Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Have Courage and Be Kind." (or Cinderella's To-Do List)

A sermon, given at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, TX, on March 2, 2014

Some of you are wondering-- how can we possibly be talking about a FAIRY TALE when the world is blowing up around us.  I know, the news coming out of the Ukraine scares me into paralysis--maybe it would have been easier to stay curled up under my blankets this morning...  And yet.  Today’s reading <excerpts from On Fairy Storieswas written by Tolkien in 1939, at the dawn of the Second World War.  It wasn't published until 1947 and his endnotes make reference to revisions he did in light of the horrors of that war.  But his central theses?  On those he held true.   (And not to put too fine a point on it, but he wrote much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in that same time frame.)

So yes, we’re talking about fairy tales today AND we are playing Sermon Bingo.  No one is required to play, but
 it will help some of us to pay attention.  I do ask that when you get a Bingo, please celebrate QUIETLY, and hand me your card AFTER the service to claim your prize.
It's funny--among Unitarian Universalists there is widespread hate of Cinderella.  Parents fear that their daughters will fall victim to Disney Princess Syndrome, twirling around in pink fluffy dresses and waiting for their Prince Charmings.

Sadly, most of us only know the Disney version of the Cinderella story, a cleaned up and shortened version of Charles Perrault's telling.  Now, Perrault was a seventeenth century author trying to influence friends in high places.  He took existing stories and carefully molded them to be appropriate for reading at the royal court. So his Cinderella is so very meek, so passive, in desperate need of rescue.

Whether it’s the Bible or a fairy tale, when you have a beef with a story, consider the narrator.

There are countless versions of this story--as I said, there are similar tales in most cultures, some over two thousand years old.  In many Cinderella shows diligence and initiative, not to mention a clever mind.  And a central message left out of Perrault’s telling?  Before Cinderella’s mother dies, she gives her daughter comfort, security, and a moral center, and the lesson-- Have Courage and Be Kind.

My friends, these are days indeed when we need to Have Courage and Be Kind.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have our own culture and if we were to retell the story, Cinderella might suddenly declare that she was being oppressed, demand the family estate be transformed into a workers’ cooperative, get a full-ride scholarship to Berkeley, and tell the king that his son needs sufficient social skills to find his own life partner-- the funds for royal balls would be put to better use feeding the hungry and assuring the fair treatment of children and their woodland creature friends. 

As a faith, and as Americans, we have our own myths about the solitary hero—something of an iconoclast even-the person who can break every societal mold and go out on their own, triumphantly conquering every obstacle. 
When we talk about Unitarian Universalist history, we often concentrate on individuals, with a larger-than-life picture of that iconoclast.  We think wistfully of Thoreau’s quiet contemplation in his self-sufficient solitude on Walden Pond... forgetting that the cabin was on Emerson's land, and that Thoreau went in to town or had visitors nearly every day-- there are stories of his mother making sure his laundry was done AND sending him baked goods.  It’s a good life if you can get it.

A story I prefer is that of the Iowa Sisterhood. In 1875, twenty-one Unitarian ministers who happened to be women  heard the call of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, head of the Western Unitarian Conference, and joined together to serve an area hungry for Unitarianism—the rapidly settling West, by which I mean the Midwest and Great Plains states.
The conditions were often rough and the pay lousy—these were postings that men would not take--but the women founded and supported congregations across those states. 

The Sisterhood also acted as mentors to other women with passions to ministry, helping them through the process in a time long before female clergy were common in any denomination.

Each Sunday we put these inserts in the orders of service, asking the congregation to answer a question or two to help us focus our sermons and class lessons.  Leading up to this week, I asked people to consider a time when they had a dream or a goal—what distracted them and who supported them on their way.  I was privileged to get many stories, and permission to share them-- several children answered, telling about their struggles to do things they had never done before, like running a lemonade stand or doing a triathlon.  I also heard from several adults who went back to school, either for a single class or a degree program.

Challenges fell into two categories.  The first was logistics—how do you fit something into an already busy life? Can you afford it?  What will you eat? The second category was self-talk.  The doubt and the fears of the not knowing, of the possibility of failure, of not being good enough. Sometimes it seems easier and more realistic to give up than to ask for help.

That last part of the question?  I got to learn about folks who supported your dreams with meals, with chore help, childcare, and with teaching, mentoring, and so much cheering on.

<Some personal stories of others omitted for web-publishing purposes>

We all need fairy godmothers.  We need cheerleaders; we need allies; we need minions to help us do the heavy lifting and the struggle and the celebration of our lives.

Rarely are our Fairy Godmothers immediately obvious.  Recently my son remarked over dinner, "Mom, the world needs more people like you." I looked at him quizzically, and yes, a little afraid. Then he continued-- "You know, people who are making the world a better place."

I do not share this as a brag on my child or on myself.  I say it because it was a Saving Moment.  It was that sudden burst of energy on a day when I was low--it filled my tank for days.  He did not say it lightly, nor to curry favor, but wow, did he enrich my soul.

In Sunday School classes today, the children are learning a story I have told here before—the story of Antoinette Brown and Olympia Brown—no relation.  Nearly two hundred years ago, when Antoinette was a young girl, she determined that she would be a minister, at a time where women just did not do such a thing.  Her mother never doubted her, and snipped a length of white ribbon and pinned it to Antoinette’s dress.  “You can achieve this,” she said.  Seventeen years later, Antoinette DID become a minister.

On a speaking tour, she met Olympia Brown, a young woman also interested in the ministry.  Antoinette shared her mother’s words and a bit of white ribbon.  In 1863, Olympia Brown was the first woman to be ordained by the Universalist Church. 

In later years the women worked together on Women’s suffrage, earning the vote when Antoinette was 95 and Olympia 85.

As much as we need supporters in our lives, we also need to be like Antoinette and continue the chain—sometimes we need to BE the fairy godmother (or minion, or cheerleader, or partner--choose the image that works for you.)

These (hold up wings) are my Fairy Godmother wings.  I have them because when my goddaughter was 3, she was in the hospital for Halloween.  I couldn't POSSIBLY visit without a costume, could I?  We had a grand old time that day.

With our friends and family we embody love quite organically.  We like their pictures on Facebook, we send them holiday cards and birthday cards, flowers when they are celebrating and casseroles when they are sick.

With fellow congregants we extend our connections, affirming and supporting one another.  Informally on a Sunday morning, and more deeply through our shared interests and covenant groups, sometimes intentionally through our Lay Pastoral Ministry Team.

As Unitarian Universalists, our principles call us to the inherent worth of every person, and to the interconnected web of existence.  William Ellery Channing, 19th century Unitarian, talked about the full unfolding of every human soul- the image that sticks in my mind is the flower from this morning's meditation <Carolyn S. Owen-Towle's Fragile and Rooted>. 

What would it take to ensure that every human soul could unfold to its most beautiful potential?

Our tradition calls for us, not to be passive wait-a-rounds, not to curl up in despair—but also not to be perfectionist heroes doing it all ourselves.  We are called to be active co-creators of our faith and our world.  Let me say that again-- active co-creators. Making the world, together—with the divine and with others—not just those in the pews, not just those we already know.

Throughout our faith history, Universalists and Unitarians have combined their voices and strengths to work for the abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage, for animal welfare and ending child labor.  More recently, Unitarian Universalists have worked for civil rights, education, health, the environment, peace. We have expanded our understandings to see how we must act as allies, not simply helping “the other”, but realizing how we are all held back by oppressions, and healed and transformed as we work together.

Closer to home, Emerson holds social action as a core ministry—our Share the Plate program distributes funds to worthy charities; our Groppe Scholarships start deserving young people on a course to higher learning.  The Emerson Abolitionists are tackling the tough issues of human trafficking and we are charter members of the Texas UU Justice Ministry, making sure that our state legislators understand that LOVE, not hate, should guide us.  And later this month we will work on our FIFTIETH Rebuild Together Houston house!  There is room for most every gift, and the Social Action Council welcomes your energy and your ideas, as together we work to build a better world.

There is still much to be done.  As Reverend Mark would put it, No Reason For Boredom Yet!

I started with the rather depressing news out of Ukraine. 
The other big news story of the week (for me at least) was US District Justice Orlando Garcia's decision that Texas's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  There’s a stay on the decision, so the parties at the registrar and justice of the peace offices have yet to start.  But it is an encouraging drop in a much larger bucket, that change is coming, and we may soon have another way in which people are more equal, another way love can be expressed.  It is hope, and it is a hope held dear by many Unitarian Universalists, and worked on by clergy and lay leaders alike.

I close today with these words from Rebecca Parker, minister and President of the Starr King School for the Ministry- <adapted from Blessing The World: What can save us now>

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world….
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the Intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.

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