Whom Does It Serve? The Third of 3 Ethical Questions, Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Start Date

Opening Hymn #389 Gathered Here

Today, in this time of great social conflict, we have a greater than usual number of prayers, songs, responsive and unison readings, so before we begin, I want to be really clear about something.

Here, at East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, while you are always welcomed and encouraged to participate, you are never required to do anything you aren't comfortable doing or saying anything you aren't comfortable saying.

At the same time, we need to step outside of our comfort zones, just a bit, in order to stretch ourselves, to build our own resiliency, with the support of one another. I don't claim to know what you need. Only you know that. But everything in the service this morning is offered in the spirit of support, healing, encouragement, community building and generosity.

Listen to your heart and your body. Take care of yourself and each other. And know that we aim to make safe space here for everybody.

Now, I'd like to invite you to rise if you can, and open your gray hymnal to #389, Gathered Here.

Gathered here in the mystery of the hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit, draw near.

Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting 
Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

It's fitting that this morning we are not in our usual circle, facing each other. We are surrounded and even separated by this beautiful artwork. It feels like a metaphor for our democracy, which is much more art than science, and in this past week has left us feeling confused, disoriented, and even separated.

But I want you to look up.

Look at the beacon in the center of this space. Let that structural element, permanent to this place in its physicality and symbolism, be reminder to you that things do return to normal, and that the light always shines in on all of us, even when we can't all see one another. Let the beacon be a reminder to us that we are only beginning to use its potential to the light of inclusive and affirming hope out into a world that desperately needs it.

As we gather here, in the mystery of this hour, let us be emboldened by the words of Marge Piercy:

What can they do 
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can 
bust you, they can break 
your fingers, they can 
burn your brain with electricity, 
blur you with drugs till you 
can t walk, can't remember, they can 
take your child, wall up 
your lover. They can do anything 
you can't blame them
from doing. How can you stop 
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can 
take what revenge you can 
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting 
back to back can cut through 
a mob, a snake-dancing file 
can break a cordon, an army 
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other 
sane, can give support, conviction, 
love, massage, hope, sex. 
Three people are a delegation, 
a committee, a wedge. With four 
you can play bridge and start 
an organisation. With six 
you can rent a whole house, 
eat pie for dinner with no 
seconds, and hold a fund raising party. 
A dozen make a demonstration. 
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; 
ten thousand, power and your own paper; 
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time, 
it starts when you care 
to act, it starts when you do 
it again after they said no, 
it starts when you say We 
and know who you mean, and each 
day you mean one more.

Responsive Prayer 
Please join me now for a responsive prayer, written by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, a Unitarian Universalist Minister and White ally to people of color who has served diverse congregations in Oakland and Minneapolis. After each line I read, I invite you to respond with "We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love," which you'll find in your order of service.

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference, 
    we forgive ourselves and each other other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible,
    we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause, 
    we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others, 
    we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone, 
    we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness, 
    we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

Reading (Ron Prosek)
from "The Prophetic Liberal Church," by James Luther Adams

"A church that does not concern itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice, a church that does not show concern for the shape of things to come, a church that does not attempt to interpret the signs of the times, is not a prophetic church. ...

The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith....

The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it." (1)

Congregational Response The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
There are only a few passages to a few documents that we are required to learn as children. In the olden days there were more of them, including Psalm 23, which for generations of people, even if they aren't or never were Christian or Jewish, brings enormous comfort in times of despair. The Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution remind us who we are and what it is that connects us as a people, in all of our diversity.

If you are a GenXer, I know you know the Preamble because of Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday morning tv when we were kids. The hard part singing it without that little tune. But if you don't know it by heart, just listen, and be reminded.

We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United Stated States of America.

Sermon Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
"An Open Letter to the President Elect"

Dear Mr. Trump.

You won. It seems like the whole country is scratching its collective head wondering how you did it, but you did it. And I guess congratulations are in order.

I have a feeling being president is kind of like being a parent. There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for it, and it's always much harder than you ever thought it would be. Especially if you have no experience.

As somebody who has gone from being a corporate manager to leading a democratic institution, I think I might have some words of advice that I would like to humbly offer to you.

I'd like to preface this by saying that I know this is more of a literary device than it is an actual letter. And really, because of the topic I'd planned on preaching about today, and our liturgical theme for the month of covenant, if the election had come out differently, I'd be writing a similar letter to Mrs. Clinton.

With that in mind, there are three things, that I would like to submit to you as requirements for being an effective leader.

First, as a leader, remember that you set the tone, not only of the White House, or your administration, or even the Federal government. You set the tone for the whole country. Everything you say, and more importantly everything you do, gives people cues about how to interact with one another, both in word and deed. So, if you make fun of somebody, or hit below the belt, or make an unfair generalization, you tell everyone around you - everyone in the country - that it's okay to do the same thing.

The hardest part about that reality is that the people you think are not even listening, children, they will imitate you, as a role model. Your actions will reverberate in the school yard. They already are.

And speaking is like ringing a bell. Once you do it, you can't undo it. Everything you say gets repeated and amplified, and it always ALWAYS become much worse than you ever intended, like a downward spiral of a cosmic game of telephone leading straight down into hell. Especially now, because a camera or microphone will be on you every single second. And the argument that your comment was taken out of context? Nobody cares.

Rarely will anything you say be made better in the retelling, unless you are a living saint, like the Dalai Lama. Then, ordering a turkey sandwich sounds like divine wisdom. You, just like your 44 predecessors, are no saint.

I know it's not fair. When you sign on for this kind of leadership nothing is fair. Just ask Mrs. Clinton. She had two big downfalls. The first was expecting that as first lady or senator or secretary of state she should have some privacy, and while it's not the slightest bit fair, it's an unreasonable expectation. Her other big downfall was that she said something that could never be forgotten. She called half of your supporters deplorable. By indulging in that hyperbole, she confirmed for all of your supporters what you and virtually every single Republican has been saying for 25 years: Liberals, especially the Clintons, think conservatives are stupid and beneath them. All the people who were already disinclined to trust her had confirmation. I'm sure she feels like it's not fair.

And make no mistake. No matter how much your biggest cheerleaders love you, there are always people disinclined to trust political leaders, and those people are exactly the electorate you appealed to. And now that you are president elect, you are no longer a political outsider. You are the supreme political insider.

Second, being a leader is about service. That is, your service to the people of the United States, for whom and by whom the Constitution was written, not the other way around.

You said in your acceptance speech your intention is to be the president for every single American. That means that you have to protect the needs and interest of everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, those most at risk of being hurt or taken advantage of. Women, children, non-Christians, people of color, people with disabilities, the aged, LGBT folks, the infirm, the poor all are counting on you to serve them as well as you serve your friends, family and supporters. And that is your responsibility.

And third, every single day, every single decision you make is an ethical decision.

I know, ethics seem tricky, even confusing. I mean, do you take the Aristotelian view that we develop virtues so that we can act to benefit both ourselves and our society? Or do you take the Kantian view that humans are duty-bound to respect other rational beings? Or do you take the utilitarian view that all you have to concern yourself with benefiting the greatest number of people?

The utilitarian view seems cynical to me, but I guess as president, you won't be able to benefit all people all the time. God knows that's true in my congregation. What's good for one person is terrible for another. Every decision ends up being a balancing act between competing goods, which makes each new day a potential minefield.

So I always go with Socrates's model for decision making. He said that we should always ask ourselves a seemingly simple three part question: "Is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary?"

When you ask yourself, "is it true?" you can't exaggerate or guess or even make an off the cuff remark without first checking the facts. Because every time you say something, and it turns out not to be true, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to attack from your opponents. And if people feel like you lied to them enough - even if you feel like it was an honest mistake - they won't trust you anymore. And there's no worse enemy than a former friend.

Again. Not fair. I know. But this is what you signed up for.

When you ask yourself "is it kind?" you have to remember that thrilling your audience is not a kindness if their glee is at the expense of someone else. Remember, you serve everyone. No exceptions

Now the question of asking "is it necessary." The difficulty there is that we tend to think that what is necessary for us is necessary for other people. We tend to think that "My needs are your needs," and that tendency is supported by the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you've ever been married, or if you've ever given anyone a gift they hate, you know that's not always true.

In fact, I'd say it's almost never true, so I go with the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them."

It's a great rule, mainly because it saves time and confusion. But the only way can know the answer is to ask: how can I help you? How can I serve you?

I know it may sound a little unimaginative for gift-giving, asking first what people want, but trust me. It's the only way to lead. You can return an necklace Mrs. Trump finds ugly. You can't take back what you said.

The trick is to figure out what people - all people - need in this democratic institution you serve. You have a fiduciary duty to the people you serve, the highest standard of care under the law. That means that your needs always come after the needs of the people you serve: every single person in America. That means you can never have a conflict of interest, or you break the bond.

So each day, with every decision you face, because every decision is ethical, The question you should be asking yourself is not "is it necessary?", but rather, "Whom does it serve?" And the answer must always be, the People of the United States and our Constitution.

As a minister, I know what it means to have fiduciary duty in a democratic institution. I have fiduciary duty to the people I serve. It's a lot of responsibility.

I know it may sound silly, but it's why I want people to call me Reverend. Not because I think I'm better than anyone else, or more important. And I'm certainly not foolish enough to think a title will preclude me from having to earn the trust of my congregants with every action. I want the people in my church to call me reverend to remind them - and more importantly to remind me - that I have a responsibility to always put their needs before my own.

My hope for you, and for all of us, is that every time somebody calls you Mr. President, you remember that responsibility. Take it to heart. Wear it like a suit. Feel it in your bones. That's why I want everyone, especially the people who don't trust you, to call you Mr. President. So none of us ever forget your responsibility to every single one of us.

Bill Clinton forgot his fiduciary duty one day in his office, as he began a dalliance with an intern. You may remember that. It seemed like nobody could stop talking about it for years. In his desire for fleeting personal gratification, he forgot that he had a responsibility to that intern not to take advantage of her. That it was his job to protect her -- and the whole country -- from the fallout of a sexual encounter between them, and that slip, that putting his needs before everyone else's, almost cost him his job. And while the whole country was arguing about his actions and his intentions, the demonized that young woman who should never have been used in that way, and put the whole country's security at risk. We were arguing about sex while Osama bin Laden was building an army.

And you and I both know this: that slip up was a major factor in costing Hilary Clinton the job she wanted. A lot of people - a lot of women - never forgave her for forgiving him.

Today in their worship, some churches are celebrating your victory, seeing you as a champion of their values, so much so that they are willing to overlook your not seeming to know a single thing about their Bible, despite your claiming to be one of them. They may be willing to overlook a lot of the mistakes you are sure to make as a fallible human being. They live in a world of forgiveness, afterall.

Rest assured, that is not the case here. Please don't misunderstand. It's not that we all hate you and voted against you. While we are mostly political liberals, we have plenty of people among us who call themselves Republicans, Conservatives, Libertarians, Independents...some of whom I'm sure did vote for you and the dramatic change you represent. We're not a monoculture. But we are religious liberals, which means that we are bound together by a covenant to serve humanity in the here and now. Ours not a covenant about the afterlife, and it doesn't particularly emphasize forgiveness.

Covenants are important. Our constitution is based on the earliest covenants made by the pilgrims, articulated by Governor John Winthrop. Their agreement read, we

covenant and combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hearof to enacte, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most to meete and convenient for the general good of the colonie. (2)

Almost three and half centuries later, Lyndon B Johnson, a president known for his crudity, and limited by the paternalistic language of his time, elegantly said

They came here - the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened - to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written by liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish. The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of man. And that is today our goal. Thus, if as a nation there is much outside of our control, as a people no stranger is outside our hope. (3)

The other thing about Unitarian Universalists is that we question authority. We always question authority. I can guarantee you that every single thing I do gets questions by someone, somewhere, and I lead a little church of 165 adults in a tiny town in Northern Ohio where people know me personally and seem to like me. 
You don't have those advantages, because this church is nothing compared to the whole country.

And please, don't forget, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom to bear arms for one reason: so that churches, and the press, and people as individuals and as militia can keep an eye on the President, Congress and the Supreme Court in case any of you stop holding the others accountable.

We are a church that concerns itself with decency, a church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of your behavior and our own behavior. We have every intention of making history, not just being pushed around by it.

So here in this church, where we all - regardless of our political persuasion -- value the worth and dignity of every single person,
Where we value justice, equity and compassion in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Where we are committed to the democratic process
With a goal of peace, liberty and justice for all, including the animal kingdom and the planet itself,
We'll be watching you. We'll be holding you accountable, just as we hold each other and every single political leader accountable to the promises we make.

That's what it means to serve. Being held accountable to your fiduciary duty.

So before you do anything; before you even say anything; ask yourself these simple questions:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
And whom does it serve?

If it's untrue or unkind, or if your actions serve yourself over the people, and you go ahead and do it, I guarantee that it will come back to haunt you. Every. Single. Time. Just ask Bill Clinton.

There is so much more that I can say, but time prevents me from doing so. But I know that we both will be learning from your leadership, because I will be watching you. I owe that to the people I serve.

In Peace,
Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Unison Benediction

Now, please rise, if you are able, and open your hymnal to #560, a reading by Dorothy Day. Let's read it together. I'd like to ask you not to worry so much about saying it in perfect unison, but more about saying it with feeling, taking as much time as you need.

People say, what is the sense of our small effort.
They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.
A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread out in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like that.
No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. 
There's too much work to do.

Bond of Union -- Church Covenant (Rev Denis)

We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, which transcends all creeds, not to think alike but to walk/journey together.

(1) Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams, pg. 185 Skinner House Books, Boston, 2005.

(2) John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity," in The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, Perry Miller, ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1956), pp. 79-84.

(3) Lyndon B. Johnson, January 20, 1965 Presidential Inaugural Address, in Howard B. Furer, ed., Lyndon B. Johnson: Chronology-Documents-Bibliographical Aids (New York: Ocean Publications, 1971), pp. 92-95.

Event type
Worship Service