Recording of our October 25, 2020 online worship service
This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (email@example.com), 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 this morning in worship leadership by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing and Worship Associate Abby Schreck We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis and Zoom Greeter, Mary Jo Ebert.
BUC is a spiritual home for all people of good will. 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 three announcements this morning:
From our Religious Education program: Ghosts and Goblins and creatures of fright - Don’t miss this Zoom call pre-Halloween Night! The BUC RE Council cordially invites all K-12 children and their families to join our virtual Costume Party on Friday, October 30th at 7:30 pm. We will share some not-so-scary Halloween stories and read a book titled “The Legend of SPOOKLEY the Square Pumpkin.” Dress up! Show up! And let's have some laughs! Zoom information will be sent to all registered RE families and can also be found on the meeting calendar.
The deadline to contribute to our South Oakland Shelter fundraising campaign has been extended to November 1. Joined by our partners at the Muslim Unity Center, UU Church of Farmington, Northwest UU, and Beacon UU, we are raising funds to provide lunches and dinners for SOS guests during our usual host week, November 1 through 8. You can donate online at the BUC website. Thank you for your generosity thus far!
Join the Membership Committee for the second session of Getting to Know Unitarian Universalism, which is today after the service. This is an interactive, introspective, and fun class series for anyone interested in learning more about BUC, exploring Unitarian Universalism, or wanting to deepen relationships with others in the congregation. Classes are co-led by Brianna Zamborsky and Rob Davidson. Coffee hour will end at 11:45 today so the class can start on time, at noon. It is a different link than the one you used to log into the service, that link can be found on the meeting calendar on our website.
We recently received a suggestion to pause recording our worship services during Joys and Sorrows. This means Joys and Sorrows will not be posted to Facebook after the service and might help people feel more comfortable sharing in a virtual format. If you want to submit a Joy or a Sorrow, or something in between, there is a link on our website.
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:
Our chalice is lit this morning to honor the virtue of humility. From that spark grows the flames of justice, kindness, and decency. These are the values to which we aspire in our relationships and in our world.
“A Network of Mutuality” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.
Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.
We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation.
The foundation of such a method is love.
Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war.
One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.
We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.
We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.
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, or a check in the mail. In an act of love and support for our congregation, I invite you to give generously.
Philippians 2:1-8 (NIV)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
by Rev. Mandy Beal
As we continue our exploration of the divisions in our nation, we come today to a piece of ancient wisdom about how to get along with others. This morning’s text is from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, sometime during the second half of the first century, probably within decades of Jesus’s crucifixion.
Paul was the architect of the early church movement. Churches in those times were small, subversive communities. Many members of those churches had lost their familial relationships when they joined the church, but a few families would join churches together. Early churches were small ragtag communities of outcasts, often considered dangerous; it was almost a radical fringe group. After all, their purpose was to spread the teachings of a man who was executed by the state.
Paul’s general pattern was to establish a church, leave before he was arrested, be arrested somewhere else, and then write letters to check in on the churches he had established. The Christian canon includes many of his letters that give instruction and advice on how churches should operate. A lot of his work is about how people in those churches should behave. Now a word about Paul, it’s easy to dismiss his teachings because he was a product of his time. He wrote some things that are hard on the modern ear. But, if we can give his work a gracious reading, there is a lot of practical advice about how people can live together peaceably. Paul’s work addresses human behavior in the context of covenanted religious communities, and people have always been people and the same issues will always arise.
It appears that his purpose in this passage is to clear up a power struggle between a few founding members of the church. He does so by appealing to the virtue of humility modeled by Jesus. The early Christians understood Jesus to be fully God and fully human, a belief shared by many modern Christians. In this theology, if Jesus is God, and God is omnipotent, that means that Jesus chose not to use the power available to him. He humbled himself and accepted human limitations during his life, including the conditions of his death. What Paul is saying is Jesus could have used supernatural power to avoid crucifixion, but he chose not to. And he did so as a testament to the power of humility.
The reason Jesus upset the religious authorities and the political authorities so much was his insistence on overturning human systems of power and oppression; he wanted to upend the social order. He went around preaching about equality and radical love. He healed heathens and hung out with women, children, and disabled people. Jesus’ death was the predictable conclusion of making so many enemies in high places. And he did that, all of that, on purpose. He fully and freely chose a human life with all of its limitations. There is a theological term for this, it is a Greek word - kenosis. That translates roughly as self-limitation. Kenosis. It will not be on the final, but it is extra credit.
Paul leans on this idea of voluntary self-limiting in his advice about settling power disputes. Paul could have written back and said “this person is right and that one is wrong.” He could have said “put it to a vote,” or more likely for the time, “draw lots.” He could have offered to send an adjudicator. But instead, his advice was for them to voluntarily give up some of their power. He tells them to take on each other’s cares and concerns. Early churches wanted to imitate the life of Jesus by continuing his subversion of human power structures. So, Paul’s advice to them about an internal power struggle was to - apply the same approach by practicing self-limitation in their personal relationships. Instead of settling disputes through the use of power, he instructs them to put each other’s needs first. He calls them out of the struggle for power and into deep humility.
Selfishness is part of the human condition. It is in our nature to want to win, to want more, more, to want it our way. And that causes problems. Everyone can’t have what they want. That’s just not how it works. If you’ve ever tried to order a single pizza with more than two people, you know it is not possible.
And this idea of self-limitation as a subversion to power and oppression isn’t just this one obscure reference in Philippians. The idea of making room for each other was central to the early church and Paul wrote about it a lot. In his letter to the church in Galatia, he wrote: “Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ,” that’s Galatians 6:2. And in Colossians 3:12 we find: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Paul’s letters have a clear message - if you want to live according to the life Jesus modeled, you have to take each other into consideration. You have to prioritize each other’s needs. Sometimes you have to give up what you want for the good of those around you. You matter, but you are not the only one who matters. Prioritizing the needs of others is integral to Paul’s theology.
Like the church in ancient Philippi, our country is engaged in a power struggle. There are voices on one side saying women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, undocumented people have too many rights. The argument is that providing equitable legal protection for these groups will weaken the moral fabric of the nation. Ironically, maddeningly, Christianity is usually cited as the reason these groups should not have the legal protections they need. Any philosophy or theology can become distorted. In this case, a religion with so many beautiful ideas and aspirations has been twisted to enable the base human tendencies it was meant to heal. It has lost one of its core messages - the requirement to pull against the tendency toward selfishness by putting the needs of others above your own.
Selfishness, in our time, has become dangerous. It is in our nature to pursue the things that we want and in our context, those with socio-economic-political power are essentially unchecked in their ability to have it their way. Policies and actions have been taken at the federal level to shore up the powerful by, frankly, endangering those without equal access to that power. Policies and actions like religious exemptions that allow pharmacists to opt out of filling prescriptions for birth control; religious exemptions that allow physicians to refuse life-saving medical care needed to complete a miscarriage. Policies and actions like redefining how Title IX is interpreted to adjudicate allegations of sexual assault on college campuses so that it overwhelmingly favors the accused. Policies and actions that embolden white supremacists. Policies and actions that do not hold police officers accountable for the deaths of black and brown people, especially Black men. Policies and actions such as ending mandatory bias training for federal employees, systematically invalidating transgender identities, and unsolicited statements from Supreme Court justices that call same-sex marriage “ruinous” for our nation. Policies and actions like forcing people seeking asylum at our Southern border to wait in make-shift camps in Mexico or arresting American activists for leaving water in the Sonoran desert. Policies and actions like separating infants and children from their parents and putting them in cages - and then losing the parents of over 500 of those children.
And these things are done in a vile mispronunciation of the name of Christ. There is no way these policies and actions can be reconciled with Paul’s admonishment: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” It does not matter how someone might claim some kind of religious impulse for limiting legal protections for marginalized groups. The only purpose of those policies and actions is to maintain the balance of power in favor of those who already have it.
As we consider the healing potential of making room for each other, we need to be mindful of who we are making space for. When we take on the cares and concerns of another, it isn’t the cares and concerns of the people who already have the majority share of social power, political capital, or wealth. Power does not need more power. What Paul meant was to take on the cares and concerns of those outside of the power structures. He meant to hold space for those who need it; to give a little breathing room to those who cannot breathe.
As we apply this scripture to the consideration of the pressing questions of our day, we are compelled to ask ourselves not what policies and candidates best serve our needs, but the needs of those who have less power than us. The ones on the margins of society. Perhaps you are not particularly concerned about a threat to your civil rights. If so, then you are called to be concerned about the civil rights of others. Look not to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.
Considering the needs of others is a through-line to modern Unitarian Universalism. The Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the six sources of our faith. It is Christian scriptures like this provide the basis of our First Principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all people. It is therefore our right and responsibility to use scriptures like this to further the cause of justice in our time. When the needs of the mighty are amplified while others live in fear, it is our job, as a people of faith and the direct inheritors of this theological imperative to proclaim, loudly and publicly, the necessity of elevating the concerns of those at the margins of power.
Beloved, we are at a crucial turning point in the history of our nation. The time has come. The election is underway and ends next Tuesday. So vote. Vote your values and with your heart on your sleeve. Vote for the rights that don’t matter to you because they matter to someone else. Vote like your life depends on it; do that because you know someone else’s life does.