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In the presence of these..

This post is far longer than usual. It is actually a copy of the sermon I preached at the First Parish in Brookline, MA this morning. The occasion was a service recognizing the completion of the co-ministry of Martha Niebanck and Jim Sherblom. It was supposed to be a celebration, but of course turned into something else. Here is the entirety of the sermon:

Martha and Jim: thank you for this invitation to be with you this day. It is a privilege to help commemorate this important occasion in the life of this congregation — this congregation that I now call home, to my joy and pleasure. On this morning of all mornings, I am so grateful to have a religious home.

Though I only joined this church a few years ago, I feel like I have been with you for the entirety of this journey in ministry. You were called just as I began as District Executive in the Mass Bay District. I witnessed the joy of all of you when I conducted your start-up workshop – I heard all the high expectations and fears of not measuring up to the potential of this call. I walked with you through incredibly challenging decisions about issues of great value and concern to many. I worked with your stellar leadership as you found ways to learn and grow in vision and in strength. Looking back now on this span of time and ministry, shared ministry among and between you all, I can say with admiration: well done. Well done, all.

I had much more to say on this subject, and will come back to it again, but of course there are other things that need saying this morning. My original sermon went out the window when the world shifted on its axis on Friday.

Other things need saying, and yet what can be said?
Irving Greenstein once wrote, “Say nothing of God and humanity that cannot be said in the presence of burning children.” I found these words yesterday and they nearly brought me to my knees. What can be said in the presence of such grief and confusion and terror and anger; in the presence of those precious children, those brave teachers; what can be said that can bring the meaning they so justly deserve. Words are so wildly inadequate. And yet, and yet. We must stay in the presence of these children for this time. As hard as it is. And fumble for words about God and humanity.
We turn to our tradition for help. There we find the principles that undergird our faith. A list of words which most of the time we take for granted as relatively straight forward: worth, dignity, equity, compassion, acceptance, freedom and responsibility, peace, liberty, interdependence. All words we skip blithely past most days. But today, say them in the presence of those children. Every one of them feels like a mountain of steel to climb: worth, dignity, compassion, freedom, peace, liberty. Each of them reminders of that for which we strive, yet now feeling vast and unfathomable. Read more

A Place for Me and Thee

I  just read this incredibly moving reflection in the Washington Post from John Fountain, actually written back in 2005: “No Place for Me” .

In it he reflects upon why he, a black man raised in and inspired by religious community through all his younger years, no longer feels the church relevant and meaningful in his life.  The loss he feels is palpable.  And I wonder what his reflections today would be.

There are many aspects to this that could be explored.  What’s most relevant for what I am reflecting about right now is the indictment of the church that it’s core mistake has been to turn inward, concerned mostly with the perpetuation of itself, reflective of materialistic values rather than spiritual, serving the needs of the people already in the pews rather than facing outward to the needs of the community surrounding it.

Every congregation needs to take this charge seriously.  Every denomination needs to take this charge seriously. Read more

The terror of loneliness and the call of community

I awoke with a start.  My phone was buzzing with its usual mixture of Facebook posts and notifications of news events.  I looked at my emails as is my wont at awakening (how predictable!) and saw that only a few miles from where I slept a massacre had occurred.

I was in Aurora, Colorado attending a business meeting, staying at the house of a good friend and in the company of another.  As horrific as the news was, as close as it was, somehow it didn’t touch me deeply at that moment. The armor of denial and safety.  I replied to the texts of my friends: “of course, I’m safe.” Of course.

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Blinded by Bias

It has long been assumed that when you give people greater reward for better performance, then their performance increases even more, benefiting everyone.  But according to a study conducted at Indiana University it turns out that there are hidden biases in meritocratic systems.  In this study, participants who were told to give bonuses to better performers gave $46 dollars more to men, than to equally well-performing women!  In contrast, systems which emphasized across the board fairness gave bonuses with relative equity.

Participants in the study were 400 MBA students with substantial career experience.  Women participating in the study were just as likely to give men higher bonuses as men were.  The researchers theorize that when an organization upholds merit as the highest value, people tasked with making these decisions relax their vigilance about conscious or subconscious bias, because they believe they are making these decisions on “objective” criteria.  Read more