“Rebuke Thy Neighbor!”

“Rebuke Thy Neighbor!
One Thing Fred Phelps Got Right
(and other post-sabbatical reflections)”

A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, April 6, 2014
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

Opening Words:

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,

so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw

open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,

indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths

and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight

that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight

on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants

from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,

holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,

well, today is just that kind of day.

“Today,” by Billy Collins


It takes courage to be crocus-minded.

God, I’d rather wait until June,

Like wise roses,

When the hazards of winter are safely behind,

and I’m expected, and everything’s ready for roses.

But crocuses?

Highly irregular.

Knifing through hard-frozen ground and snow,

and sticking their necks out,

because they believe in spring

and have something personal

and emphatic to say about it.

Lord, I am by nature rose-minded.

Even when I have studied the situation here

and know there are wrongs that need righting,

affirmations that need stating,

and know also that my speaking out may offend . . .

for it rocks the boat . . .

Well, I’d rather wait until June.

Maybe later things will work themselves out,

and we won’t have to make an issue of it.

Lord, forgive.

Wrongs don’t work themselves out.

Injustices and inequities and hurts don’t just dissolve.

Somebody has to stick their neck out,

Somebody who cares enough to think through

and work through hard ground,

because they believe and has something personal

and emphatic to say about it.

Me, Lord? Crocus-minded?

Could it be that there are things that need to be said,

and you want me to say them?

I pray for courage.

—from Bless This Mess and Other Prayers

                   by Jo Carr and Imogene Sorley


My mentor in ministry, Gordon McKeeman, once reflected upon his career with a series of statistics:  Meetings attended: 123,412.  Meetings where something was accomplished: 6.  Books recommended to me by parishioners: 4,310.  Books I then read:  4.  Social problems vigorously addressed:  1,906.  Social problems resolved: 0.

Looking back on the things I told you I’d do on sabbatical is similar.  I imagined lots of things and I did a few (I told you I’d go to a comedy club to work on my timing and I never did.  Sorry.  I vowed to ride my bicycle every day it was over 50 degrees.  I kept that vow and rode my bike, maybe, twice.

Mainly what I’ve done for the last three months was just to stop for a while.  I shut off the ministerial radar that is constant.  I woke up in the morning without anxious thoughts about the day to come.  I stayed in sweats most of the time!

And I am so very thankful to have had this opportunity and I look forward to savoring the remainder of my sabbatical at the end of this year starting in October.  I’m thankful for Dee’s leadership on the Board, and to Megan, Brad, Janet, Lisa, and Laura, to Joan in the office, and to all of you for continuing to show up.  You’ve been in good hands and you joined hands together.

As for me, since I last spoke from this pulpit, in late December I delivered the eulogy for Gordon McKeeman in Rochester, Minnesota (where it was 40 below zero); and then in January I made my will (and, among other things, remembered First Parish in my estate, hint hint) and then last week I attended the annual meeting of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts.  Does it get any better than that??

And between those mortal bookends, what did I do?  I went to church every Sunday!  Raise your hand if you can say as much!  Sometimes I played double-headers.  Let’s see, I can tell you where I’ve been by reading my checkbook register:  First Parishes in Brewster, Concord, Groton, Dorchester, W. Roxbury; Grace Chapel in Lexington, Boston’s King’s Chapel; UU churches in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; All Souls, Shelter Rock and the Community Church of New York; the First UCC church in Somerville; the Harvard Humanist Community; more UU franchises in E. Lexington, Sherborn, Arlington, and Milton.

I attended a conference of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (and a subsequent gathering of international ministers) in New York…toured the UN, met with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and gave myself a case of plantar fasciitis while pub-crawling for 50 blocks on the upper east side.

I then went to North Carolina and limped through the largest civil rights march since Selma, protesting voter suppression and income inequality and disregard for the poor.

Back in Boston, I emceed the Beacon Benediction, the farewell ceremony at our UUA headquarters at 25 Beacon Street, as they prepare to move to new headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston’s so-called “innovation district.”

(There is a way in which I flunked my sabbatical and did too much!  Sometimes I encountered parishioners who asked, “What part of a sabbatical do you NOT understand??”)

And also I went to Transylvania and, pardon me PETA, I killed a pig.  And butchered it.  And smoked it.  And ate it.  I was there for the 100th birthday of the man who painted that painting and made that ceramic, Erdos Tibor.  I visited our partner village of Abásfalva and delivered one of the huge (heavy awkward) wooden toolboxes our kids made in Sunday school.  It was appreciated.  I brought you back some fresh pear brandy.

I met with the bishop and slept at the Unitarian high school where I was awakened each morning, not by bells but by this on their p.a. system. (play “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons)  They blast that in between class periods.  It’s kinda civilized.

I preached in Kolozs, in English mostly but some Hungarian.  At auction in Budapest I bought an 1834 first edition of a travelogue of America by a Hungarian Unitarian, a contemporary of de Tocqueville.  I also secured the rights to its English translation and arranged for their bilingual re-publication.

At home, I did my dreaded part of our taxes, cleaned my sock drawers, read a couple of novels, and caught up with friends.  I was on a conference call with President Obama (and perhaps thousands of others) talking about the ACA.  With maybe 50 others, I had lunch with the Polish ambassador to the US, talking about Ukraine and the Crimea.

But more about all those churches I attended.  I went to places I expected to be good – their sermons, their hospitality, their music – and most were.  With the possible exception of All Souls in New York (where they have paid vocalists and instrumentalists from the Met and the Symphony), our choir however has more verve, more spirit, more light-in-their-eyes than any I’ve heard anywhere.  One other UU church – Dorchester – has a disco ball; but in their social hall not their sanctuary.

I’ve heard a lot of good sermons but I also observe that sermons tend to stay within the boundaries of a congregation’s norms.  I went to a church, for example, that is most known for its music program, and what should the minister be preaching about?  The transforming power of music!  An intellectual congregation got an intellectual sermon!  A family-centered congregation got a sermon praising its programs for children, youth and families.  They were all good or very good sermons. I’m not being critical and I too stay within the (wide) bounds of what’s acceptable here.  But too often the religion I heard preached was a religion of high or even noble sentiment.  Were we to go deeper, I would say that true religion is not about sentiment but about commitment.

Let me tell you about the most provocative sermon and service I attended.  It was at the First United Church of Christ in Somerville.  From that experience I want to suggest some things for us to consider.

That church is close to Davis Square, which of course has a diverse mix of ages, races, restaurants, clubs, sexualities, you name it.  Because their sanctuary is being renovated, the service was in the basement in-the-round: a big pop-up tent in the middle with chairs all around.  It was a Lenten service, “lent under the tent,” they said.  They had two services, I went to the early one with about 60 people attending: mostly young, singles as well as families, diverse in sexual orientation maybe, but mostly white, students and young professionals.

The liturgy was pretty traditional: old blood-and-sacrifice hymns, prayer, recitation of a creed and a confession.  The text was about Jesus at a meal rebuking his hosts, the scribes and the Pharisees.  This is in the gospel of Luke and Jesus objects to his hosts’ religiosity and attention to forms and formalities and their inattention to deeper matters of the spirit.

The sermon was set in the context of that congregation’s desire to widen its welcome to people of other races, classes and diversities…becoming at least as diverse as its own neighborhood.

The sermon was about the importance of rebuking one’s neighbor.  Basically, the minister was saying that in order for the congregation to accomplish it goals, its members needed to be able to criticize or rebuke themselves or one another for doing things the way they’re doing things now.  They need to do some things differently.

The minister made the point that we who consider ourselves progressive or liberal about many things are most comfortable when we talk about loving one another, supporting one another, helping one another…and we are made uncomfortable by the notion that we may at times need to criticize ourselves or one another.

A major illustration for that sermon happened to be the work of the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC).  ROC-United is a group that works with and advocates for restaurant employees to receive better treatment by their employers and to increase the minimum wage for tipped employees. (I’ve preached about this before; this is also an initiative of the UU Service Committee; the MA minimum wage is $2.63/hour and, disgracefully, has remained unchanged for 15 years.)

The Somerville minister happened to previously have been an organizer and he told the story of restaurant servers who came to ROC-United because they were being deprived of their tips.  Wage theft, you know, is not uncommon in the restaurant industry.  In the pecking order of restaurants, however, servers tend to be the best treated: they tend to be the lighter-skinned ones, maybe working their way through school.  The ROC organizers asked the servers, “What about the busboys and the dishwashers?”  They’re the ones at the bottom of the pecking order, the foreign-born and darker-skinned ones.  But to this the servers said, “Oh no.  This isn’t about them; we’re just looking out for ourselves.”  To which the ROC organizers rebuked the servers and said, “If you’re just looking out for yourselves, go get a lawyer.  Don’t come to us.  But if you want to make common cause with the busboys and the dishwashers, come back and we’ll work together.

The servers were rebuked and taken aback but, eventually, they reconsidered and, after much struggle and a long campaign, indeed they achieved victories by getting out of their comfort zone, working together on behalf of all employees.

To risk rebuking one another is a kind of tough love and, of course, to “love one’s neighbor” is a biblical injunction.  And you’ve probably noticed that it is the basis for a new campaign in Bedford in response to the distressing and persistent anti-Semitic incidents that still plague us.

Now, I believe in “loving one’s neighbor.”  Do you remember that Calvin Coolidge returned home from church and his wife asked, “What did the minister preach about?”  “Sin,” said Coolidge.  “Well, what did he say?” his wife persisted.  “He was against it,” said Coolidge.

Well, I am all-in with loving one’s neighbor, you’ll be relieved to hear.  But I think that love sometimes demands that we rebuke one another, repent, amend our ways, get out of our comfort zones and risk being different.

And just because you’re wondering what could Fred Phelps have possibly gotten right, I’m going to tell you.  Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, remember, said and did many things that were thoroughly hateful, repugnant, and despicable.  He did those things so perfectly horribly that he well may have given the gay rights movement a huge boost because he so clearly identified homophobia with hate.

However outrageous and over-the-top were his actions, however, he made one assumption that I think is quite true.  “If I had nobody mad at me,” he told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?”  That is, I suggest, a pretty good point.

He continued this theme and got a bit rhetorically flamboyant when he told another newspaper, “The way to prove you love thy neighbor is to warn them they’re committing sin.  You’re not going to get nowhere with that slop that ‘God loves you,’ (he added).  That’s a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant!”

I think Fred got that pretty much right!  In his obituary it was pointed out that before he became a preacher, he was a lawyer and he won a lot of discrimination suits in civil rights cases.  A leader of the NAACP said, “Most blacks – that’s who they went to.  I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”  My hunch is that Phelps had not only that stick-to-it-ness but he stuck-it-to-em and that he was just a pit bull of righteous indignation.

I come not to praise Fred Phelps but to bury his – and our – hatefulness, but I do wish that we could be better at practicing a tougher kind of love.  You know, we have that UUA banner on the side of the church, “We Are Standing on the Side of Love” and when I went to Raleigh I bought and wore a bright orange sweatshirt with those same words.  But I also remember our late great minister emeritus Jack Mendelsohn.  Jack didn’t curse much, much less than I do, but when he heard the new UUA slogan about standing on the side of love, Jack said, “That’s bull…!”  For Jack, justice is what love looks like in public.

I realize that I’m approaching this issue from a lot of angles on a lot of levels…and that’s just it: I think that a vital spiritual discipline is to strengthen our ability to rebuke our neighbor, to criticize ourselves, first of all, but to warn one another as well; and to get out of our comfort zones so as to approach that transformative place “where the magic happens.”

In the fall I preached about the Intercultural Development Inventory and I did some more work with this on sabbatical.  The IDI, remember, moves from a far end of the spectrum where we assume that our cultural identity is the only cultural identity and why can’t other people be more like us?  And at the other end of the spectrum, we cultivate an appreciation of cultural difference and increasing skillfulness at intercultural appreciation and adaptation.

The tricky thing is that somewhere a little past midway on this spectrum, there’s a wide place that is called “minimization” where we try to minimize differences and just say that “down deep we’re all just the same,” and “why can’t we all just get along?”  And that wide loving place of minimization is where a lot of us are most comfortable because it is uncomfortable to genuinely acknowledge and bump up against and struggle with the reality that our differences can be real.

In every relationship of one human being to another, difference is real and being able to encounter difference without being passive or being hostile, without being threatened or being threatening, that ability is one of the most important lifelong learnings in the art of becoming human.

A long-standing sometimes joke between Sue and me is what happens when, say, I spill some milk.  “Oh,” I’ll say, “the milk spilled!”  Sue will say, “John, you spilled the milk!”  She’s pretty good at this rebuking thing.  Now I think that milk sometimes spills and sometimes it’s helpful to acknowledge that “I spilled the milk.”  And it is always helpful to speak the truth in love.

I got into this, wanting to tell you about the most provocative sermon I heard while on sabbatical.  I took note that, most commonly, ministers and parishioners and people in general stay in their comfort zones, reluctant to criticize let alone rebuke.

In our personal lives, in our congregational life, and in our larger community, I think we would be well served to practice our ability to rebuke one another and ourselves.

I do not wish to open the floodgates of destructive criticism or announce an open season on rebuking.  I want us to speak the truth in love.

As individuals, I do not think that any of us has become all that we can become.  There’s that old saying that “God isn’t done with you yet” and, well, I don’t know about God, but I don’t think that you are yet finished with your own becoming.

As a congregation, there yet are things we can do to become more of what we would be.  Recall the unintentional humor of the 16th century Polish Unitarians who said, “We should not be ashamed if in some way our church should improve.”  And also in our community life, far and near, we still fall short of what Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the beloved community.

True religion, friends, is not about sentiment; religion is about commitment.  Let us renew our commitment to becoming the people we want to be.