Progressive Faith Sermons - Dr. Roger Ray

Not many of us got to enjoy the luxury of growing up in a "woke" environment. A great deal of growing us has involved overcoming the prejudices and too comfortable peace we had with the status quo. Being progressive often means that we are giving ourselves to give voice to our own stories, detailing how and why we felt compelled to change. We can be grateful for a lot of our family of origin and the religious community in which we grew up, but we are under no obligation to deny or hide the skeletons in the closet.

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Elsa Tamez wrote that “The situation of oppression and pain tends to make people feel depressed, to dehumanize them, to destroy not only their bodies but also their spirit, to make them see their oppression as normal and natural.” These words will be recognizable to anyone who belongs to a marginalized community. Unmasking the lie that change is not only impossible, it is unnatural, we are called to respond with a praxis grounded in our values. We connect patience with resistance and integrity with solidarity, so that we can more intentionally participate in the personal and collective healing and growing we need.

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2023 has been unprecedented in the barrage of attacks on gender and sexuality minorities by both public commentators and lawmakers across the USA. From calls to “eradicate transgenderism” to the continued insistence to “Don’t Say Gay,” we are witnessing a cultural and legislative movement that specifically aims to make it more difficult for LGBTQIA2s+ folks to be safe, access basic care and protective rights, and joyfully live out our beautiful, human lives.

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Time Magazine’s choice of the women of Iran as their heroes of the year for 2022 is a fitting tribute to the courage and sacrifice necessary to incite a serious reformation within Islam. Adherents often say that Islam is a religion of peace and it certain can be that and is that for most Muslims but in nations with conservative Islamic regimes, the truth can be anything but peace. The women of Iran are an inspiration to all of us who hope for liberty and equality.

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It has always been true that Covid-19 presented a greater threat to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions but in this time that so many people insist on calling "post covid" we are still losing 300 people a day to Covid and most of them are over 65, and the majority of them have been vaccinated. Our indifference towards the death of the aged reflects the veneration of youth in our culture and the devaluation of the lives of senior citizens. Being dismissive of the threat Covid represents to the elderly is a mistake we need to consider, especially considering the contributions made to our world by those who are no longer "hot."

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For many of us, society is not a safe place to exist, and we lack the supports and resources we need to thrive as human beings. Yet even when we enter into movements and spaces dedicated to working for social justice, activism fatigue and burnout take their toll. Can we practice in such a way that kindness leads to confidence, compassion and wisdom create safety, and a trustworthy community helps us remain open to change?

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Many societies, including American society, have made mindless consumption a way of life. Not having clear paths for working with suffering in skillful ways, we are encouraged at every turn to merely cope, while our core social issues are often left unhealed and untransformed. Spiritual and reflective practices offer a way for us to cultivate insight, let go of habits that harm, make healthy choices that heal and make us happy, and build cultures and communities where we can continually move from mindless consumption to grateful contentment.

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The beginning of Black History Month has been already crowded with new entries in our long history of violence and inequality. Yet even while we mourn, honoring the grief and rage of the recent murder of Tyre Nichols, officials in power have been quick to remind everyone that protests must be “peaceful and nonviolent” and that there is a “right way” to protest. However, people’s anger and grief at injustice is not the root problem. What is “out of hand” is a system that depends on police brutality and systemic racism. And the best way to prevent violent protests is to create a just, equitable, compassionate society.

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We spend a lot of time focused on understanding and transforming social norms that bring about injustice, oppression, and violence. But we also know that it is just as important to hold that awareness of our capacity for injustice alongside an awareness of our capacity for cooperative, kind relationships. We use the wisdom of both to learn how to establish wellbeing in ourselves and healthy relationships with others. Reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings on “The Bonds of Fellowship” is one way to remind ourselves how important it is to practice healthy community, and some simple pathways to do so.

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Last weekend, we carried an awareness of the grieving communities in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California. Then, on Monday, two high school students were shot and killed at a charter school in Des Moines, Iowa in an apparent feud between rival gangs. Three days, three shootings, three settings: community dance center, workplace, and school. As a nation, we hold space, tending these open wounds, these seemingly unending cycles of violence. And we are back to that question: What is it about our society that so effectively waters the seeds of violence in us?

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Last week, the completely terrifying and avoidable tragedy of Larry Eugene Price’s 2021 death in an Arkansas jail came to light. As shocking as his story is, the painful reality is that we have managed to create a society where these kinds of tragedies happen with horrific regularity. The settings change: prisons, hospitals, schools, workplaces, religious institutions, homes. The relationships between the inequities and oppressive systems shift emphasis: race, gender, class and poverty, disability, age, sexuality, and more. And each person’s story is unique, but these experiences also form a pattern. Understanding those patterns, and transforming them into action, is the continual responsibility for all communities of resistance, so that everyone can have a chance to recover wholeness and health.

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It’s easy to divide the world up into the foolish and the wise. It’s harder to take the time to really discern how our actions impact one another. We easily forget that our friendships train our minds. Whom we spend time with is also a question of how we spend our time. What activities do we do together? What do we talk about? Where do we go? The people in our lives both reflect and influence what we think is important, how we treat one another, how we understand life and the world, for good or for ill. Being intentional about community helps us create habits the help and heal, instead of harm.

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We continue to face head-on the injustice in the world, because honestly engaging with that suffering is essential to change. But we also understand that this emphasis alone can be disheartening and exhausting. If we are going to have the energy to carry us through, to keep working together to help birth a beautiful, caring, and just world, then we must be equally committed to cultivating our wellbeing in the present moment. During January and February, David will be offering reflections on the Buddha’s “Discourse on Happiness,” with the hope of helping us explore ways we can encourage each other to cultivate happiness and wellbeing right now, even as we continue to engage with and transform the injustice and cruelty of the world.

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New Year's resolutions can be a very meaningless exercise unless you take seriously the awareness that we really can change ourselves by conscious decision.  This sermon addresses the substantive need to take personal responsibility for the path we are following.

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