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Blessing of the Community Garden, UU Society of Sacramento

UU Society of Sacramento Community Garden Blessing
Sunday, May 19, 2009

Ringing of the Bell

Welcome and Background                Pat Naylor

Opening                                                 Rev. Roger Jones
Welcome to a special event in the unfolding history of this congregation:  the naming, dedication and blessing of our community garden. You know, a couple of months ago there was no garden in this place.  Today we thank all those who helped make it happen and we celebrate this new addition to our ministries of learning and serving.

Naming of the Garden
[It was announced that Candy McMorris had won the contest for a name for the garden…and the name is:  UURTH SONG.]

Blessings of the Four Directions            Roger and Four Others
Written By the Rev. Beth Johnson

We call upon the Spirits of East, Spirits of Air, Dawn, Spring
Come forth from your lovely realm to bless this garden.
Bring forth birds and butterflies on soft, gentle breezes.
In times of planting may we sow seeds that bear much fruit and flower.
Blessed Be.

We call upon the Spirits of the South, Spirits of Fire, Noon, Summer
Come forth from your lovely realm to bless this garden.
Bring forth the sun’s bright rays that give the warmth and light needed to grow our garden of plenty and bring joy and celebration to all.
Blessed Be.

We call upon Spirits of the West, Spirits of Water, Twilight, Autumn
Come forth from your lovely realm to bless this garden.
Bring forth the gentle rains needed to help our garden grow and assure a bountiful harvest to share with each other and people in need.
Blessed Be.

We call upon the Spirits of the North, Spirits of Earth, Midnight, Winter
Come forth from your lovely realm to bless this garden
Nurture the roots and seeds in the rich pungent earth.
Teach us patience and faith when the garden goes through its dormant times.  Blessed Be.

Song Offered by Children (& Everyone)        Joan Rubenson
“The Garden Song”  (“Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.…”)

Blessing Litany                        Roger
Unison Response:  May this garden be a blessing!

Today we dedicate and celebrate this new creation.
May this garden be a blessing!

Let us praise the sacred mystery of creation, and the source of the sun and the rain, which call forth green things from the ground.
May this garden be a blessing!

Let us honor the hands that that plant, water, weed, hoe and harvest in this place.
May this garden be a blessing!

May the bounty of this place remind us of our connections to all of life and all of humanity, around the globe and in our own communities.
May this garden be a blessing!

May we remember those who are hungry or malnourished, and in our gratitude let us remember the ability and resources we have to make a difference.
May this garden be a blessing!

Let us greet the squirrels, birds and other critters who live around here, and let us pray that they might find enough food outside the bounds of our garden to be satisfied.
May this garden be a blessing!

And now, let us dedicate ourselves to the joyful tasks ahead:  working in the garden, harvesting and savoring its yield, and sharing it with one another.
May this garden be a blessing!
Let the people say Amen!  Amen!

Closing of the Ritual
As we conclude our dedication and as we depart from this place for now, let us go with gratitude.  Let us go in peace and return in joy.
The ritual is ended.  Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.
Blessed be.


Hiring a New Child Care Provider (Lord help me!)

After a year, we have received the resignation one of our two wonderful college aged women who staff the nursery (age 0-5) during both Sunday services.  Ostensibly I supervise them but in reality it’s our RE Assistant, Janet, who sees them regularly and stays in touch with them.  Sometimes when I am playing Sunday School visitor I drop in to the nursery to say hello, look attentive, and feel useless.

I saw the departing staffer last week at the Trader Joe store, staffing the “sample” booth (the microwave Chinese meal had enough sodium to kill a horse).  I told her thanks and that we’ll miss her.  At Janet’s suggestion I prepared a recommendation letter to give her on her last Sunday, and we had a card to sign.  (I had written them cards and given each of them $25 for Christmas, plus a coupon in March for a free dinner at Fresh Choice, with no expectation that they would come on the night we meet there for our Family Friendly Restaurant Dinner, but with an invitation.  Also, Janet had rounded up some money to give them six months ago for their half-year anniversary.)

I posted an ad on craigslist under Education:

Part-time opening for Childcare Provider during Sunday church services. Join our mutually supportive childcare team to provide supervision, care & play opportunities for infants through 5 year olds. ECE units preferred, but not required. Hours are Sunday mornings from 9:00 to 1:00, occasional extra hours. Criminal background check and references required. We are a welcoming Unitarian Universalist congregation, including LGBT, religious orientation, ethnicity, etc. Position begins as soon as hiring choice is made. Please send email letter of interest and resume document if available.

I posted it Tuesday at 5 PM and by 6 PM I had 10 applicants.  By bedtime I had another 10.  Next morning, another 10 or more.  (Janet works only 10 hours a week so this was up to me.)  All this interest in $14 an hour?!? Overwhelmed, I revised the ad to say NOT ACCEPTING MORE RESUMES NOW.  A lot of them were students but some were unemployed.

The next day I looked at all of them.  I drafted a form-letter email (for cutting and pasting) acknowledge them and explain the process and timing (i.e., not very soon).  I addressed each one by name.  I also wrote to those I screened out.  I should have done that cut-and-paste but I ended up typing personal notes!  I figured since we were a church we would not look good either ignoring someone or curtly rejecting them.  I gave suggestions to a couple of them, such as get an editor for your resume, your cover letter is generic and not targeted to this position, etc.  The next day I was vindicated by several thank you’s, including one who said:  “You are the only person with the decency to reply and tell me I was not the right fit for the position.”

Trying to print the resumes, some in Word, some embedded int the email, was arduous.  I was so frustrated Sunday afternoon.  Bring back the days when they had to mail in a resume on a standard sheet of paper!

Today a retired professor of child development in our congregation met with me to look at the job description, suggest questions, and read over the 20 resumes.  I’ll post the questions later but am open to your suggestions or any docs you have.  I still couldn’t cut it below seven resumes, but I’ll ask them to submit an application using the UUA’s Responsible Staffing form, which has boxes so small that you can’t get all of an address or job listing in one.  If they can survive that frustration (I barely could a year ago for this job), I’ll figure out whom to interview.  I have a stack of “potential” resumes that I’m holding just in case something doesn’t come from the seven top applicants.

Sermon: What Do We Know About Jesus?

[If it’s Palm Sunday it must be time for the annual Unitarian sermon on Jesus.]

What Do We Know About Jesus?
April 5, 2009
Palm  Sunday                              UU Society of Sacramento

“Wake Now My Senses,” “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” “We’ll Build a Land.”

Story for the Children (among others): The Good Samaritan
Jesus was a teacher who lived 2,000 years ago.  He told people that all God asked was to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  One day someone said:  “What do you mean by neighbor?  [Ask children.]  Like right next door, or the whole town, or only the people who are just like me?”
Jesus answered with a story.  One day a man was walking on a road outside his town.  Some robbers attacked him, beat him up, took his money, and threw him in a ditch.  These were the days before paramedics and ambulances, or cars of any kind.  So he just lay there in pain.  Before long a man from his region was walking toward town.  The man was important–a priest, religious leader–dressed in his best clothes.  He heard the victim’s groans and saw him.  He could tell they were from the same religion, but he was dressed up and in a hurry, so he walked to the other side of the road and passed on by.
Some time later another man came walking by.  This man was a Levite, a special person in his religion, with many responsibilities.  He heard the victim’s cries, and looked over at him.  They were also from the same religion.  But the Levite had lots to do, so he walked to the other side of the road and passed on by.
More time passed.  A third man came walking by.  This man wasn’t from the same place as the victim, he was a Samaritan, someone from Samaria, a distance away.
He was from a different ethnic group from the victim and a different religion.  They were strangers to each other.  He knew that people like the man in the ditch hated Samaritans and thought bad things about them. Why help this guy?  It might not be safe!  But the man was moaning so badly.  So he picked him up, put the man on his own donkey, and brought him into town.  He took him to an inn, and rented him a room.  He cleaned him up and fed him.  The Samaritan had to leave, but he said he’d come back in a few days.  He told the innkeeper, “Here’s some money.  If the man has need of anything before I return, please provide it  for him.”  And he left.
After Jesus told this story, he asked:  Now which of those three people knew what a neighbor truly is?  [Ask children.]  Yes, I agree with you.  It was the man who took the time to help out.  Jesus said, “Okay, now try to live that way.”  Thank you.

Reading: Naomi Shihab Nye:  “I Feel Sorry for Jesus” (from Antioch Review Spring 1998, p. 206)

INTRO:  In the Christian calendar this is the season of Lent, 40 days which begin with Ash Wednesday and end on Easter.  The 40 days mark the time that Jesus of Nazareth spent in the desert wilderness, before his ministry began.  Today’s reading is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American who lives in Texas.


In the name of Jesus Christ, countless activists, artists, teachers, social service providers, volunteers and philanthropists have given of themselves to improve human lives and add beauty to our world.  Also in his name, soldiers, kings and religious leaders have committed crimes against humanity. Who was the man whom so many have called Messiah, Son of God, Savior?  Who is he to you?
In brief, Jesus of Nazareth was a traveling prophet, teacher and healer.  He made radical statements about religion, politics, money and human relationships.  Living in Palestine under Roman Rule, he had a brief ministry, and was executed by the authorities when he was 33.  His disciples continued to feel his presence alongside them and they spread reports of the resurrection of his body.
How do we know this?  We have nothing Jesus wrote down. The sayings of Jesus, the stories he told, and episodes from his life originally were passed down through word of mouth. Since few people had access to written materials, oral tradition was the way they learned things and passed them on. The people who wrote the New Testament Gospel books had never met Jesus. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospels that scholars have identified were written from 35 to 70 years after Jesus’ death.

Scholars have uncovered evidence of alternative Gospels, but these did not make it into the official, traditional version of the Holy Bible.  About 130 years after Jesus’ death, St. Irenaeus said that the only true Gospels were the four books that bore the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  By the third century most Christian communities agreed on the books of the New Testament, including the Gospels.

I’ve just told you more than most people know.  In a recent survey, a majority of Americans could not name one of the four Gospels.  Even large numbers of believing Christians are Biblically illiterate.  Author Stephen Prothero writes:  “In one survey of high school students, most evangelicals did not recognize that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.”   Furthermore, some students thought that Sodom and Gomorrah of the Old Testament were husband and wife.
I confess that even though I was brought up a Protestant Christian I didn’t read much of the Bible until I was in theological school, when I had to read it very fast.  Since then I’ve enjoyed going back to it.
Why should we care who Jesus was?  For one thing, Christianity remains the dominant religious culture of this country.  There’s no shortage of people, churches and mass media telling us what to think about Jesus.
If we don’t get to know the Bible for ourselves, we put ourselves and our children at the mercy of people who make it fit their own agendas.  If we don’t answer for ourselves the question “Who is Jesus,” we leave him at the mercy of those who would use him as a weapon.
This religious tradition of ours is a product of heresies and controversies about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the late 1700s, the first Unitarians in the United States argued that Jesus was fully human, and his life was proof of the dignity of human nature, and an example for us to follow.  At the same time, the first Universalists were preaching that Jesus was the messenger of divine love; showing that God was a forgiving parent, not cruel tyrant. Our forbears in faith knew their Bible. Yet they had to defend themselves against charges that they were not Christian.  Nowadays, I’d say, a majority of UUs would agree with this charge, even if we sing “Silent Night” by candle light or get up early next Sunday for an Easter Sunrise Service.
It is the faith of many believers that the Bible shows what Jesus said, word for word.  Starting in the 1800s, however, scholars began studying the diverse influences on the books of the Bible, noting that they were written in different historical periods. Their studies of Gospel manuscripts revealed the similarities and contradictions among the four books, and the intended audience and sources of each.
Since 1985, a group called the Jesus Seminar has published books about the Bible and early Christianity.  Seminar scholars make the case for taking a lot of words out of Jesus’ mouth that the Gospel scribes put in.
In the words of the Seminar’s Marcus Borg, the Gospels contain at least two voices.  One is the pre-Easter Jesus; the second voice is the testimony of the post-Easter community, which felt his ongoing presence in their lives.
Sorting out the voices is helpful, but both voices deserve to be heard—Jesus the man and the Jesus in the hearts of those who lived barely a generation after him.

In the year 324, Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion.  Thus he converted what had been a religion of the powerless into one aligned with power.  The Jesus who had promised, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” became the icon of an empire.  Over time the Jewish teacher became an excuse for genocidal Crusades, pogroms, and colonial ventures.
The Gospels emerged long before Constantine. They reflect the purpose of Jesus’ ministry before the powerful took on the mantle of his name. They reflect the impressions Jesus made on his followers, and their faith in him.
In the words of writer Marilynne Robinson, variations among the Gospel narratives are differences of art, not uncertainties of history.  The stories capture the truth of Jesus in the way a painter captures the truth of another person in a portrait.  In Robinson’s words, the writers of the Gospels try “to preserve a sense of Jesus’ presence . . . to achieve likeness rather than precision.”

And what is that likeness?  How do the Gospel writers present him?  Here are some snapshots of Jesus that matter to me.  I note in advance that personal savior or Jewish Messiah is not one of them.
Jesus was a Jew, as were his 12 disciples. Yet the Gospel of John portrays “the Jews” as enemies of Jesus.  This has troubled fair-minded Christians and has fueled anti-Semites.  It’s important to note, however, that the writers of the Gospels all were Jewish Christians.  The hostility in the book reflects the competing beliefs and practices among different early Christian communities, all of which were led by Jews.  In addition, it shows the tensions between the growing movement of Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews.

Jesus was a healer. In many stories, he tells afflicted people that they are now healed, without doing anything to them.  He says:  “Your faith has restored you.” Sometimes, however, he does touch those who come near him.  In one story, he mixes dirt with spit and rubs it on a blind man’s eyes.  It takes two applications to bring back complete sight.  I don’t know what to make of all this!  But often after a healing, Jesus tells the person:  “Go and sin no more.”  Perhaps he is lifting their burdens of guilt, allowing them to walk once more, to move forward into life.  After encountering him, they see anew, they live again.

Jesus was a religious rebel. In one episode, a crowd is pressing around him and he feels power go out of him.  He turns and asks, who touched me?  Nobody says anything for a while.  Then a woman throws herself on the ground and confesses.  She’s been hemorrhaging blood for years, and she thought some of Jesus’ healing energy would help.  Just speaking to a woman to whom he is not related, in that culture, is not allowed. Even worse, to touch or be touched by a woman discharging blood is a violation of Jewish purity laws.  Yet he does not condemn her; he confirms her faith and tells her she’s healed.

Jesus was a boundary-breaking social radical. The great mass of people were ruled by a small elite of Roman officials and their enforcers, including tax collectors and soldiers, whom the people despised and feared. In the Gospels, Jesus hangs out with them, goes to dinner, treats them with dignity.  To befriend these employees of the state… would be a scandal to the others living under the Empire.  But Jesus does more than accept these characters, he urges them to change their ways.  To a Roman soldier, he says:  stop extorting money from the people, no more intimidation and abuse! To the tax collector: stop cheating and stealing from people, apply your tax rates fairly!

Early in his ministry, Jesus is telling a parable to a crowd.  His mother and brothers show up but can’t get through.  Someone brings him a message, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”  He says no and points to his friends.  “Here are my mother and brothers and sisters.  My family is made up of those who hear what God wants, and do it.”  Back then, family ties were a matter of survival. The family was the foundation of society.  In spite of that Jesus says “Obedience is thicker than Blood.”  He can be harsh.

Jesus’ followers include women to whom he was not related, a violation of their culture.  He sits in the home of Martha and Mary.  Martha is busy with housework, and she’s upset that her sister is deep in conversation with Jesus.  Jesus says:  Martha, you worry too much.  You need to slow down.  Your sister knows what’s important!  This episode shows that religious matters should no longer be limited to men.  If the Gospel writers wanted to downplay this gender-inclusiveness, they would have given all the good roles to men. Yet it is women who stay at the foot of Jesus’ cross till the bitter end.  It is women who find his tomb empty on Easter morning.  The 12 male disciples, in contrast, repeatedly lose faith in him, misunderstand him, and fall asleep on the job.

Jesus was a trickster; catching people off guard. His pronouncements turn the status quo upside down.  He says, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last!” The Sermon on the Mount is a series of aphorisms.  These are short statements that need no explanation.  You hear one and say, “Of course!” But the aphorisms of Jesus are the exact opposite of what people would expect: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” What?!  Under this Empire?  Will we ever see the day? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Wow!  I sure hope he’s right!

Jesus was a leader. Early in the story, he collects 12 disciples to follow him, telling fishermen to drop their nets.  He entreats sons and husbands to leave their homes, to join him in his traveling ministry.
Jesus was a servant.  In the Gospel of John, during the Last Supper, the night before he is arrested, Jesus humbles himself by washing the feet of his disciples.

Jesus was a martyr. In the Palm Sunday story, he enters Jerusalem riding on a mule, as people wave palm branches and lay them on the road in front of him.  They call out Hosannah, praising him as a king.  Yet he knows his return to the city means death.  Soon he is convicted and hung on a cross—state-sponsored torture.

Jesus was a prophet. In some passages he proclaims the end of the world.  His followers know only a world of oppression–political, economic, social and religious.  He promises God’s rescue of the righteous, and punishment of the oppressors. The lowly will be exalted and the proud and powerful will be brought low.
Jesus calls for repentance.  The end is coming; God is coming.  So, how should we live?   What must we do–Stop drinking?  No sex?  Pray more?  Nope!  If you have two tunics, share your extra tunic with someone who doesn’t have any.  Give away your extra food to people who need it.  Love your neighbor as yourself, turn the other cheek, don’t cheat others, give all you have to the poor.

These snapshots are how I see Jesus. What do you see?  Who is Jesus to you?

Recently I led a class on the Gospels at this church, and 18 people joined me.  I asked them the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” and asked them to read their answers to the class.  One wrote:  “Jesus to me was a charismatic man of his time and place in the world who had [as his purpose] living and teaching a way of treating and accepting all human beings with love no matter who they were or how different they were from him.  This … teaching … is still applicable today.  A way of life I try to emulate.”

Another member said that as a religious leader Jesus  was “confident, yet often self-questioning….  He was not clearly understood by his closest companions.  He stood up to the leaders of his country and his ancestral faith.”  This member said she saw Jesus through her long-ago Sunday school lessons, from seeing “Jesus Christ Superstar” on stage, and from taking another look at the Gospels together with us.

Through what lenses do you see Jesus?
I see him through the words of the Gospel writers but also the words of modern scholars, and my teachers and preachers.  I see him through the lenses of my own privilege and bias.  When I take him seriously, his ethical teachings prod my conscience and poke my complacency.  His parables challenge my comfortable assumptions.

In one Gospel episode, someone asks Jesus who he is.  He replies:  “Who do people say I am?”–answering a question with a question.  I can’t be certain I’ve got Jesus right.  Many people, of course, would say I’ve got him all wrong.  But I’ll keep looking, keep reading, keep talking with others.  Although his name has been misused and his teachings violated for over 2,000 years, the core values of Jesus show through.  His ministry was the risky work of healing, teaching, compassion,and forgiveness.

His own disciples didn’t get him right.  No wonder that he continues to puzzle us when we read the Gospels!
To look at him can upset one’s certainty, or it ought to.  Jesus seems to ask:  Can you really be so sure of what you think about me? About God? About yourself?  About human relationship?

He seems to invite everyone to let go of the easy answers, and keep asking questions.
So may we live, and so may it be.

Are Unitarian Universalists Christian? Part 2

This religious tradition is a result of heretical disagreements about the nature and identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the late 1500s, the first Unitarians were liberal Christians in Poland and Transylvania. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the first Universalists and the first Unitarians in the United States were liberal Christians. Self-taught preachers or Harvard grads, these heretical Americans knew their Bible.

Our forbears in faith had to defend themselves against charges that they were not Christian. Nowadays, I’d say a majority (but not all) of Unitarian Universalists would agree with that charge, even as we sing “Silent Night” by candle light or get up early for an Easter Sunrise Service.

Many historic UU congregations used to have names that reflected this heritage. The Fourth Universalist Society of New York City has had its name only since 1967. Originally that old Universalist church was called the Church of the Divine Paternity. In Lancaster, Massachusetts, you can still find the First Church of Christ, Unitarian. I’m not sure if you’ll find many people in it, however. In Providence, Rhode Island, there’s an old one called the Church of the Mediator; this refers to Jesus’ special role as a messenger of God, a human teacher of Divine love. The name Church of the Mediator used to be more common for Unitarian churches but now I find mostly Episcopal churches so named.

The Community Church of New York has always been Unitarian, but was founded with the name Church of the Messiah. Likewise the churches in Syracuse, Montreal, and Portland, Maine: Messiah, Messiah, Messiah!  Philadelphia and Newark lost their Universalist churches of the Messiah in the 20th century. The grand Gothic Unitarian Church of the Messiah in St. Louis, Missouri, is no more; there’s a parking lot on its spot.
How about the name All Souls Church? It still works! In Tulsa, Oklahoma, New York City and Washington, DC, congregations with this name are flagships in our denomination. All their church members love the inclusive implication of that name–All Souls–except of course during the Pledge Drive or Sunday School teacher recruitment season.

If you would like to find out more about the ways that Christian spirituality, scholarship, ethical teaching and preaching continue to thrive in our UU movement, check out the UU Christian Fellowship.  

If you would like to learn about the historic (and enduring) Unitarian Church in Translyvania and Hungary, or the Universalist Church of the Philippines, or the Unitarian Union of North East India (way up in the Khasi Hills), visit the UU Partner Church Council or the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.