Worship Associate Ed Sharples. We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis and Zoom Greeter Dreika DeGraff.
BUC is a spiritual home for all people of goodwill. We are a congregation of many beliefs, many backgrounds, and identities. Our social justice work this year is focused on four areas: racial justice, environmental justice, economic inequality, and civic engagement. We are a Green Sanctuary Congregation, which is about our commitment to our planet, and a Welcoming Congregation, which is about our commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. More information about those designations can be found on our website.
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. 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.
We have two announcements this morning:
Our monthly Vespers service will be held this Tuesday, November 3 at 7:00 pm on Facebook live. Take a break from Election Day to recharge your spiritual batteries. The service will include candle lighting in remembrance of your beloved dead and any concerns in your heart. Please submit names and concerns for candle lighting through our website. To view the service, visit BUC’s Facebook page at 7:00 on Tuesday night.
Secondly, please join me this Wednesday, November 4 at 7:00 pm for a post-election listening circle. This will be a pastoral space to process the feelings you might have about the 2020 election cycle. The listening session will include breathing, centering, and lightly structured open sharing. Zoom access info is on the Meeting Calendar.
I also want to acknowledge what many of you saw in the news last night. Yes, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama used our parking lot yesterday afternoon to address volunteers. This happened because the Michigan One Campaign has been renting our parking lot as a staging area to coordinate door to door canvassers. No, we did not know they were coming. Marcia and I were just as surprised as any of you were to see our parking lot on national news. And to assuage any concerns, this does not count as an endorsement from our church and does not violate any laws. And it is pretty exciting.
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.
We worship in our separate homes this morning, but we are joined by a multitude of Unitarian Universalists in lighting our chalice:
Today we rekindle our commitment to the truths we hold dear and the dream that lives in our hearts for a more perfect union where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are known as inalienable rights.
by Ed Sharples
Here we are, at the edge of doing one of the most patriotic things we Americans can do.
For anyone who has not voted yet, there is still time, including in-person voting on Tuesday.
Voting is an act of patriotism for those who want to keep government as it is, and for those who long for change.
It is a far more patriotic act than attending a display of fireworks on the 4th of July or carrying flags in a parade.
Voting, to keep democracy alive, is the noblest of patriotic actions. It is the evidence of patriotism writ large in our secular beliefs. In it, may we all participate.
So be it.
The mission of Birmingham Unitarian Church is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service and joy. This is the work to which we give our time, talent, and treasure. Let there be an offering for support of this Beloved Community and our good works. Contributions can be made through our website and through Venmo (username @BUCMI), or a check in the mail. In an act of love and support for our congregation, I invite you to give generously.
by Ed Sharples
What does it mean to be patriotic?
On October 11th of this year, the New York Times devoted several pages of answers to this question. What, indeed, is patriotism?
The superficial answer quickly comes to mind: It is love of country. But I was moved by Marilynne Robinson’s essay that is more thoughtful than the quick answer suggests. Here are several of her thoughts on the meaning of patriotism:
“It is often said [she writes] that America is an idea, stated definitively in early documents left to us by a coterie of men seemingly too compromised to have come up with such glorious language--as we would be, too, if we should happen to achieve anything comparable. Human beings are sacred, therefore, equal. We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it."
"The idea is a progressive force, constantly and necessarily exposing our failures and showing us new paths forward."
"...I am loyal to this country in ways that make me a pragmatist. If someone is hungry, feed him. He will be thirsty, so be sure that he has good water to drink. If he is in prison, don’t abuse, abandon, or exploit him, or assume that he ought to be there. If these problems afflict whole populations, those with influence or authority should repent and do better, as all the prophets tell them."
"Leaders perish, but the people have a relative immortality."
"This country was, from the outset, a tremendous leap of faith. We tend not to ponder the brutality of the European world at the time our colonies formed, so we have little or no idea of the radicalism not only of stating that ‘men,’ as creatures of God, were equal, but of giving the idea profound political consequences by asserting for them unalienable rights, which were defined and elaborated in the Constitution and the laws. If we learn anything from this sad passage in our history, it should be that rage and contempt are a sort of neutron bomb in the marketplace of ideas."
"There is much to be done, more than inevitably limited people can see at a given moment. But the other side of our limitation is the fact that it carries with it a promise that we still might see a new birth of freedom, and another one beyond that. Democracy is the great instrument of human advancement. We have no right to fail it." And here, the quoted material ends.
And so, patriotism is not a single act. It is a way of living. It is not wrapping oneself in the flag, either figuratively or literally. It is the way of keeping our Constitution alive in every age--always looking forward-- and never allowing it to become just another document to be shelved in a dusty archive. Patriotism illuminates the analogy of family with country and the advice to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Patriotism implies relationships. Such is the way forward for Americans.
Our second reading is a poem by Langston Hughes that is as timely now as it was when he wrote it in 1935. The importance of representing diverse voices in church services cannot be overstated. But that has to be balanced with sensitivity for how non-white works are presented by a white person. In my preparations for today, I found a video of it performed by one of my favorite contemporary poets. It is so much more appropriate for a young, queer, Black person to present this than it would be for me to. Here is Danez Smith performing “Make America America Again,” by Langston Hughes.
by Rev. Mandy Beal
In my mid-20s, I worked in the nursery of a UU church in Austin, TX. At that time, I was married to someone who has children. While I was working, the oldest kid went to the RE class for Pre-K and Kindergarteners. When I picked her up from class one day, she showed me an art project she had made. It was a booklet titled “Sop Bush, sop sop!” I’m pretty sure she meant, “stop.” In the center of the page was a large American flag in a circle with a line through it; like a no smoking sign, but with the American flag. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing that day that led to the creation of this literary masterpiece, but it made it very clear she understood the political rhetoric happening around her.
My personal understanding of politics at that time was impassioned, but limited. My political thought was based on a limited set of issues which could only be answered as a yes or no without caveat. There wasn’t a lot of nuance in my thinking; again, mid-20s. The incident with the book showed me that my political attitudes had been passed on. I was kinda proud, but there was something deeply unsettling about a 5 year old drawing the American flag with a “no” sign on top of it. I remember trying to explain the difference between the actions of a government and the idea of the United States. It was a concept I was still getting my head around and I’m pretty sure I did not do a good job of explaining it. Don't worry, she’s a perfectly fine, well-adjusted and politically-active young adult now.
Growing up in Texas in the 80s and 90s, and being a young adult in Texas during the W. Bush presidency, gave me a very specific reaction to American flags. In that place and time, displaying an American flag was synonymous with being a political conservative. It meant you were pro-war, pro-gun, and anti-gay; or at least that was the going theory in my social circles. Those were the people who had flags. It wasn’t because the rest of us weren’t patriotic, it was because the rest of us were embarrassed. Displaying a flag makes a declarative statement and there isn’t a way to display a flag with an asterisk indicating you support the idea of our nation, if not the present leadership.
Years later, Jesse and I moved to Massachusetts. It was my first time living outside of Texas and I couldn’t believe the number of American flags on homes! It was like the 4th of July all of the time. At first, we thought we had moved into the wrong neighborhood. How did this happen, we wondered, that we should move to one of the most progressive states and find ourselves surrounded by conservatives?
It didn’t take long for us to realize that our perception of what it meant to fly the flag needed adjustment. Massachusetts is very proud of the role it played in the founding of our nation. When it actually is the 4th of July in Massachusetts, you can find people wearing t-shirts that say: “You’re welcome for the democracy.” In Massachusetts, the American flag is flown as a symbol of something entirely different than my experience of flags in Texas.
And Michigan has its own reasons for flying the flag. Being so close to the Canadian border certainly has an impact on why flags are flown. And it can’t be overlooked that Michigan has played a special role in the preservation of our great nation. The first shots of the Civil war were fired on April 12, 1861. On May 13, Michigan sent its first regiment of troops to the defense of the union. In total, it’s estimated that over 90,000 Michiganders fought for the Union, which was roughly ¼ of the state’s male population. According to a document I found from the State Legislature, the Michigan soldiers were known as fierce, steadfast, and gentlemanly. And, of course, Michigan is very proud of its history as a last stop on the Underground Railroad.
I’ve lived in Texas, New England, and now the Midwest. Just as each region has its own culture of flag flying, each has a slightly different idea of America, based on history and culture. Ultimately, America is a dream. It is a hope. Our country was founded on the aspirational statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is the foundational dream upon which our nation has been nourished.
To say that people have inalienable rights is a wild claim. By July 4, 1776, this idea had been percolating in the field of natural philosophy through the work of Thomas Hobbes, then John Locke, then the contemporary Jean-Jacque Rousseau. The roots of this idea can be traced further back over millennia, if not always in a straight line. The founders of our nation had immersed themselves in this idea until they were convinced. “We hold these truths” means “we have decided this is true.” And yet, even if we agree it is true, inalienable rights still remain no more than an idea. But it is our idea.
At first, the idea was limited to white, land owning men. The circle expanded by giving the vote to white men who did not own land. Millions languished under chattel slavery, being counted as only ⅗ human. Slavery was ended, then those who were liberated from bondage were granted citizenship. Then black men won the vote. Then women.
Voting rights of people of color and the poor were suppressed with literacy tests and poll taxes. Those rights were expanded by the Voting Rights Act. Then suppressed again through voter ID laws, the closure of polling places, and perhaps more; only time will tell the impact of decisions that have been made this year.
But along the way, shaped by voting power, rights have been won - the right to equal education, the right to privacy, the right for women’s bodily autonomy, the right to equal marriage. Each of these adding to the scaffolding that brings us closer to that lofty goal: unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America hasn’t always been America for all of us, but it has remained our dream that America could be America for all of us.
As we draw to the close of whatever this election season was - brutal, bizarre, captivating - we can have hope and be of good cheer. There is a difference between the actions of a government and the idea of the United States. No matter what happens, the ideas upon which this nation has been founded remain untarnished. We still share the aspiration of inalienable rights, something that we want so badly we still call it a self-evident truth. That dream, and who it includes, has been challenged at times, it has been expanded at others, but it has never been abandoned. And it won’t be now. We have always found our way back to the idea of unalienable rights for all. We have always chosen to keep believing that idea is true. That dream, that aspiration, will continue to guide us, as it always has.