Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Gather us this hour as a people of hope,
in the face of adversity,
as a community of justice,
where we see inequity,
as a faith for healing,
in a world struggling between hardship and beauty.
Knowing the world is not yet what it could be,
teach us to not trip over the small wants and grievances,
when so many need us to be so much more than our smallest selves;
we need to be more than that.
Mother of Grace,
open our hearts where we are closed;
widen our vision where we have become short-sighted;
and open our mouths where silence has dominated our spirit.
For too often we have learned to be complicit where there is pain.
In the struggle of the long arc of the universe bending toward justice,
may we regain strength in the soul-saving work,
of living faithfully into our humanity,
and in love.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/7/16 looking at the negative sides of daily small desires.
[Begin by telling the story of the Rabbi and the Dream]
The wise Rabbi who received a vision of a treasure in a far off town, travels and learns that the treasure was in his own home all this time, but the journey was necessary for him to see what was right before him all along. It was probably true for the bridge-keeper he spoke with as well, but only the Rabbi was able to see it after all. Maybe the Rabbi still believed in possibility, and maybe the guard lost that part of himself. Hard to know.
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of desire. Later in the month we will look at the positive sides of desire: like love, or the search for justice, or just plain human connection. But today, I’d like to begin with the negative side of desire. When desire runs our lives – when the small wants take precedence over what truly matters – who do we become and how do we find ourselves once more? What’s the treasure hidden right before us that we have such a hard time seeing?
So let’s think about desire a bit. What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the train, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Star Wars…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving driver when you’re late for work. The iconic train passenger that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or the super slow moving driver, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.
Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life; a salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making.
It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world. And when we turn to face the true hardships of the world, we do so with a grounding based in spirit, and not in anxiousness.
There’s a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, where she offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.”
Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!
That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? When do we hide our light under a bushel in order to gain the approval of others?
I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going nowhere. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. Brian (my husband) once told me, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”
In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” I know I do. In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”
To return once more to Pema Chodron, she clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. Hers is a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.
None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise without losing ourselves in the process — regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.
As we heard from the poet Denise Levertov, “So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/3/16. It explores the role of resolutions in our lives during times of resistance.
I remember when I was about 8 years old. My mom used to regularly warn me about the dangers of electric sockets. I recall those little plastic inserts that filled unused power outlets throughout the house. She apparently believed 1 inch of plastic could hold back the rampant imagination of my third grade mind. Or possibly, it just served to ease her mind – she could at least say did the best she could. It was a rather good hearted, yet ultimately fruitless.
One Saturday afternoon, with a few friends in tow, I travelled into the bathroom and closed the door. Armed with curiosity, companionship and a set of metal tweezers, I had the brilliant notion that I wanted to see exactly what would happen. Why was it safe for the plastic to go inside, but not the metal? If these sockets really were so dangerous, they clearly wouldn’t be left all around the house with such a flimsy guard. Besides that other great electrical threat, the tongue-on-battery experiment, was in fact unpleasant, but hardly as bad as it was made out to be. I’d be fine.
Well, standing here now does kind of ruin the suspense of whether or not I lived through that pseudo-scientific experiment. In case it’s not clear; I made it. The tweezers gave me the biggest shock I’d ever felt; still to this day that’s true. (Don’t do it folks!) With triumph and pain, and gritted teeth, I knew for myself what my mom was trying to tell me all along. It is plain stupid to stick bare metal into electrical outlets.
For me, that’s the clearest example of doing half of what our fourth principle asks us to do. Our fourth principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth in meaning. The tweezer and socket search was meaningful and it was certainly free, but I can’t say that it was very responsible at all.
In what ways do we do this in our own religious lives? Do we ever search for something new while making sure to close the door behind us? Not seen, we think we’re safer. Or maybe it just shows how closed off we might make ourselves to something else as we search for the new. “I don’t need that Christianity or Judaism… that religion I grew up with….” The only thing I had going for me in that bathroom, was that I didn’t go in it alone. I brought my friends with me.
In this season of new resolutions, made and unmade, I’m reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Hobbes (the tiger) asks Calvin (the young boy), “Are you making any resolutions for the new year?” To which Calvin responds, “Yeah, I’m resolving to just wing it and see what happens.” Hobbes replies, “So you’re staying the course?” And Calvin affirms, “I stick to my strengths.”
In the spiritual quests we often return to again and again, there’s a certain commonality between the resolutions we make at the start of a new year, and the way we handle some spiritual endeavors. Do we close those doors behind us, throwing away what was once valuable for something new – maybe commit to the new with the same lack of dedication? Do we set unreasonable expectations on ourselves, or our past and live out that disappointment in the new year? Or do we stay the course, sticking to our strengths, as we wing it and see what happens? We’re free to search, but do we do it responsibly – unburdened by all the things we carry that make it so much harder?
I recall a long time atheist friend of mine from my college days. He did this sort of thing with his spiritual life. Frustrated with many difficulties after college, he managed a 180 degree turn leaving what was for him a healthy sense of atheism, to join a cult. Moving across the country, he shut the door; only his friends weren’t nearby making sure he didn’t get hurt. He needed answers and a change on his own terms, and he was certainly free to do that, but without the balance of responsibility, that way lies little promise. It certainly left little room for long time and close friends. Almost 20 years later, his loss still pains me.
I imagine some of us may have felt this way if we find ourselves now in a religious community that isn’t the same as the one we grew up in. There’s a time when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is safe, or sane, or saving. We’ve been told one thing. And now, for whatever reason, we need to see the world for ourselves, and the only way we can do it, is to challenge what we’ve been told. Are we going to get shocked, or are we going to be OK?
When I left Catholicism about 24 years ago over my Universalist heart – not able to believe that an all-loving God could condemn anyone to ever lasting pain and misery – I didn’t really know if I was right. I just had my reading of the bible that told me that God’s love is unconditional. Hell seemed to me to be one rather large condition. Am I going to get shocked later? Hard to tell really, but it doesn’t seem reasonable.
I’ve come to rely on this fourth principle here. I also have this covenant now to help me sort that out. It calls for a responsible search; and it reminds me that I need to be free to make it. How does a thing make sense? It needs to match what we encounter in the world; and we need to make sure we’re leaving space for a spiritual openness in our hearts. And most importantly, as is all of our principles, it is written as an action statement for the community. We covenant to affirm and promote… we don’t do this alone; even if it says it’s a free search.
I find that the search has to be a useful one. I don’t mean that all our searches have to be materially productive, or come out at the other end with a new way of looking at the world though.
There’s a poem in our hymnal by Marge Piercy that’s helpful here. I’ll just quote a part from it. She wrote, “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
Not all our searches, and some might argue none of them, will return permanent results or outcomes; but the ones that are really important or truly relevant, have a way of sustaining that is untied to the thing itself. Our mud worker’s dirty hands are clean at the end of her line, despite the dirt obvious to the eye.
That is the promise of this fourth principle. The quest, despite it’s rigors, leaves us clean at the end of the thing worth doing. When we submerge ourselves in the task at hand, or the quest for meaning in a world that too often we find it so difficult to find any meaning whatsoever, a transformation occurs. Mud becomes pottery, becomes empty vessel ready for content.
That’s the story of the Ox Cart Man we heard this morning as well. A year of meaningful work on the farm that fills up a cart pulled by an Ox. Not holding onto all the things that allow him to bring his wares to market beyond their use, the Ox and the Cart are sold along with the potatoes and goose feathers. When he returns home, he stitches a new harness for the next Ox, and cuts planks for the next cart. The focus for our farmer is the work at hand. His quest for sustenance involves travel, but always a return home year to year.
Things, like beliefs and opinions, are held onto so long as they serve the role they need to for the time at hand. There is no fear in his heart when he let’s go of a thing; even if his plan is to pick it up again later or craft a replacement in its stead. This lack of fear is an act of responsibility. It is true to life. When we’re making our resolutions for a new year, do we make them with purpose and intention, or do we make them with fear and guilt?
A thousand arguments could fly through the mind warning us of all the calamities that might befall our Ox Cart Man should he continue his long practice of selling all of his goods at the harvest market; but none of them would be real. They would be in our mind, and likely we might feel some investment in getting them inside his mind. But he remains true to his experience. All that he needs is available from the land before him, and the work of his hands. Why hold on tightly? Do our resolutions help us live into the next day, or do work more toward beating us down?
We do this with beliefs and religious views too. We often hold on tightly, beyond their use, or sometimes despite their use. Some of us might rail against something we’ve been taught. Because of the hurtful, or nagging, or patronizing things that have been said or taught. We run to our respective bathrooms; shut the door to the message and stick a piece of metal into the Spirit. Sometimes we’ll find those sockets are dead things, not to be feared. Sometimes we won’t. The fact of the free search is life saving. How we go about it though, might not always be.
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of resistance. Today, I’m thinking a lot about how looking at what we resist, teaches us what still holds power over us. For example, I’m not sure that when we rail against a belief we have actually let go of it. It might still hold dominion over us as we run through our lives doing most things as an act of defiance. We’ve not really gained freedom; we’ve just learned a new way to stay trapped. My once good friend who traded atheism for cult-hood may subscribe to a new set of beliefs; but I find it hard to imagine that the dis-ease he wrestled with before, doesn’t continue to manifest itself in new ways. I hope I’m wrong though in his case.
It’s a big part of why I advise our parents to tell their kids what they believe or don’t believe. I’m sometimes asked by UU parents, “My 8 year old came asking me what I believed, and I told them, that some people believe X and others believe Y. What else can I say? I don’t want to tell them what to believe.” I typically advise, to go back and tell them straight up what you believe. They’ll come to their own conclusions eventually, but if they’re asking you, there’s a reason they want to know what you think. Don’t leave the big questions unanswered. Our kids will grow into understanding deeper nuances later, but when they’re 8, they need a foundation to start from.
Maybe the role model for the responsible search, to look up to, is the Ox from our poem. He’s able to carry large burdens without complaint. The Ox has slow, plodding, deliberate steps that are just the right speed to plant seeds for the future; possibly to a time beyond the span of the Ox. How is knowledge like the seed planted by the helpful efforts of our Ox? As they relate to the living world, seeds grow for a purpose, not for themselves. They are planted, take time to grow, have a lifespan, transform and someday repeat the cycle. How responsible would the farmer be who wrestled with his seedlings? A very humorous image comes to mind for the farmer and seed that chose to role-play out my own history with my Christian heritage. (Insert imaginative hand gestures.) But the growing would have to happen after the weeds, hands and plants let themselves untangle.
In our search for truth and meaning, is knowledge about building structures or outcomes, or is it about connections of support we form in community? How do we have fun along the way? What do we carry with us, and where is our focus?
As we’re coming to the date of Epiphany in the Christian tradition this Wednesday, I think about that star the wise kings saw in the sky. Sometimes the responsible search is just about seeing that star for the first time. Coming close to the mystery and awe that is this ever-expanding universe. It’s where our fourth principle and our first source connect. Our living tradition we share draws from many sources, and the first among them is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces that create and uphold life. In some ways the free and responsible search for truth and meaning helps us to encounter this sense of wonder in new ways. I see this as the promise of the Questing Spirit. Unsettled with where we are, we set off to some distant stars to better learn our place in the universe. It is my prayer and my hope then when we see the beauty and awesomeness of some far away universe, that it touch something deep in all of us, and help us to see the same thing here, on this planet; right now. For we truly are of the same stuff. Every quest has the possibility to help us to find our way home. And as we make and unmake our resolutions another year older, may we do so in a such a way that we help find our way home.
This homily was preached at our 7pm Christmas Eve service. It wonders what it would be like to be the different people in the Manger Story – and what roles we may have played over our lifetimes. It asks the question, ‘is it time to go to Bethlehem again?’
Merry Christmas everyone! We’ve come to the still and quiet hour of the year once more. The longest night has passed only a short time ago. The light is lengthening our days. We call for peace from our hearts. We gather around our tree, with sparkling light in the air, and music on our lips, waiting for a child to be born – once again – in our minds and souls – a child – a hope – for this troubled world.
We come together in community. Kindling just a little more wonder in our lives. We sing carols that bring us back to our childhood. We teach our children how to sing joy into our neighborhoods and our homes. Expectation becomes a virtue in this season of miracles. Grace can enter our lives at any time. We wait with hushed voices, or a smile on our lips. May good will prevail. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with us – again and again.
Where do you find yourself in the manger story? As a child, I remember being fascinated most with the baby. That’s who I could relate to. Wonder, newness, possibility, were all central to the story. Being cared for and loved; recognizing that others were in awe of something – all seemed to matter most. Maybe you can relate better to Mary. Being in a time of need, tired from a pregnancy and having to manage that, while on the road, or working more than anyone ought. Or maybe Joseph; not really in control of the situation, but doing your best for the people you love. Life has thrown you a few curves, and you just want a place to sleep, and safety for your loved ones.
The Wise men, the shepherds and even the animals sometimes speak more to me in some years. Sometimes we can feel like we’re bearing witness to some deep place of awe or wonder, while it seems like all the rest of the world is passing it by, never the wiser. The animal in the stable – not central to any story – doesn’t think all this revolves around them – but who stands in the presence of a certain kind of fullness – a fullness that we too often miss. The common shepherd, arriving alongside the Eastern Kings, take note just the same.
I have been struck this season once again by the story of the road to Bethlehem. Of two expectant parents traveling to be registered (in this case for tax purposes). A King who fears them though, for the son they will bring into his land. Door after door closed to them in their time of need, until the lowliest of places – a manger – becomes their sanctuary at the time when one is most vulnerable. Refugees of a sort – in need – in a land where they have no place to call home any longer – and a government that is hostile to their presence, and a populace that is all too often indifferent to their need. The Bible’s message is alive and real, still today. It continues to speak to us across the millennia.
The May Sarton poem we heard earlier, “Must We Go”, wonders if the road to Bethlehem is one we must walk once more. Did it happen only in the past, or is it a pressing need for us today? When we’re feeling worn out from the harshness of the world’s woes – ever present, but seeming worse and worse of late – the road to Bethlehem can feel just too much. …And maybe it is too much. Who would ask expectant parents to bear such a hard path? But the road to Bethlehem ends in wonder, in quiet, in mystery, in hope. Not an ending we might imagine for a desert path, but the ending we are graced with. It also teaches us that our own lessons of hope should change us; from places of hope and expectant wonder, we should turn our hearts to help birth that newness ourselves in our own lives, for the people all around us.
The birth of Christ asks us to change something in our hearts when we face those in need; those who are different; the stranger in our midst asking for a roof over their heads and a chance at a new life. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s such a hard thing to ask for, that the world seems like it’s conspiring against it. But it’s the first lesson Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph tried to teach us. It’s central to the Christmas story – the reason for the season. So we should hush our voices, still our busyness, and allow another miracle into our lives – the miracle of offering welcome to those in their hardest hours.
Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.”When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story?
This year, Christmas reminds us to extend a hand, again and again. To welcome the stranger in need, for there is a miracle hiding there in plain sight. The story is not only about some foreign place, a world away and millennia past. It is as alive, and just as pressing for the people of today. In our nation’s life, we are facing many crossroads, and the urge to be the innkeeper who decides if there is room for one more is very strong in our culture. We can choose to be a people of that culture, or we can choose to be a wise people of faith; faith in each other, faith in the stranger, faith in a different way. A way that was shown to us with the rising of a bright star; born in humility, but lived with passion and grace.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather in this bright mid-winter,
grateful for the blessings we have been graced with.
Help us to center ourselves this hour with our whole soul;
May the spirit of this time bring us to a place of rest,
where rest is hard to find;
and help us to find a place of action,
where inspiration has dwindled.
We come together as a community,
to inspire one another for the ministry of hope,
Mother of Peace, take us by the hand,
and lead us as we travel through our days and years.
May we be a beacon of compassion in a world that is so full of struggle.
As another year comes to a close,
may we reflect on the lessons that have come our way,
change the things we must,
and appreciate all that is good in our lives.
This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.
For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.
The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.
This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)
Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.
I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/23/15 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service. Lessons from service work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, this sermon explores the importance of solidarity work over charity.
A few years ago I joined over 150 other religious educators for a week of service and learning in New Orleans during our annual liberal religious educators’ Fall conference. We broke up into groups of 15 or 20 to spend a day working in the fields, gardening, weeding, sorting books for kids who have few or none, among many other projects. We spent days in classes on music, local culture, personal stories. We explored angles of racism and classism. We learned how youth and adults collaborated in New Orleans to affect change following Hurricane Katrina. We witnessed how individuals from all financial backgrounds worked together to heal the corners of the blocks in which they dwelled. We went down primarily to serve, to help make things better down there; and we came away realizing “down there” had a lot to offer us to help out “back home.”
Blurring the lines between down there, and back home, was a main goal of the planning team for the annual conference. They were challenging us. They were asking us not to feel hearts full of charity, overflowing; but rather to experience solidarity at our core with the struggles of our fellow neighbors on this spinning orb we call home. The communities in New Orleans were asking us to come down and lend a hand, and in return, they’d show us their ways of making things better so that we could bring home the tools they’ve crafted, sharpened to excellence, and put to good use. We can serve with them, and in return, they’ll serve with us.
This ethic is central to Unitarian Universalist theology. I can recall the words of a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, previous Senior Minister of All Souls in NYC, who was known to teach that “we spring from a common source (Unitarianism) and that we share a common destiny (Universalism) and that both source and destiny are grounded in love.” I love that message. It feels very simple to say that we all spring from this living world, and we all share this road, this walk together. But it’s just as easy to forget this truth in our daily lives.
It’s just as easy to say we’re somehow better, or somehow above, the plight of others. It’s easy to come into a place of struggle and feel superior in our charity. It’s easy to impart our wisdom to a friend or family member who can’t seem to get their dating life, or their career, or their educational path together. Ok – with a show of hands, who here has ever given advice to a friend about how poorly they were managing their dating, or work, or school life? Now keep those hands up, if you weren’t able to follow your own advice. (mmm hmmm!)
We can laugh at ourselves (hopefully) for these foibles and everyday follies. But those are the little ways every day we commit acts of charity that lift ourselves up, without opening ourselves to the learning potential of mutuality, or solidarity. They’re some of the tricks we use to forget that we all spring from one common source and share one common destiny. Acts of solidarity, the moments we seek to serve while learning from those we aid, remind us of the truth of our origins and the nature and direction of our shared path. They humble us, and in our humility we come to realize how amazing this gift of life truly is. The big acts of service, whether they involve traveling across this country to help heal our collective brokenness, or simply staying overnight in our Sunday evening shelter, needs to transform the little every day brokenness in our own lives, or we missed half the point and the wholeness of the message.
One of the lessons we learned in New Orleans, is that the community couldn’t do it alone. Individuals needed to work together. Non-profits, and congregations needed to work together. Congregational walls needed to open up to let more in and create collaborative opportunities. How much of that do we do locally? Do we work well with our fellow congregations in Long Island? Where do we intersect with community groups in our neighborhood? In some ways we excel. Our work with HIHI (the Huntington Interfaith Housing Initiative) is a remarkable ministry that helps save lives in the winter time. Our Grow-to-Give garden connects young and old in a ministry that helps bring healthy food to those in need in such a way that neighbors learn from one another. But we have a good deal to learn from our Louisiana neighbors in terms of connecting with community groups across theological and social divides when it comes to advocacy work.
Following the service today, is a chance to gather in two ways, with justice in our minds. HIHI will be hosting a volunteer training in our Main Hall at Noon, and Peggy Boyd, the Director of HIHI from Family Services League, will be attending. Our newly forming Environmental Justice committee will be convening for a brainstorming and visioning session in …. at 12 noon as well. It will be an opportunity to learn what issues most stir your heart relating to environmental concerns like the Climate, the safety of our wildlife populations, access to food, ethical eating, Green Sanctuary and more. This new group will help steer our future work. Please consider being a part of its birth.
Solidarity, unlike charity, demands we seek personal transformation. In the words from some of his seminal work, cultural ethicist, Michael Jackson writes, “As I, turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat this wind is blowin’ my mind I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs… I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways and no message could have been any clearer if you wanna make the world a better place…”. The metaphor of the mirror is the clearest symbol of what solidarity demands of us; and what solidarity offers us. We’re not going find more food for kids in the street if we don’t look to our own ways, attitudes, and perceptions first and foremost.
In this spirit of looking first to ourselves, the only people we can ever truly change, let’s reflect a little on our Hunger Communion this morning. I invite you to sit-up, feel yourselves in your body, open your hearts to the emotions that played across your mind during the communion portion of the service this morning. For those of you that had ample access to a nice loaf of bread, how did it feel to see the ample remainder upon the altar? Where did you feel pressure in your body when you turned to see most of the congregation struggling to share bits and scraps? For those of you receiving the opposite extreme, the absurdity of 100 of you sharing 1/3 a loaf of bread, where did the experience sit in your body? What arose in you when you saw someone else’s ample surplus sit upon our chancel? For those of you sitting somewhere in the middle, I challenge you not to make the mistake that the middle ground reflects the situation of the middle-class in the States. The vast majority of us in this room benefit as did the folks in the first three rows this morning. Even if we are relying upon food stamps, we have greater access to nourishment than most of our neighbors on this planet do. (And if you or your family are hungry this morning, come up to me after the service, and we’ll work together to change that. Many of us in the States and this city do go hungry every day.)
Knowing this, feeling this, experiencing this, what do we find in the mirror this morning? How does this annual ritual translate for us? From the safety and danger of this pulpit, I can not answer this question for any of you. We all need to come to that answer internally, but our religious community is a vessel for you to put those answers to practice. This religious home is a place of safety, of succor, where you can risk the glance into the mirror and take the first transformative steps. It’s what we’re all called to do here.
It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge before us. Helping one person out there, in a charitable way, is a concrete thing we can accomplish so we’re often, though regretfully not always, willing to do it. The Guests at Our Table invitations signify several hundred concrete steps this congregation takes each year to affect noticeable change in the lives of people they touch. Escorting those boxes down to our religious education classes and introducing the plight of others into the awareness of our children and youth are another hundred or so concrete steps we take every year. Food is the focus of this morning’s Communion, but access to clothing, and shelter, and even moments of celebration for young children, are all interwoven in the broader fabric of poverty. Each thread connects to another. Our annual holiday drives that focus on clothing, toys, gloves and food; our split the plates, our work building libraries in Burundi expand the list. Money, and time, and concern are necessary to affect moments of reprieve, and occasional nudges against systems of oppression the world over. And we as a religious community must do them, because I often fear I’m not sure who else would if ethical gatherings of individuals ceased this work. And yet, they’re not enough alone. Charity is not enough even if it is a necessary point of entry for many of us.
We ritualize the Hunger Communion to transform our hearts and spirits. The internal awareness and the internal transformation are great gifts of solidarity to end the crisis of Hunger. Some of us change our eating habits to reduce our impact. For some this will mean vegetarianism or veganism – both diets that reduce reliance upon grain-intensive livestock. For others it will mean supporting Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) in our area, to reduce environmental impacts while funding local farmers who quite often donate surplus to those in need in our local community. For some, it will mean supporting Community Gardens that teach folks how to grow food, the value of nutrition, and increase access to fresh foods.
And the list can go on and on. I invite you, no I challenge you. If something was stirred in you this morning, seek the ways in which you can affect the change in the world you hope to some day find. Begin with yourself. Begin with the everyday habits. Transformation of this world beneath the glow of justice is possible and it begins at home. It is an act of solidarity over charity. This is the saving message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. I will end my message this morning with the words we weekly begin our service with – the saving message of this faith. There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for forgetting our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world. It is my hope and my prayer this morning, that our service of Communion reminds us of the truth of our interconnectedness. And that this truth stirs within our blood such compassion that we are quickened to act.