Parts of Speech

In this time of getting to know all of you and of letting all of you get to know me, I have started to hear some murmurings here and there—not rumors, so much—just bits and pieces of stories. And who doesn’t love a good story, right? I mean, I’m the new person so people are going to talk. And, I don’t know, maybe some of the things I’ve said. or even in the way I’ve said them, have led to these bits and pieces of stories.

So I want to put all of the talk to rest. I mean, it’s not like I’m hiding or anything. But I don’t feel like I need to make a big show either. But so there isn’t any confusion about my level of comfort, I just want to say that I am a very proud, a very vocal, and some might say, experienced…lawyer.

Now the first thing most people ask when I tell them I am a lawyer is, “What kind of lawyer?” And let me also put that to rest with my usual response: “A RETIRED lawyer.” I put that part of my life to rest many years ago, so that I could be only a minister; so that I could be YOUR minister.

And it is in that spirit that I have been with you these past few weeks. And it’s been a hard few weeks, my friends. We have talked about meals we had to share…with people whose political beliefs we don’t share. I’m looking forward to hearing how those went this week.

We have shared disappointment this week at the cancellation of the March for Hope by Mayor Hales. Who can forget that image and those words we had to send out: “CANCELLED: March for Hope?” And I won’t forget reading the e-mails we received in response to the cancellation. One read simply, “You can’t cancel hope . ” I had spent part of Tuesday morning getting pointers from Tom on how to carry vinyl marching banners in the pouring rain.

But disappointment, confusion, discomfort—these are feelings that lead people to change. At least they are for me. And they are actually the starting points of some of the most important stories of how the world can change. Because if we were content, clear headed, and comfortable all of the time, why would change even be necessary? I learned this kind of early on, myself.

Lots of people can share stories, parts of their past, when disappointment or confusion or discomfort have helped them to make decisions about how to act. Here’s one of mine.

It begins where any good story about disappointment, confusion, and discomfort has to begin: high school. Imagine a high school. Symmetrical rows of lockers, the hoard of kids spilling out into the hallways after the final bell of the day. Now imagine the captain of the men’s soccer team, homecoming royalty, blond haired high school heartthrob—not me—my best friend Pete—waiting for his friend—me—to give him a ride home from school. We get into my 1984 Buick LeSabre, lovingly dubbed, “The Beast” and we’re on our way to his house.

On the way, I can tell he’s looking at me. I’m squirming. I’m quiet (not a usual state of being for me). I’m clearly uncomfortable. And lately I’d been moody, uncommunicative, and clearly out of sorts.
He asks me what’s up. What’s wrong? I was terrified. What would he say? Would he still want to be my friend? I was racked with worry about whether to tell him what was burning inside me. It was only by sheer will that I forced from my tightening throat the words that I said for the first time in my life that afternoon: I… want to be a lawyer!

No, no, that’s not what I said. I told him that I was gay. I came out for the first time, to my first person that afternoon. Now, the tightness in my throat could have been caused by the turquoise, sequined bowtie I was wearing. See, the last thing I did that day at school was to perform with high school show choir and my sequined bowtie was part of my costume for Guys and Dolls. So…looking back now, I sincerely appreciate how surprised Pete seemed to be to learn that his best friend, was, in fact, gay.

But not every story like this ends with the captain of the soccer team telling his best friend that everything’s fine. Not every story ends with a family saying, “We still love you.” This scene from my own life is just a part of my story. And so is telling you all about being a retired lawyer. I tell you that I was a lawyer and that I happen to be gay so that I can to tell you what happened on September 22, 2010.

I was being a lawyer, poring over documents that needed to get completed, reviewed, and submitted so that a transaction in a faraway kingdom could be closed. A tiny group of rich shareholders I was working for would soon turn into a group with wealth so great that it would eclipse most members of the royal family in the kingdom where they resided.

And as the keys clicked along, and as words whirred by my eyes, I saw a news alert slyly glide by. And I sat in stunned silence as I read that an eighteen year old boy who was secretly filmed by his roommate making out with another boy jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. And somehow the terrified gay kid I was in my Buick stretched all the way over the decades to meet the lawyer, high up in his tower office overlooking Park Avenue. And when those two met, I heard a still, small voice say, “Something must be done.”

I had put my faith in the law as something powerful, as something safe, as something that could provide me comfort. But the law I served did nothing to protect or defend that sweet child, Tyler Clementi, from what he felt he had to do. And we here will never know what really could have.

It would be unfair and impossible to apply reason or logic to the choices of others we can’t understand. Indeed, the years long legal case against those who filmed Tyler in his dorm room left virtually everyone involved in the case confused and dissatisfied with the result. But what did come out of this tragic loss was the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which is devoted to education and advocacy against bullying.

And the foundation focuses especially on cyber bullying, which has taken fear and intimidation to light speeds in the course of only a few years. We have all witnessed together what an itchy Twitter finger can do in the hands of people who peddle in intimidation and trade in fear.

Something must be done.

Tyler’s story, through his foundation and even in this moment with all of us here, continues to be told and adds new chapters all the time. One part of Tyler’s story is still being told is by his mother, Jane Clementi. Jane explains that she stopped attending her church home because she, in her own words: “felt that while sitting in the pews of a church that condemned LGBT people she was herself a bystander to bullying.”

But she is very clear. She stopped sitting in those pews, but her faith did not stop. Her faith changed. Her faith grew. It was by this growth that she realized it matters where we show up. It matters where we sit on Sunday morning. And it matters when we take a stand.

And here in this very space, I think it is important to mention that we have welcomed a lot of people lately. Over the thresholds of this sanctuary, throughout our buildings, and through the worship we transmit for people everywhere to see, more and more people have been coming to be with us in these past few weeks. To all of you who are new, you are welcome in this place. Not only are you welcome here, you are wanted here. You are valued here. We are grateful that you are here.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person is not only the first of our seven shared principles. It is central to many of our mostly deeply held convictions about our shared faith. Placing this among the guiding principles for Unitarian Universalists means that we respond when the dignity, when the worth, of anyone, anywhere is threatened.

Something must be done.

This week, I have been watching and reading about people getting seats around the cabinet table in a new presidential administration. The nominee for Attorney General is someone who was denied a place as a federal judge because of well-documented racist comments he made in the workplace. The nominee for the Secretary of Education draws considerable wealth and influence from her family. That same family used their wealth to fund groups that fought to prevent equal marriage rights for everyone and groups that support gay conversion therapy. And looking at the number of retired military personnel being offered positions, one commentator asked whether Trump is trying to end unemployment by offering people positions in his cabinet who are out of work. These are some of the voices being offered seats at his table as an administration prepares to tell its story.

There is a terrified gay kid sitting in an 84 Buick wondering: “Am I going to have to hide again?”

Something must be done.

And throughout this week, as I looked around the church, I realized…something was.

This week we held our regular Path to Engagement class, a welcome session the church offers. It’s usually attended by about a dozen people. Well, we had to open up Eliot Chapel on Sunday to make room for the more than forty people who showed up.

And this week, our Social Justice Council welcomed the Immigration Justice Action Group to the council. Its members are already hard at work to engage our community with pressing social justice concerns of those doing the brave and challenging work—the ever more challenging work—of migration to this country.

And this week, something extraordinary happened in this church, something unique to the life of the 151-year-old congregation. We welcomed our first member who officially joined our church after participating exclusively ONLINE…from Arizona!

Just speaking as a relative newcomer here myself, I was already grateful to be here. But after this week, I am proud to be here.

And I know this is only the beginning. It is the inhalation we are taking before we start to tell a new story and sing a new song. New chapters of the story of this church are beginning. New voices are being added to the message of this church every day. New parts of how this church speaks truth to power, and new ways our chalice burns brighter and brighter in what can seem like a darkening world are showing up every day.

You cannot cancel hope. Something is being done.

We gather together at a table with as many stories and as many voices to tell those stories as possible. And with these voices we need to keep telling our stories, old and new. We need the voices of people who are afraid. We need the voices of people who feel targeted. And we need the friends, the families, the neighbors, and the allies, all watching, all listening, all reporting…so that even the voiceless are heard at our table. Especially the voiceless will be heard at our table.

My father might not have known what he was getting himself into when he would sing me to sleep with the tunes of Peter, Paul, and Mary. But one song by our own Pete Seger was one he taught me well, and it’s been in my head for the past few weeks.

If I had a song,
I’d sing it in the morning.
I’d sing it in the evening.
All over this land.

I’d sing out justice.
I’d sing out warning.
I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

My friends, my family, the tune of the song we sing out into the world matters. Where we are, right now, in this sanctuary matters. That is why we are here together, to be a part of that song. We will all need to new words in the coming weeks, in the coming months. And we don’t even know what those words are yet. Because the new words for our song will come from sharing our stories with each other. The new words for our song will come from listening to each other as we start to do the hard work we will be called to do.
And it is from this chorus of those who cry out for justice—it is from these parts of each of our speech—that the beautiful chorus I believe we have only just begun to sing as Unitarian Universalists will resound in peace, resound in justice, and resound in liberty for all.

May it be so. Amen.

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