Saturday, August 23, 2014

I don't believe in Bakersfield

Transcript of sermon delivered on August 3, 2014, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis.

When I first began my adventures in UU, seven plus years ago, I heard a joke, what do you get if you cross a UU with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason. I told my minister the joke, and he suggested a new punchline: someone who knocks on your door and asks “what do YOU believe?”

People outside UU often don’t know what to make of Unitarian Universalism, but I’ve still heard them say what we don’t believe.  Apparently, according to many people outside UU, UUs don’t believe in God. My daughter told me that her classmate told her that after first asking if she was Christian or Jewish, and telling her friend she was a UU. I responded that SOME UUs believe in God, some do not. Some believe in many gods. Personally, I don’t believe in a white man named God, sitting on a cloud, handing out VIP passes like Halloween treats, which is what I think those other people are talking about… maybe. I don’t believe in much that I can’t see, test, feel, understand. I tend to be an empiricist about most things.

For example, I don’t believe that Hell is an afterlife of eternal suffering. I know Hell to be a town north of Gdansk. I was on a train bound for Hell, but I disembarked in Krakow.

I don’t believe in Atlantis, conspiracy birther theories, extraterrestrial abductions, or the town of Bakersfield.

If you drive north from Los Angeles on the 5, you climb up the Tejon Pass through the Tehachapi Mountains, and come down the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley. As you reach the bottom of the Grapevine, there are signs, Bakersfield, next 5 exits, and point to the East. And you look to the East, and see … Nothing. A vast expanse of bare dusty brown valley. I came to the conclusion that there is no town of Bakersfield, that it’s some kind of California practical joke.

A friend found this claim of mine, not to believe in Bakersfield, utterly baffling. “how can you not believe in it? I can show it to you on a map!” I pointed out that hundreds of years ago maps were published with dragons on them and other apocryphal creatures and places. Mapquest frequently tells me to exit the freeway at exits that don’t exist.  Being on a map doesn’t make it REAL.  This is based upon my superficial and unresearched experience, not upon data from outside sources. Still, my experiences count for something, right?

But my belief, or unbelief, aside, it doesn’t affect the world at large. The town of Bakersfield, real or not, is not affected by my lack of belief in it. And I don’t insist on the world adhering to my view. I do not lobby congress to deny Bakersfield city-hood, or remove its representatives from power. Because I also believe that faith, belief, is a personal matter, not something I force on others.  This country was founded upon freedom of religion, but more and more that freedom seems to be a freedom as long as your religion is mainstream.

In June, the US Supreme Court, in it’s 5 to 4 decision on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, allowed two closely-held companies to opt out of parts of health coverage because, as the majority opinion stated, the owners of the companies “sincerely believe” that some forms of birth control are actually abortifacients, that they cause an abortion. Even though the medical science contradicts this belief, “sincere belief” is apparently enough to allow a company to ignore a federal mandate to provide a certain minimum level of health care to all its employees. Even though not all its employees have the same value system or beliefs, the beliefs of the employer are the factor here.

Peter Morales, president of Unitarian Universalist of America, our parent organization, said, of this decision, “I am deeply concerned by the growing rights granted to corporations by this decision and others of this Court and our Congress. I am also deeply concerned by the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.”

This ruling allows companies to impose their moral views on their employees, and shelter their discriminatory views under the name of religious freedom.  There are religions that object to the use of certain medical procedures, like blood transfusions by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists and several smaller Christian denominations prefer the use of prayer to standard medical procedure. What if you work for a company owned by devout Muslims of Jews? In some places the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine is made with pork-derived gelatin. Can your employers restrict the vaccination of employees children on the grounds of religious freedom, even if those employees are not themselves Muslim or Jewish? Already, there are outbreaks of Measles and Mumps across America because some people believe, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, that the MMR causes autism. If we bring a religious argument into play, there will be more outbreaks as our herd immunity is further undermined.

As soon as that decision was handed down, I knew it would lead to more and more ridiculous suits where the only requirement, the only test, was whether the plaintiffs sincerely believed that they were in the right. Science be damned! Empiricism and testable facts went right out the window with that decision.  If you can deny testable science, ignore it completely, and have your views given credence in a court of law, then what about evolution in schools? How can you support any kind of science or use it as the basis of a judgment if the only thing that your opponent need have is sincerity? What we believe is important, especially if we are determined to impose our personal beliefs on other people.

A couple of weeks ago David Jackoway gave a sermon here about our jigsaw puzzle faith, how UUs believe a wide range of things, and yet we don’t talk about those things too often. My mission here isn’t to create a hierarchy of faith from my position here behind the lectern. I’m not here to tell you how to believe, but to take you with me on a spiritual and philosophical journey. I’m not here to be the Hobby Lobby employer, because this is a place where all spiritual paths are welcomed and respected, because they all lead us here, to where we can be together, in all our differences. You may not choose the same ways to serve our community and world as I choose, but you serve. You may not see the world as I see it, but you see it, you live in it, and we all of us seek to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Faith is a wonderful, powerful tool. Faith builds cities, faith keeps us working toward the future, faith holds our lives and communities together. What I truly believe, and will speak from this position, is this:

I believe in you, all of you in this community. I believe in you to listen to others, to make actions based on careful consideration of the facts and what will be help our community, our city, our country, our world, in the best way we can. I believe that with small actions, we can change the world. I believe that people are more important than companies, that clean energy is a necessity, that access to healthcare should be a universal right, that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. And if we can conquer that fear in ourselves, we can show other people the way to love, also.

And I have faith in you. I hope you have that same faith in me.

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