Joy and Pain in Our Identities (MFC Sermon)

We’re asked to deliver a short sermon to the UU Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  Here is the manuscript I worked from.

Chalice Lighting

Written by the youth group I
was a part of at West Hills

 

We light this chalice to greet the day,

 to bring love
and friendship,

 to all who come
our way.

 

Prayer 

God,

Walk with me

From brokenness to wholeness

From new encounters to new
understandings

From obedience to
responsibility

From oppression to liberation

From questioning to
compassion

 

May we walk as the Prophet
Micah proclaims, loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God.

Walk with me 

Amen.

Text

There is joy and pain in the identities we claim. Identity, our chosen self, is ultimately a
spiritual matter, grounded in our deepest sense of who we are. We live in an age where we are simultaneously
called to be our deepest individualistic self, and called by the thousands of
new configurations of communities organized around specific identities. The political consciousness of the 20th
century mixed with the internet technology of the 21st century have
created an awesome new paradigm where humanity makes, and breaks, the
boundaries of identity with astonishing speed. 

Our churches are filled with people, young and old, who are
in a continuous cycle of exploring the center, out to the borders, of who they
are. Children are coming of age,
wondering about what I like to call “heart
music
” – racial identity, sexuality,
gender and sexual orientation, economic and social class, physical ability,
geographic place and cultural relationships. The wonderful animation movie Happy Feet brought this idea to the silver screen earlier this
year, telling the story of the penguins and the evolution of their unique heart
song as part of their life journey. 

The heart symbolizes the essence of our life, and music the
essence of our expression in the world. Heart
music plays from cradle to grave, with traditional and innovative sounds mixing
together to create each sheet of music. I believe we are called to help all souls who come into our midst to
excel at their heart music, and I believe our liberal faith offers people a
religious experience that affirms
and empowers meaningfully a life woven of linked identities.  

Each of us raises, and are confronted with difficult
questions in our lifetime. All of them
inevitably intersect with questions of identity, “Who am I”. For me, these started as a child.

Mother, what does it mean to be adopted?

Father, what does it mean to be mixed race? 

We ask questions to seek knowledge and understanding. We ask questions to name our deepest
passions. We ask questions to be heard,
and to find love and compassion. Our
theological tradition encourages this search for truth and meaning. Revelation is not sealed. Our faith community seeks to be a welcoming,
caring community. But sometimes the
answers we receive have the opposite effect, of fostering ignorance and
indifference.

To my questions, not only from family, but from church and
school, I heard responses such as, “It doesn’t mean anything”, “We don’t talk
about that here”, “That isn’t what is important”. These answers fueled my confusion and sense
of brokenness. I felt pushed away,
ignored in my crisis of identity, indeed in my spiritual crisis. In my church context, it held the implication
that I had to conform. Blind obedience
was not part of my UU religious education!  The contradiction loosened my connection to UU
and almost broke completely if not for the powerful community of peers and a
serendipitous encounter with a minister of color. These persons listened to my pain, invited me
into community, and authentically related to my experience. I rediscovered and redefined my spiritual
home, absorbing the lessons and participating in the ministry of the church
around social justice and personal transformation. Finding space to dialogue, not only about
race, but about the fabric of identity, of understanding how I mattered, and
how I felt marginalized, ministered to my confusion and brokenness. 

Before I started seminary, I engaged my parents in dialogue
about some of these experiences. I
sought to understand why their answers about my questions of identity were like
opening a closed door to another closed door. The truth was, they were hurt at the idea that I believed myself to be
something that they were not, and they were fearful that they didn’t have
either the experience, or the empathy, to walk with me as I explored these
questions. They saw the freedoms and
privileges I had, and grumbled, “isn’t that enough?”

The great 20th century Universalist Clarence
Skinner stated in his seminal essay on the Social Implications of Universalism,
that “the fight for freedom is never won. Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition. Each generation must win for itself the right
to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and
peculiar. Therefore those who have been
reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever
larger and more important liberty.” 

While Skinner was looking out at the social fabric of the
wider world, these are wise words to consider for the inner workings of our
family and church. They remind us that
the process of liberation is never a closed book, that the freedom we have
still needs to be redefined and claimed by each generation. The message here in my mind is that identity
is also equally shaped by each generation. Identity is dynamic, never static, to believe it is static is dangerous,
shocking, static electricity comes to mind. 

In my ministry in the

Philippines

I experienced the
collective challenge and opportunity of the search for identity. I observed how for many it was easier, more
profitable, and more secure to assimilate the identity most complacent, most
pleasing to the powers of their old colonial masters. At the same time their search for identity
was also a search for independence, dignity and self-determination. The freedom and tolerance of the UU church
was a place of truth telling and consciousness raising, opening doors to
people’s deepest questions.  

We have great wisdom and power in our hands as Unitarian
Universalists.

We have long been a home to the questioning spirit, and we
have the theology and the tools to be a saving faith for those seeking
understanding and companionship in their exploration of identity.  

Personally I give thanks for those that have walked with me
during my journey and mentored my exploration. Often this started with an affirmation, and with an encouragement to
continue growing in the areas that interested me. My parents, and my church, have slowly joined
me, as I have continued to engage them with purpose and compassion. My hope is that others will learn to take
sincerely and seriously the identity questions of people they encounter, and
may they be grace for them.  

Collectively, our faith does well to teach our principles of
moral living, to share our moral imagination with the world. To be an example of meaningful pluralism and
diversity, and to walk with others on the margins of society. We strive to be radically inclusive. We have set the standard time and again, but
freedom is not won forever, we must foster the effort of liberation in each
generation. Our compassion strengthens
us to be alive to the suffering in the world and in our midst. 

The church lies at the crossroads of history and possibility,
a bank of wisdom of human relations, an intergenerational, multicultural living
tradition.  

In this context, the mission I propose for us is this:

Let us see God’s holiness as wholeness not only of the
universal humanity but of the worth and dignity of each person as they evolve and
explore their heart music of identities; 

Let us make space in our families, schools, and here at
church, to ask the big questions, and recognize that affirmation is the first
step toward understanding; 

Let us welcome grace as it comes, as chance encounter, or
intentional outreach, to open ourselves to new understandings and covenants
together; 

Let us find compassion, as parents, partners, pastors and
parishioners, to bind up the broken in ourselves and in our communities.

May we walk with one another as we explore and live out these
personal and collective ways of life. May we hold each other accountable for relationships of love, spiritual
growth, and social justice.

Thanks be to all. Amen. [End]

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