October 4, 2015 Sermon by Art

Proclaim 10 04 15 Poverty and Peace, the Francis Way

Last week when we might have reflected upon the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., we instead invited to the pulpit Rabbi Judy who gave us UUs a very powerful challenge to live up to our very idealistic message embodied in our 7 Principles. I chuckled at how Judy described her own complex religious tradition, Judaism, suggesting that the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform wings are referred to by the Reconstructionists ( Judy’s branch) as the crazies, the hazies and the lazies! Turns out, the Reconstructionists actually reject the notion of Judaism as a religion. Rather, suggests Judy, Jews are a culture, an ethnicity, a tradition with a very humanistic message not unlike UUs. For Judy, the idea that UUism is religion light is inaccurate; she links our message is profound and we should take it very seriously. When Judy and her husband Mel go to Florida the UU church is an oasis for her in the midst of a sea of conservative and fundamentalist thinking. Guess Judy never heard the common take on UU by other religionists, i.e., UU is the religion of what’s happening now or that religion where you get to believe whatever you want; religion very light! Don’t tell that to Judy; she’ll shout you down and remind you how proud she is to be connected to us and how important our message is.


So now that we’ve brought in the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) with the help of multiple Shofar blasts from Scott, and cast away our shortcomings from this past year by tossing bread into the Essex River on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), I thought we might reflect a bit on the visit from Pope Francis, now that he is safely back in Vatican City, interestingly on the feast of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, October 4. For sure it was a whirlwind journey stock full of speeches, sermons, visitations and symbolic actions, and as is the case with this man of God, a few surprises we didn’t learn about until he was back home. You may have heard that he met up with Kim Davis, the town clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage certificates to gay folks, and with a former student from Argentina who brought his gay partner with him to the visit. The man is full of surprises.


As most know, he gave major speeches to Congress and the UN, visited an inner city school and a prison, both applauded and challenged his brother bishops around the issue of protecting children, and, one of my favorite parts, sat in the back seat of a tiny Fiat in multiple motorcades surrounded by large, luxury cars. In his more serious messages he talked about the common good, poverty and economic inequality, the horror of the arms race, war, the death penalty, protection of life at all stages, the right of conscience, the environment, and he continually asked that people pray for him. His speeches were not accusatory, nor were they delivered with finger wagging, like John Paul did with the Nicaraguan poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal, when he arrived at the airport in Managua. There was a gentleness and humility to his remarks.


Driving around in the car a few days after he left, I was listening to Jim Braude and Margery Egan on WGBH asking listeners the following question: so, will there be a lasting effect to this visit or will it be quickly forgotten, except for a few images of him hugging children or sitting in the back seat of a Fiat? The answers were mixed; I suppose only time will tell most said. As to its immediate impact, whether a success or failure, that, too, drew mixed responses. One man thought he had no religious message, only a social and political one. Thus he failed. A religious commentator suggested he should have stayed home; she felt it was a waste of time and money, and she resented the coverage his visit got. Others were impressed.


Myself, I was glad it happened. In a very challenging time in our world full of conflict and division, both here and abroad, it seems to me he is one of the few worldly figures who has some moral authority, despite the Catholic Church’s horrific recent history regarding the abuse of children by some of its clergy and, worse, the cover-up by bishops.  Much like the Dalai Lama, I believe, he seems an international figure dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation with humility and humor.


We found out something about how he saw his role both in the church and the world when upon his election as Pope, he chose the name Francis. Allegedly, the first thing he said to those around him immediately before being introduced to the crowds in Vatican City was: “The Circus is Over!” Symbolically, and, I think now, concretely, he is a reformer, in a church that is significantly corrupted and a world that is headed towards self-destruction. Francis of Assisi, along with his very close companion, Sister Clare, founded a religious community in the early part of the 13th century when the church was corrupted and in need of reform. Along with Dominic de Guzman, another clerical reformer, these two inspired individuals founded the Franciscans and Dominicans to live and preach a message of love, humility and simplicity, trying to bring people back to core values. Francis believed the sacred was in all of us and in all aspects of creation, i.e., in all of nature; one of the reasons he is now the patron of environmental causes. His message was focused around two things, primarily: living a life of poverty/simplicity and peacemaking.

His focus on living poverty (he was referred to as “Poverello (the poor man) had a two-fold purpose: detachment, so that he wouldn’t be corrupted by the pursuit of money and the desire to horde it. But living poverty was also his way of being close to the destitute, to be sympathetic to their plight and to send a message that real poverty was horrific and an affront to God.


When Pope Francis spoke to the joint session of Congress he raised up 4 people in U.S. history to highlight their contributions to a better world: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, jr., Thomas Merton, the contemplative monk, and Dorothy Day, the founder of houses of hospitality called the Catholic Worker Movement. No one embodied the values of the first Francis better than Dorothy Day; she lived among the poor and destitute, traveled on buses, carried her own chair to sit on while lecturing, and spoke constantly against war and the arms race, often spending nights in jail in non-violent protests. Dorothy was the Francis of 20th century America. Reading her autobiography while serving in the U.S. Army helped change my life and help lead me into a religious community committed to poverty and peacemaking. When I met her shortly before her death in 1980/1(?), I knew I was in the presence of a saint. Under Pope Francis I expect her to be canonized sooner rather than later.


Most of us aren’t called to live poverty like Francis did or Clare or the likes of Dorothy Day; or maybe we are but we don’t have the courage to. I know I don’t; it’s too scary. Although there are times when I envy the detachment and freedom that such a life can offer. But it’s one thing to make a voluntary act of living poverty in solidarity with real poor people and, as Dorothy Day knew better than almost anyone, how horrific it is to actually live involuntary poverty, real destitution, experienced by so many in our world today, even here in the U.S. It’s crushing and debilitating.


However, we can do something about this condition and, in some small way I believe we do here at First UU Essex. By being part of Family Promise, sheltering homeless families at the Congregational Church, cooking with them, visiting and staying with them overnight, by volunteering at Grace Center interacting with those who come for support and counsel and fellowship, many homeless, and by cooking and interacting with folks at Open Door Pantry, in some small way these ministries allow us to have contact with real poverty, loneliness, depression and suffering in some cases, which allows us to not only offer solace and consolation to other human beings, but gives us the opportunity to imagine how we might work on efforts to alleviate the struggle so many go through. And that’s why others work on community efforts like ECCO, attempting to actually alter systems and structures that might better serve those in need: fight for immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, and the current effort to create a more graduated income tax in Massachusetts.


But suffering and loneliness and depression are not just experiences we encounter when involved with community ministries such as I just mentioned, but they strike us here at home as well, in our families and relationships and in the church community. The other night I was with an amazing group of us at the periodic meetings of the care and hospitality committee, beautifully and gently chaired by Becky Axelrod. And there was a moment when discussing our prayer and meditation time together and how some of the prayers and joys and concerns articulated by all of us are, at times, full of pain and sadness, at a struggle or a loss or a worry, that I was stunned. The committee members wanted to know how we deal with that: do we talk with folks afterwards, de we offer support directly, do we approach people who might be suffering? For me it was the most wonderful discussion of a group of committed church folks trying to sensitively and compassionately figure out how best to support anyone in our midst who might be struggling or suffering in their daily lives. It led to one suggestion that we institute a prayer board or joy and concern board for folks to place their concerns on as they come into church. We all realize that there is a delicate balance needed between expressing empathy and support, yet not overstepping in an intrusive way into people’s lives when it is not necessarily desired. And, in some ways, it’s part of the minister’s job, particularly in a congregation our size, to be aware of when any of us needs special attention and support. But the minister can miss a lot. Sometimes the minister can even be the last to know what’s really going on. Hence, all of us are called to minister to one another. Often a good, loving friend with little pastoral experience or expertize, is the best gift anyone can have.


Nevertheless, the committee and I want us all to know that our ministry together is to be there to support any one of us who might need a gentle hug, a sympathetic ear or merely encouragement as struggles and challenges come into our lives. I think a group goes from being merely a social group of somewhat like-minded people to a real spiritual and religious community when that kind of loving attention is available and we can all trust that it is well-intentioned and carefully, gently delivered. As minister of this congregation now in my 13th year, I was privileged and overwhelmed to be in the midst of such a caring and hospitable group anxious to be of service to the community in such a wholesome and empathic way. It felt to me like a Francis moment and what church is all about when it really has become church.


So, two weeks in a row we have been challenged as a religious community, first by our good friend Rabbi Judy, who sees our faith as profound, prophetic and healing, and by St. Francis in the person of Pope Francis, who is calling us to break down barriers that divide the haves and have nots, to end wars and make peace, and as the Universalist preacher John Murray once said encouraging us to live out our faith: “Give them not hell, (or judgment – “who am I to judge”) but hope and courage; preach (and live) the kindness and everlasting love of God.” I hope Francis’ visit and message does endure and help change the minds and hearts of all, most especially our leaders; indeed the circus needs to end. Happy St. Francis Day.

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