In the Beginning... The Stories We Tell

In the Beginning… The Stories We Tell
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
October 11, 2015

In the beginning of the religious experience is awe.  Awe of the ground we touch, the world around us, and the sky above.  Where do we come from, what are we?  Where are we going?
Since life is a riddle and a mystery, what we have are our stories.
Stories help us understand where things come from.  Where does fire come from?  Why do owls have yellow eyes? ask the Cherokee people in our story for all ages.  Or where does paint come from, asked Mark McWilliams last week in his sermon.  And what is it for?
Creation is our theme this month of October.  Not only are we looking at origin stories – the stories that tell us about the creation of things – where do we come from - but contained within creation is the creative impulse – how is it that the world is created anew, and that we have the ability to imagine and create and produce art, music, theater, architecture, stories, games – you get the idea.
In fact, we’ve added a painting under the word, Creation, this morning.  A painting created by artist member of the congregation, Laura Ray.  It is a “congregation on the move” and commissioned for our annual pledge drive which we launch this evening at the all-congregation dinner, probably the last big dinner we’ll have in this building.  I hope you get a chance to go look at it after worship or tonight when you come to the dinner.  Its beauty speaks to our momentum and diversity.
In the beginning of creation, in the beginning,
When God made Heaven and earth
The Earth was without form and void
With darkness over the face of the abyss
And a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters
God said, “Let there be light.”
And there was light!
A story as ancient as the Hebrew Scripture in the Western Tradition which was critiqued by Vine Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux from what we call South Dakota, in his classic theological work, God is Red.
He did not critique that the Hebrew people should have such a story of the origin of the universe, but rather that this story got canonized and universalized and imposed upon other peoples in other places and at other times…
“thus what has been the manifestation of deity in a particular local situation is mistaken for a truth applicable to all times and places, a truth so powerful that it must be impressed upon peoples who have no connection to the event or the cultural complex in which it originally made sense.” (Vine Deloria)
This belief in a truth applicable to all times and places led to, among other errors, the Doctrine of Discovery, the “Papal Bulls of the 15th century [which] gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they "discovered" and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered", claimed, and exploited. If the "pagan" inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.”  ( 
This was a moral document justifying the enslavement and massacre of non-Europeans and non-Christians.  This doctrine, though in error, was insidious and became a part of a greater story, our history.
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery at our 2012 General Assembly  as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples."
In the last couple of weeks, some members of this congregation have begun conversations, Beloved Conversations, to help us explore the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of racism in our lives, the systemic relics of colonialism.  We began last week with historical timelines.  We didn’t go back to the 15th century to the Papal Bulls, but rather started at the turn of 18th century which was close to the time when Europeans began arriving in this part of the land where Native Americans already lived.  We then put dates on the timeline, historical moments in time when issues of race and ethnicity came to the fore.
For most of us it was a pretty difficult exercise, difficult because we don’t know all that history and difficult because of the story that is told. At least in our group, there was a flurry of dates we were aware of in the 1960’s – about the time Betty Tableman joined this church – and yet the issues being addressed then are far from resolved today.  It is an ongoing story, one in which we are the creators – the people who will determine what comes next in our common story.
We were asked to look at this history from a local perspective, from the state of Michigan which, at least in my group, was a challenge –as many of us are transplants to the area.  Fortunately, we had some people who grew up in Michigan in our group.  And our homework is to think about our own personal history with regard to race.  I grew up in the West – further West than Michigan:  in Washington state, North Dakota, and Utah.  My mother was a school teacher.  She’s alive, but now retired.  She taught history which always involved local history of the places in which we lived.  She is particularly interested in 19th century history – what is known as the Lewis and Clark expedition at the beginning of the century, and the Civil War just past the midpoint.  Growing up, we stopped at every roadside historical marker when traveling in the car – and as time went on, we wouldn’t even stop, but as we neared the marker my mom would begin telling us the story that was on it, stories that would continue well past the particular marker.
When I was in grade school, my family lived in Pullman, Washington, home to Washington State University, a land grant college like MSU.  Like kids growing up in the East Lansing area public schools, there were opportunities on campus for educational experiences.  I believe it was in fifth grade that some of us from my public school were invited to play at being a classroom in a PBS television series filmed on campus – at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, named after its most famous alumni.
The PBS series being filmed had to do with race and history, and we were to portray kids in a classroom – easy.  They didn’t prepare us for the filming much, just began – it was an African American teacher – or actor, playing a teacher – who asked us if we had heard of Lewis and Clark – all the hands shot up in the air.  We were after all, living just 30 miles from Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington.  Then he asked if we knew of a man named York.  My hand went up as did the hand of a classmate, Shinya Akamine.  But ours were the only two, and apparently, they hadn’t planned for that.  So they had to shoot the scene again, asking Shinya and me to keep our hands down so that the teacher/actor could then tell be surprised that we didn’t know about York in order to tell us the story of York on the Lewis and Clark expedition which this scene would then introduce…
This is how I remember it. I can’t promise it happened in just that way, but it is etched in my memory as the moment I learned that not everyone knew the stories of Lewis and Clark with the story of Clark’s “manservant,” York, included.  York is often described as Clark’s lifelong slave companion.  He was a black man, enslaved, whose contribution to the expedition should not be overlooked, but is only known through the written record of the expedition by the white explorers, Clark and Lewis, and through the oral history, the stories, told since.
Beloved Conversations are inviting me into these stories of my own history understanding race and ethnicity, which then invite me into a greater history of our nation and the land we occupy.
In the beginning.  In order to re-write a story, we have to understand its origins.  Whether it is to create a different story for our life, to rework an understanding of identity or race, or to create a different story for our congregation or community, or to create a different story for our world.  It is important to go back and understand what came before, what came first.
In the beginning.  I asked Betty Tableman to speak this morning because as we prepare to leave this building and move to another, it is important to remember how we got to this building in the first place.  I say, “we”, but of course, most of us in this room weren’t among those amazing few who bought this building in 1972 and did all the hard work to clean up this old fraternity house and create something new, to create this church on this site.  But it is still a part of “our” story, whether we were personally there or not.
And it is interesting what stories we tell about ourselves, or that others tell about us.  I remember when I was a candidate for the position of becoming your minister, I had more than one colleague – ministers in the area – who speculated that some of the difficult history this congregation faced with ministers – and there had been a high level of turnover of ministers before me – that some of these troubles may have been related to inhabiting what used to be a fraternity house.  Did it lead to “frat-like behavior?”  or did “frat-like behavior” lead to comfort with the building?  Believe me, I understand the problematic generalizations about both fraternities and this congregation that statement implies, but that’s what stories are – an interpretation of events, not the events free from interpretation. 
I heard two main story lines active when I became your minister. Clearly there were so many more stories, but these were the two we talked about.   There was the story about having difficult relationships with ministers:  that ministers either left or were fired after a short tenure.  No minister had remained as such for ten years.  Nine years was the record, and that ministry ended with a painful negotiated resignation.  And the other story line was that this building was in the perfect location for the congregation, even though it was clearly inaccessible and inadequate.  An interim minister had walked the congregation around the building – apparently in a service on a Sunday morning - to show you the flaws and disrepair.
You seemed to have changed both story lines over time.  And as we prepare to leave East Lansing and this beloved but bedraggled building, we have an opportunity to create a new story.  This is what I love about Laura Ray’s painting.  It is the beginning of a new story.  This new story telling is both exciting and a little bit scary.
We kind of know who we’ve been, here in this building, but who are we becoming?  The truth is, we have many stories about who we’ve been and who we are.. and now we’re moving into a different chapter for sure, and have an opportunity to create a new story for our collective life.
One of the reasons we’ve introduced conversations about race and ethnicity is in order to collectively create a new narrative.  Embedded in that story of negotiated resignations of ministers is the additional story of a break-off congregation created in the wake of one such resignation.  This other UU congregation which formed by members and former members of this congregation had a distinct and intentional multicultural, multiracial focus.  It was called All Souls, but closed its doors about the time I arrived to serve you here.
In Beloved Conversations, we are asked to try to hold multiple stories as true.  All Souls was a break off congregation, and it was an intentionally multicultural congregation.  Both stories are true, and neither narrative tells the whole story.  To hold that more than one story is true is more like a Native American worldview than the traditional Western European one.  Rather than there being a single truth valid for all times and places, we recognize that the truth lies in the local experience.   Context is all important for both practice and understanding of religion by tribal and indigenous people, said Vine Deloria.  “it was not what people believed to be true that was important but what they experienced as true.”  Unitarian Universalists can find resonance with this worldview, even as we are steeped in a Western European culture.  Having consistently held a minority belief within Christianity, Unitarians and Universalists have long recognized the danger of generalizing Truth to be applicable to all times and places, rather understanding the need to connect the understanding of the experience to the specific event or cultural complex in which it originally made sense.
Of course, just because we understand it on one level, doesn’t mean we fully embody and remember it to be so.  Sometimes, especially in the cultural context in which most of us find ourselves, we can easily generalize our experience our sense of truth to be true for all time and in all places.  We go with the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and forget that others may not want what you want…. The golden rule upgrade is called the “platinum rule” – do unto others as they would like done unto them.  And I think it is much more precise in describing our aspirations of compassion and fairness.
We are not all the same, don’t all want the same things, believe the same things, or live with the same conditions.  Our social identities are different – what people see about us from the outside is often quite different from what we experience on the inside.  That’s true for individual people, for congregational identities, and for other group categories.  And because all of who we are can’t be seen, or known fully, we can struggle with the disconnect between our real sense of who we are and how the world might seem to categorize us.
One of the stories of Unitarian Universalism is that we are a faith tradition where you don’t have to leave your true beliefs behind to join.  We encourage you to believe what you must, knowing that it will differ from what your neighbor believes.  I believe that the story we are now trying to create with this movement extends even further.  We are trying to create a faith tradition where you don’t have to leave any part of yourself behind in order to join.  You are expected to bring all of who you are, your multiple beliefs, stories and various identities.
I’m always tempted to leave you with a nice ending to the story.  A finished sermon that has a beginning, a middle and an end.  And though I could tell you a story like that, the truth is, we are in the process of creating the ending.  It is not finished.  It is undone and unknown. 
Your life is undone, unfinished.  Fortunately.  You’re still breathing.  What is the story you’d like told about your life?
Our congregational life is undone, unfinished.  What is the story we’d like told about our church?
Our national life is undone, unfinished.  What is the story we’d like told about our nation?  Especially with regard to race and ethnicity, or colonialism and empire?  Do we celebrate Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s day?  Or both?  How do we tell the story of what has led up to this moment in time, and how will we create the story of our future?  Or stories?
While we are crafting our future and our stories, let us appreciate the moment.  Take time to breathe and notice and appreciate these gorgeous fall days and our presence together.  It is not what we believe to be true that is important but what we experience as true.  So take a moment to be with this experience.

Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.