Me Three, Us Four

This Sunday’s service explored the impact on all of us – and on our church – of changing values around sexual ethics, truth, what we owe ourselves, and what we owe each other.  We considered hard experiences and concerns held by members of our congregation and the opportunities for healing and growth that are possible in a strong and healthy faith community.

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Sermon Text

We are living in a time of reckoning.  So much reckoning because a lot of the issues we are confronting or confronted with have been in a delayed maintenance loop – delayed ethical and spiritual maintenance – that society has put off for a long time.  As with all delayed maintenance, it mounts up and when something finally gives, such that it all has to be recognized and dealt with, it’s a lot, and it’s expensive.  And it’s not optional, we just have to do it and pay the cost and content ourselves that it’s finally getting done and we’ll be in much better shape going forward.

One of the issues that’s been on delayed maintenance is gender and harassment.  It’s not that we didn’t know about it;  we totally did.  We all heard about the casting couch, the idea that (usually) female stars might expect to pay for their success indulging the wants of studio heads and Broadway producers.   We knew women could experience harassment, or even violence, in any walk of life.  We knew about more forms of all this than I have time to list now if I want to say anything more about it.  It’s in the bible, both Hebrew Bible and New Testament; even Jesus wasn’t always respectful to women – it’s been part of worldwide human society for thousands of years, including religion, found everywhere in mythology and scriptures.  And for so long it was at worst endorsed, at best ignored, until now.

For many people in this room, this topic is personal.  For some it is beyond personal, it is traumatic.  For some this topic, is fraught and takes us to a place of tension, reactivity, even anguish.  So before I say anything else, I want to call back to the spirit of Ubuntu, that Zulu and Bantu word that we focused on a couple of weeks ago;  remember it means  ‘I am who I am because of who we all are.’  This is one of those topics that absolutely reminds us that Ubuntu isn’t a principle, it is a truth.  I really am who I am because of who we all are – and this is true for every one of us.

I don’t want to hurt anyone in any way with what I say this morning and if I do, in any way, I ask you to trust me enough to let me know.  I also ask you, in advance, to forgive me.  Tough things are risky, but tough and risky things are also the stuff of religion and of religious community and we have to be able to do this, to talk about these things, to learn together, to forgive together and thus to grow together, to grow in trust, to grow in understanding, to grow in strength.

How we should treat and understand each other across gender identities is an ancient issue that we are developing entirely new answers to because gender ethics are always evolving. Right now they’re changing hard and fast, changing in ways we honor here in this beloved community, changing at a rate we don’t always keep up with, though we mean to and we try.  We are learning how to do better and we need to learn how to do better, though it’s not easy and it’s not simple.

We all know this wave of change has come from the #MeToo movement.   #MeToo has a lot of layers, power and challenge to it.  In less than 3 years, it has upended dynasties, moguls, corporations and superstars.  It has raised awareness and ethical standards in every walk of life.  It has companioned victims, supporting them in struggles to name and heal, suffering with them when aggressors have triumphed.  #MeToo tends to focus on male behavior towards women, but it includes same-sex aggressions, female-on-male aggressions, and aggressions involving trans and gender non-binary people.  I don’t in any way mean to suggest that only one of these dynamics matters or has been important in the life of this beloved community.  But I do want to acknowledge that the majority of issues arise from men’s behavior towards women, and I remember when I first learned this, which was long before #MeToo.

It was over 20 years ago; I was at a gathering of the Unitarian Universalist ministers’ study group I attend every spring and fall.  The topic was something about sex or sexuality.  I honestly don’t remember more about the details, but it was a clergy gathering, so you have to know it was a very unsexy consideration of sex.  Regardless, at some point in the meeting we split into two groups, women in one group, men in the other, and gathered to talk about sex in our separate spaces.  And during the women’s conversation, we discovered that in this high-powered, well-educated, group of women faith leaders – and back then we were also all white – every single one of us had been physically violated in some way once or more in our lives.

At the time I was astonished.  But since then, I’ve learned that was pretty much par for the course.  Regardless of setting, regardless of supposed privilege, and with only a couple of exceptions in the years since, every woman or group of women I’ve talked to, has had that experience.  Almost no American woman I know has escaped unscathed, untouched, unviolated.  And here’s the other thing.  Almost none of us did anything about those violations except to try to escape them.

That’s all I did many years ago when a young man behind me on a jam-packed bus in Athens put his hand where it had no business being.  I looked at him, shocked.  He didn’t even look back at me, but there was no way it was a mistake.  I could have yelled, I should have yelled – people on that bus would have rallied to help me and muscle him off that bus instantly.  But I didn’t even think of it, I just tried to get away, and he just pursued me, silently, never looking at me, always with the hand.  I got off the bus at the next stop, having no idea where I was.  He stayed on the bus with no disruption to his day.

Why didn’t I yell?  Layers.  Because I was not just angry but also ashamed.  And because, I had internalized some of the objectification societies all heap on women everywhere, telling us that this is part of our role, part of our identity.  We are to be objectified, to be judged, admired, condemned, to have our worth expressed in terms of diamonds and gold, to be chased through endless hallways and houses in endless movies as a form of entertainment, to be assaulted or killed, to be prey and preyed upon, think about it, for entertainment.  We even to go to movies and watch ourselves preyed upon and objectified, in ways, incidentally that would seem ridiculous if it were men in those circumstances.  A man alone in the house is going to do something – investigate, steal, dance.  A woman alone in a house is going to be hurt.  Society has taught women we are prizes or prey and taught men that this is alright and all of us, to some degree, have been influenced by this.

For so long, that bus ride was my worst story of violation – until last year.  Until last year when the bestselling religious scholar and Macarthur Fellow Elaine Pagels published her memoir Why Religion?  Like me, she studied at Harvard Divinity School.  Like me she did doctoral level work with the renowned early church historian, the Rev. Dr. Helmut Koester, a lion in his field.  Like me, she was sexually harassed by him, a thing I had forgotten until I read her account last year.  How could I possibly have forgotten such a thing?  I think, in part, because I had no way to handle it when it happened – and it only happened once.  It only happened once.  We were on a walk during an archaeology study trip in Turkey and Greece, standing on a bridge where we were stopping to turn around and walk back since it was getting dark – and he stepped forward and put his hand on my chest.  I couldn’t believe it.  I must have just gawked at him, I was that astonished.  I don’t remember if I stepped back or if he did – I do know we walked back and never spoke of it again.  It was the first semester I had studied with him. It wasn’t the last.  Layers.  Helmut was one of my favorite professors – brilliant, and expert in the same history and archaeology I was fascinated by.  I took more classes from him.  I did well in them.  I asked him to be my advisor.  I got work study grants helping to edit an ongoing series and also his book Philippi at the Time of Paul and After His Death.  He thanked me in the Forward for my help.  I was alone in his office with him countless times, without discomfort or fear.  He never touched me or did anything inappropriate to me ever again.  When an error in my registration one year threatened my degree and my tenuous finances, Helmut took me with him to consult the department chair and registrar and within an hour strings had been pulled and I was saved – truly.  The details are boring and administrative but drastic – he saved me and asked nothing in return.  Until last year, those are the ways I remembered him – his brilliance, his mentorship, his compassion, his championing my scholarship.  How could I have forgotten the moment on the bridge? How could I have simply walked back with him in that awkward twilight – in silence or in conversation I have no idea which.  And what do I do with this now, the mentor who so violated the sacred trust between student and teacher and also taught me more and helped me more than any other teacher in all my years of learning.  Who I learned only now was known for such violations, Koester the molester?  It hurts to say that awful nickname aloud to you – it hurts to say it aloud to you because – get this –it demeans him and I feel he deserved better.  Which is not true – what he did to Elaine Pagels was much worse than what he did to me, and I know it now because I read her book, which she published two years after his death.  Layers and layers and layers.

I’m sharing my #MeToo truths with you today because I know there are many, many people in this space, and everywhere beyond it, with similar stories, simple or layered, which they may or may not ever tell.  I’m telling them today because we need to be able to share those stories, to help each other understand more of the realities we all live with, including that we all have been seen for ‘what’ we are, rather than who we are.  The categories, the objectifications – so objectionable, finally now intolerable.

The the interpersonal challenge of our times is the paradox that we must honor the realities of race, gender, class, heritage, all the identities that are part of who we each are, and at the same time we must see each other as people, as persons, for the unique souls we each are, so much more than composites of categories.  For this interpersonal challenge, we are ready.  We already affirm and uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.  We have no other goal here, than to do exactly this, to be together in community in ways that support and grow ourselves and each other, basically to love on each other, with respect and humility and generosity –  and to support and grow goodness in the world, to love on the world with respect and humility and generosity.

And so we have our own reckoning to do here.  As we embrace society’s larger delayed maintenance, we know there are implications for us right here in our beloved community.  There have been times here when people treated another badly or disrespectfully and some of it has involved gender.  We have to name this.  It has happened between congregants and it also happened once, in the mid-20th century, when a minister sexually misconducted himself with female congregants here.  He knew he was doing wrong.  Occasionally a congregant who has offended another has known they were using language or approaches that were unwelcome.  In most instances, it’s been unintentional – a compliment or an inquiry that was innocent and a little clumsy – in a way that would horrify the instigator if they knew how their comment or gesture was perceived by the other.  Of those incidents I know, a few happened a long while ago, some were more recent.  Most involve women made uncomfortable by men, but I’ve spoken to at least one male member here who has been made uncomfortable by women.  There’s not only one direction or shape for any of this.

We can’t be perfect, but we can be better, in fact we have to be better, because this is an issue among us still.  We need to talk about it, clear the air, clarify expectations, hurt, apology, ways forward.  All this will take some nerve –  to speak, to have an awkward conversation with someone we may not know well – or who we may know well – and to hear something about ourselves we weren’t expecting so that we can commit to do better.

The solution isn’t to stop speaking with each other, it’s to speak honestly and respectfully, including when we are letting someone know that we’re uncomfortable or unhappy with something they said.  Let’s be honest – that exchange will be awkward to begin, but most of them will end in a better place, in a better understanding, with – hopefully – a better relationship because we have spoken about an important truth with each other, and we have expressed our commitment to support and not to hurt – and not to objectify – each other, not by accident and certainly never by intent.  We have a right relations policy in our church to help us manage escalating conflicts or willful hurt – if you are ever confronted by such a situation, please tell me and let this church help address it for your safety and healing.  But many of the issues that come up in a community this size are smaller, often unintentional, and still hurtful or damaging.  And that is part of what we are here for – to learn to do better by each other, to help build the world and ways believe in by practicing it all here with each other, where we know we all share a commitment to that world and these ways, to the courage and honest they require, to the forgiveness and deepening they promise.  This is not just lofty phrases, this is homely realities – and challenges.  We don’t want to be a community so afraid of getting something wrong that we hardly speak to each other.  We need to learn and practice, expecting as they say, not perfection but progress.

If we see a woman looking serious or sad here, don’t tell her to smile, tell her we notice her expression and ask her if she’s ok.  If we see a man looking handsome in his outfit, don’t say ‘hey handsome, looking good!’ – unless we know them very well and we’re 100 % confident they won’t take it the wrong way.  If we touch someone to greet them or express concern or draw their attention and they seem uncomfortable with our touch, check in and ask them if that was ok or not.  And if they tell you it wasn’t – for any reason or no reason at all – then don’t touch them without permission.  Even something as ordinary as a handshake or a clap on the shoulder carries different weight for different people in this congregation – believe it, I have heard it directly.  It doesn’t mean we can’t any of us shake hands when this virus is over and done with, it means we need to pay more attention to shaking hands, to each other really, to look more carefully and check in more carefully.

And all of this is a two-way street.  If we are unhappy or uncomfortable with how someone has spoken with us, we need to find a way to say so – a way that invites them into a helpful conversation about it.  “You know, I’m not comfortable with what you just said….”   If touch is difficult for us, we think about finding a way to let people know, inviting them into a different form of greeting they can learn over time, so that they can interact with us in ways that will be comfortable for us, which will foster a better relationship for everyone.  And always, if it was a bigger deal than that kind of conversation can hold, talk to me, talk to Rev. Roger, let us help.

Revelation is ongoing – that foundational Unitarian Universalist belief means we don’t expect to just magically ‘get it’ and be perfect and have no further work to do with each other, nothing further to learn from and with each other.  This is a community with strong bonds, lots of care, and lots of capacity, and we have learned and grown for centuries. We’re committed to that journey and to each other, travelling together through discovery and development, sharing and spiritual connection.  A journey that requires the ability to speak our truths because we care about each others’ truths.  A journey that knows we ourselves are changed, must change, in the honoring of each others’ truths.  The great 20th c. African American writer and activist James Baldwin wrote:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

This isn’t about political correctness, or silencing, or undermining – it can’t be about any of that.  It’s not about being correct, it’s about being caring.  It’s not about being constrained, it’s about being responsible.  It is, it has to be, about powerful human relationship, about perceiving and celebrating the personhood and value of all of us here with greater awareness and intention. Ubuntu – I am who I am because of who we all are.  Thinking more.  Noticing more than we have sometimes in the past.  Figuring out new things.  Building a new way, towards real freedom and equality, together.  Amen.