Sermons & Other Thoughts from Rev. Brian Chenowith

Tag: justice

Stayed on Freedom

Our reading came to us from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

If our religious tradition is anything, it is a vastly storied one. Though we are, by all accounts, a newer religion – with Unitarian Universalism being 57 years old and the parallel histories of our pre-merger ancestors, the Unitarians and Universalists, being as old as this country – we hold within our own volumes of history a great wealth of saints and sinners, wild religious experiments, growing pains, and sublime inspiration.

Today is one of those stories of the sublime. Because though our history on this continent is quite young, the core ideas of this faith are much older. Yesterday, the calendar landed on an remembrance that is central to the burning flame of Unitarian Universalism: the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda.

Now, if you remember my enthusiasm with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I assure you, I am equally enthusiastic about this weekend. The only difference is that, instead of creating t-shirts, coffee mugs, puzzles, lego sets, Christmas tree ornaments, and posters like the Lutherans did for the Reformation celebration, our own Unitarian Universalist association created a discussion guide to mark this occasion. That is so very UU. So while I have no swag for you today, I do have great enthusiasm. Read the rest of this entry »

May Nothing Evil Cross This Door: Part 2

Our reading this morning was the poem, The Finitudes, by Mark Nepo.

The first portion of this sermon was a retelling of the fable, The Friendly Forest, by Dr. Edwin Friedman, which can be found in his collection, Friedman’s Fables.

I wonder, how many of you were waiting for the tiger to eat the lamb. I know the first time I heard this fable of the friendly forest, I was waiting for the untimely demise of the lamb. It was almost certain. Instead, we are left wondering what the animals in the forest finally did and if the lamb survived – or any of them, for that matter.

But we are also left with questions about the ethics of this story. Like the story of God wearing a two-colored hat, we have to suspend our belief – the friendly forest is absurd. But it invites us to ask questions about the nature of evil, emotions, complicity, and nature itself.

We can reflect: Is the Tiger in the fable inherently evil or just doing what is in his nature? What if the lamb was eaten, who would be responsible? The tiger? The lambs’ friends who said to not worry? And we can broaden it to the greater questions of life and meaning. Read the rest of this entry »

Second Annual Question Box Sunday

For our second annual Question Box Sunday, we had a plethora of amazing questions.  Most of them were DIFFERENT than last year!  There were some strong themes amongst the questions this year, so, I’m going to do something a little different with the answers.  One or two of the “blocs” of the questions will become a sermon or series of sermons sometime this church year.  I will be sure to note that the inspiration for the sermon(s) was a Question Box Sunday question.  There are also a few questions I’m going to answer outright as they feel timely.  The rest of these questions will be answered sometime throughout this church year – I will endeavor to answer blocs of them and, as I did this year, send a compiled list of answers to you all before next year’s Question Box Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »

Thou Shalt Engage

Our reading from this Sunday was an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Tomorrow morning and throughout the day, our nation will pause to remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one of the great saints of America for the movement he formed, the pacifism he practiced, and the dream of this country he shared with all of us for a racially, economically, and politically just America.

It feels especially fitting this year that we will pause to remember so great a man, and the values he lived – with tensions in the world rising, an uncertain political future ahead for our country, the real effects of the new government already being made tangible, and racial divides underscoring much of the struggle in communities near and far.

With progressives and many moderates, and I can imagine a very large handful of traditional conservatives, fearing for what is ahead in this country, the values that guided Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers are worth exploring more than ever. As Unitarian Universalists, we have a special affinity with Martin Luther King Jr.

Some of us even try to claim him as one of our own. He wasn’t. But he was close with us. He preached at our general assembly in 1966, he was close with many of our ministers, and he found white allies at the ready within our ranks.

He quoted Unitarian and Universalist ministers in some of his speeches, and yet he still held on to his Baptist faith – a faith rooted in the gospels and in the liberation stories of the Hebrew scriptures. He died tragically. Read the rest of this entry »

Question Box Sunday

Below are the questions submitted during our first ever Question Box Sunday.  I’ve divided them into some basic categories — including the ones we answered during the service.  Over the next few months I will answer 2-3 of these every week and make them available here on this website for you all to read.  Questions are powerful things that can create space for the unexpected to emerge.  In that spirit, you have my gratitude. Read the rest of this entry »

Bending Toward Justice

Our reading today comes to us from the Unitarian theologian and minister, Theodore Parker:

The proverbs of the nations tell us this:
“The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind to powder;”
“Ill got, ill spent.”
“The triumphing of the wicked is but for a moment;”
“What the Devil gives he also takes;”
“Honesty is the best policy;”
“No butter will stick to a bad man’s bread.”

Sometimes these sayings come from the instinct of justice in [humankind], and have a little ethical exaggeration about them, but yet more often they represent the world’s experience of facts more than its consciousness of ideas.

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.

Ellen and William Craft were married. And on December 21st, 1848, they went to the train station intending to go just a few counties over to visit family for the holidays, instead, they fled the South. They fled the 1000 miles to the North from Macon, Georgia by train and steamboat in disguises, up the coasts of South and North Carolina, Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.

Four days later, on Christmas Day, they arrived in Philadelphia to spend three weeks with a Quaker family and then they travelled to Boston after the New Year. There they found a home. William spent his days from then on out making cabinets, Ellen worked as a seamstress, and they were Unitarians, and so they joined the congregation being served by that great minister of old, Theodore Parker. Read the rest of this entry »

God Can’t Fix This

Our reading today comes to us from the poet Richard Blanco — an excerpt from his poem titled, “One Today.”

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

Unity Temple, the congregation I served for two years as an intern minister, sits in a peculiar place in the suburb of Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. The town itself is a good mix of affluent, middle income, and lower income people — with mixed housing developments and various types of businesses that cater to all different walks of people.

This was largely in part because during the era of white flight, Oak Park was intentionally integrated. On top of it all, the town of Oak Park, has within it a strong city feel with all of the comforts of the suburbs. It hugs the hip of Chicago, the western edge, and it is both a historic and new town. Read the rest of this entry »

The Silence of Injustice

Our reading today is titled, “The Spine” by Joseph G. Anthony

The masseuse can’t really find
the pressure point.
He runs his fingers up and down the spine
of Appalachia, but it’s all stressed.
Bony ribs and shoulders blades are grimy dark;
coal black though the man’s not black.
Just been underground a long, long time.
He tries lye soap to get him clean,
but it just peels the skin and leaves the stain unmarked.
Decades away from sun.
Some dirt is never done.
He scrubs away till finally pink blood seeps
through seams of gray.
He presses down, down, down,
on the poor white man whose backbone’s bent
beneath the weight of all that hate.
The man yells out in pain.
Oh, Jesus, sweet
Jesus, won’t nothing straighten
this spine

In the late 1990s, a south side Chicago kid by the name of Christian Picciolini opened a record shop in the suburbs. The store offered the music you would expect — blues, rap, rock, heavy metal, folk, jazz, and so on and so forth. The combined sales of all this music only equaled 25 percent of his sales each year.

The other 75 percent was due to one of the largest collections of white power music in, not just the Midwest, but the country. By the time Mr. Picciolini opened his record store, he was already immersed in the world of the first and largest neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the Blue Island suburb of Chicago.

He was fourteen years old when he handed his life over to fear, hatred, and violence. Combined with his successful record store and his early involvement in the rebirth of this movement, there was a ruthlessness, a hatred that filled his eyes and passed through his lungs, that makes him a well-respected leader in the white power movement in our country. Read the rest of this entry »

That Old Time Religion

Our reading today comes to us from the Universalist Magazine, dated June 16th, 1793:

Lincoln County, Kentucky.

Rush Branch Meeting-house.

“It is now about nineteen months since we were expelled from our former society of the Separate Baptists for the belief of the final restoration of all things to a union with, and enjoyment of God; and we have had to bear up under a storm of slander, prejudice, ignorance, and ill-will. Notwithstanding all this, the Universal cause yet gains ground. We have four churches constituted in this country [referring to Kentucky], five ordained ministers, and several young gifts.

We hold conferences twice a year by messengers from the churches. The number of members now in Society in Kentucky is about two hundred, we hope all walking in love, besides many other Christians in different societies who believe in the universal love of God, who have not joined with us in society yet, for reasons best known to themselves.”

In 1898, a man named Quillen Hamilton Shinn, which is a name that doesn’t get anymore old school Unitarian Universalist than that, arrived in the piney woods area of Dothan, Alabama, a town of about 3000 people at the time. The piney woods area was known as the sparsely populated area — mostly cotton and cash crop farmers with plenty of small town life.

The town of Dothan itself was only incorporated 8 years prior to Quillen Shinn arriving after the railroad had been built. Upon arriving in Dothan, Shinn observed, “The leaven of Universalism has been spreading in the surrounding country and a little has drifted into this town.”

Shinn, you see, was a Universalist missionary. It was all that he did. And the spread of Universalism in the surrounding country, all around the South, was due mostly to his efforts. He knew that in the town of Dothan, there were a few Universalist families already — and his successes had been great — at least in his mind.

Truth be told he faced immense rejection. Shinn organized with the local high school, going toe to toe with the Baptist principal and eventually earning his right to preach there, and shared, for three nights, heartfelt and inspiring sermons about the unconditional love of God. Read the rest of this entry »

Near and Far

Our reading today comes to us from the Jamaican-American poet, Claude McKay, in his poem titled, “Thirst.” McKay was an instrumental figure and contributor during the Harlem Renaissance.

My spirit wails for water, water now!
My tongue is aching dry, my throat is hot
For water, fresh rain shaken from a bough,
Or dawn dews heavy in some leafy spot.
My hungry body’s burning for a swim
In sunlit water where the air is cool,
As in Trout Valley where upon a limb
The golden finch sings sweetly to the pool.
Oh water, water, when the night is done,
When day steals gray-white through the windowpane,
Clear silver water when I wake, alone,
All impotent of parts, of fevered brain;
Pure water from a forest fountain first,
To wash me, cleanse me, and to quench my thirst!

This past Friday I made my way down to Rowan county for a second time. The news had come in Thursday afternoon that Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan county, was being held in contempt and the majority of her deputy clerks would agree to issue licenses.

Having seen what the protesters faced in Ashland on Thursday, I knew it would be no different on Friday. I wondered who would be there to support the couples – who would be there to represent progressive religion – who would be there to tell people that they were on the right side of history.

The drive to Morehead was new to me. Rolling hills, fog hanging heavy over the Appalachian plateau, and small towns dotting the landscape – it became blazingly clear to me through the fog and hills that in this drive to Morehead, I was the only settled Unitarian Universalist minister between Lexington and Charleston, West Virginia. Read the rest of this entry »