This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/28/18 for our annual All Souls service. It reflects on our theological response to the refugee caravan traveling north from Honduras, and the threats against Transgender folk in the US.
Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.
Telling our stories is a powerful form of ministry with one another. And the stories we tell matter. It’s one of the reasons at our memorial services, we put such a focus on the community sharing their memories of the deceased. Their legacy and their love continue on in the impacts they made while they were alive. Storytelling is honoring that life. Even the painful stories are important to share; there is a healing in the telling, and there is an ethical component as well. Sharing our struggle is a way to foster compassion, and compassion builds community. In traditional Universalist theology, all souls are saved. And on this day, we remember who came before, but we also remember that we are part of that beloved community of all souls; that allsouls are part of our community.
Remembering this fundamental sanctity of life; that our theology affirms the inherent worth of people, I’m going to tell three short stories about our world today. I’ll ask you to keep in mind this essential theology of Universalism affirming all souls. Before I begin though, I offer these words from Joanna Macy as a frame (she’s is an environmental activist, author, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.) “Thus do we realize ever again that the simple eloquenceof telling the truth liberates us to find insight,solidarity, and courage to act, despite rapidly-worseningconditions. When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation, but—on the contrary—in the letting go of old defenses, truer community is found. In the synergy of sharing comes power. In community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.”
My first story. All Souls, and this time of year is associated with Hurricane Sandy for me. This part of the world was hit rather hard. Some of us in our Fellowship lost their home. Neighborhoods in the wider area were destroyed. The recovery took well over 2 years in some parts. I remember at the time, I was living in Manhattan, in Stuyvesant Town. They were 12 story towers for middle income folk, stretching for at least 6 city blocks, and 4 avenues. The week of Sandy, had been both emotionally exhausting and incredibly fortunate for my home. Being in what NYC called zone B, we were not asked to evacuate ahead of time, so we hunkered down, stored up supplies, froze extra water in zip lock bags just in case, and prepared for a night of computer games and a good book.
We lived two blocks from the Con Edison station that had a transformer blow. I personally missed the great flash of white light that lit the sky – I was busy staring at my computer shutting down.
The East River, typically 2.5 avenues away (or the one half mile from our front door) in Stuyvesant Town where we lived, became our neighbor for a night and part of a morning. It landed on a Monday. Although the East River receded by the next day, the streets were wet through that Thursday. The power was out, hot water was gone, and running water came and went for up to twelve hours at a time. Some of our neighbors were out of gas, but we were fortunate. Our building did not suffer that level of damage. The next one over did.
Over the next few days, we would climb down the ten flights of stairs with our flashlights to grab some bread from bodegas that were getting rid of the last of their supplies before they went bad – and we were very grateful that no one was price gouging their goods. More food wasn’t coming in yet.
Many eight story stall trees were dead on the grown. Twelve foot lengths of pier, giant rivets and all, were as far in as Ave C – leaving wreckage to the cars they rested upon, amidst other cars literally tossed about by the East River.
Traffic in Manhattan, usually a bitter affair, was pedestrian friendly, almost devoid of any honking horns, and civil in a way I could never imagine.
In our community, neighbors and resident staff were taking turns visiting each of the 30,000+ homes without power to make sure folks were alright. Letters were circulated asking us to check on our neighbors who were elders – who had no hope of climbing down, let along up, ten flights of stairs. We were a community of all souls that week.
One café brought out a generator to the street, and set up a power strip so that strangers could recharge their cell phones and laptops. This may seem small, but when you have no ability to tell anyone that you’re fine – this was a great act of charity and relief. For those that follow me on social media, you know how prolific I am. When we finally had access to power and a signal, my Facebook wall was inundated with friends, congregants and colleagues asking if we were alright; folks knew how close we were to the worst, and not everyone lived through that Hurricane. In the US alone, 106 people died. When we finally had cell coverage again on Wednesday, I was heartened to hear of the stories of outreach and support organized by the congregation in Brooklyn I was serving at the time. I know our own Fellowship here made sure to take care of one another as well. I felt cared for knowing others were taking care of one another, even though I couldn’t be reached yet.
We finally did evacuate on Thursday to the magical land of “Park Slope” which was high, dry and heavily caffeinated. We felt very blessed. We are were lucky to be able to return home by Sunday afternoon.
That hurricane was serious, destroying so much; though in comparison, we were fine. And I still remember it this time of year, every year. And for those among us who lost our homes, it’s left an indelible imprint upon our psyche. The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis, is the spiritual and human response to tragedy. It’s healthy; it’s normal; and it defines civilization. That is what we should do; that is who we should be; and that should be our marker for decency. As Joanna Macy said, “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.”
If that one storm was so significant, that congregations around this area would remember in our pastoral prayers or our sermons, annually going on five and six years now, let’s extend that truth to even more serious moments of crisis and tragedy. What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse?
Here is my second story. It’s about the refugee caravan heading north from Honduras; a caravan also of all souls. Again I ask, what level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse? Just this week, our UU Service Committee “in partnership with SHARE El Salvador and in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy, participated in a delegation to Honduras to bear witness to social and political dynamics that have contributed to civil unrest within Honduras as well as a mass exodus of civilians from the country. This delegation heard numerous testimonies of government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.”If you want to learn more about the causes, and what can be done, you can head to our Facebook page, or directly to UUSC.org for the full report and actions that can be done.
There’s far too much political rhetoric being irresponsibly thrown around – particularly the lie that there are terrorists and gang members amidst the refugees. It’s another racist dog whistle, plain and simple. All reporting, on the ground, indicates this is a blatant lie. The Washington Post had an article the other day detailing what Mexicans are doing as the refugees travel north. It reminded me of how New Yorkers came together after the Hurricane. “The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. “These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.” To me, that’s the basic level of compassion one should at least extend people fleeing from “government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.” That’s the basic level; not play pretend they are actually terrorists. And both US law and International law are clear – refugees can seek asylum at our borders. These are refugees; they are doing nothing illegal.
It is a malicious theology that seeks to carve up the beloved community of all souls – between us and them, with the “us” forever shrinking and shrinking till it looks more like “me” than any “us” that ever were. “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.” (Joanna Macy.)
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”I want to turn toward some words my colleague, Rev Jake Morrill recently blogged. Here they are: “Years ago, the literary theorist Elaine Scarry wrote a book called “On Beauty and Being Just.” She says beauty is that which awakens in us a longing for creation and fulfillment. She says that, when we fall in love with beauty, we want to share it. And—whether it’s a painting or a person or a culture or a region of land—when we fall in love with it, we want to defend it. She says we’ll fight to preserve it. And what we seek, in the name of beauty, is justice.
A friend of mine says that the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we’re at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
Thank you Rev. Morrill for that gorgeous re-centering during these difficult times. Falling in love with one another, loving the beauty in one another, and bearing witness to the other. Being seen for who we are, as we are, is the next step in learning to love one another enough to defend and protect and nurture our neighbor, whether it’s a storm of the natural world, or a storm of the political world – we can respond with beauty to lift us all up.
I’ll come to a close with my third story. This week we learned that the President is seeking to change the definitions of gender, to remove it as a protected legal status as a linguistic gambit to erase Transgender and Non-Binary people from sight. You can well and easily imagine the repercussions to rights, and to safety that will come of this deeply cynical move. Calls to the National Transgender Hotline doubled this week in light of this news. It’s another way to carve out who gets seen in the caravan of all souls, and our faith teaches us otherwise. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines gender identity as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” That’s not complicated to express or really to understand. And there are many people that need us to understand; to see them as they are, and to learn to love their beauty enough that we care to defend them and nurture them. In the end, this cynical move sounds to me like another way that our current administration has something in common with Honduras, namely, “the dehumanization of large groups of people.” What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to the dehumanization of large groups of people? What stories will we learn to hear? What lives will we hold close to our hearts to live on in us; carrying their humanity unto our humanity? Dehumanization leads to pipe bombs being sent to your political opponents and journalists; dehumanization leads to gunman storming our synagogues on shabbat.
The author Neil Gaiman says that, “A book is a dream in your hands.” Well, a book, or the stories of our lives, held in beauty in our hands, are each the dreams of another life and that is a holy thing to hold. May we hold one another, our dreams, and our suffering, religiously in care.
Rev. Jake Morrill
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/21/18 and looks at the perversion of the Christian message in contemporary America.
When I was in seminary, I lived next door to Riverside Church, the great Protestant Catherdral of America. It was on the corner of Columbia University and Harlem. One year, the Dalai Lama was touring the US and was stopping to speak at Riverside church. Many of us seminarians were invited into the worship service. For weeks we prepped art supplies for this gorgeous service. The Dalai Lama was preaching on interfaith solidarity and compassion. And we were crafting the large and long giant fishes – in designs and styles from every world religion. For you see, the fish is an image that is almost universally sacred to every world faith in some way. The service began with drumming, and dozens and dozens of us marching in with those giant fish on long poles with streamers behind – swimming into and through the giant catherdal. Ritually, we were trying to describe that that which is universal in faith, is essential to faith. What we all have in common, is what is central to the spirit. That which is universal is essential.Remember that image, and we’ll come back to it soon.
“And the people bowed and prayed. To the neon god they made. And the sign flashed out its warning. In the words that it was forming. And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. And tenement halls.” (Paul Simon)
I’m a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Neon was synonymous with excitement; it was also a good stand-in for vice, excess, danger. Sometimes it meant greed. I remember the first time I went to Las Vegas for a work conference, back when I was still in Info Tech, there was a point when I was strolling around that I had to leave one of the major street intersections; the neon and flashing lights were so much more extreme than even Times Square, my vision couldn’t handle all the dazzle, and I was worried I was going to pass out. Now that Times Square is all giant LED screens, I’m not sure if the generations after me will see “Neon” that way. It might just come across as “cheap,” in the sense of the cheaper alternative to LED. But for “The Sound of Silence” and Simon and Garfunkle, and for this kid of the 70s and 80s, the man-made gods were Neon.
“The Sound of Silence” is the modern retelling of the Golden Calf story; where gold was melted into a false god that was worshipped. The commandments were tossed aside, And the people bowed and prayed… The oldest stories are new again, and again. And the prophets of old, and the prophets of today, are found in the margins, among the underserved; the carpenters, the orphans, the graffiti artists, and in public housing. They probably won’t have flashy signs drawing attention to them; the bright lights often are trying to dazzle us to look the other way – away from the prophets that are forging a new, and healthier path.
Religion is often divided, and despite all the interfaith work of recent decades, it continues to be a tremendous source for divisiveness. It’s that fact, that pushes so many spiritual people away from organized religion. Add to that, the very reality of golden calves, and neon gods, there is a real threat we need to come to account with, and figure out how to manage – as religious people. I’ll begin with my own home, and move out from there. Today we will look at the painful tension, or the disconnect between our expressed values, and how our national religious and civic actions often play out. The mixed messages between what we say and what we do; what we believe and how we practice.
My household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on, that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as a too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianity doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He legitimately sees the bad, and the stark, and has had enough. And I see all that stuff too, and I react differently; I say that’s not real Christianity. Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. I’ll remind us again, that Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s. …Neon gods….
“And in the naked light I saw. Ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dared. Disturb the sound of silence.”(Paul Simon)
I want to look back to the beginning of Christian teachings, and we’ll move our way forward to the events of this past week; I’m especially horrified over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government. Aside from the nightmare, that is our current administration’s unwillingness to do anything about an American Permenant Resident, and a journalist with the Washington Post, being murdered on foreign soil, we have also heard from Christian evangelists doubling now as murder apologists. Pat Robertson, the prominent televangelist, to paraphrase, ‘said that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing our alliance with Saudi Arabia over one life; it wasn’t worth billions of dollars, over one life.’ If you haven’t read about the details, I will not traumatize anyone now. And all the pundits are busy talking without speaking, as they try to spin this other than what it clearly is. I’ll leave it to you to read more about it if you so feel called. But today, we’ll try to sort out how we’ve gotten to the point where such a perverse perspective could be considered Christian. And maybe along the way, for those of us who are scarred by false religiosity, we might find a way back to reclaiming religion for ourselves. I’m increasingly believing that religious people have this internal work to do. For many of us, we’ve allowed American cultural Christianity to be understood as realChristianity. American cultural Christianity is a neon god; that’s all, and that’s dangerous.
It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite is leading us toward neon gods.
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare. And we remember, That which is universal is essential.Every world faith shares those five basic teachings of Jesus; that which is essential can notbe called class warfare.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found – that community should transcend ego. That we are better together, than apart. That the kingdom of heaven is found in our midst – and Jesus meant – inall our midst.Bowing to our ego, bowing to neon gods is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. And as the…People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening… continue on, whole swaths of us are fed false teachings of scarcity, of fearing the stranger, of hating our neighbor. We can do better; we are graced with the original blessing of life, and that is magnificant. We can be magnificent to one another. It is our work, all our work, to undo the false teachings of scarcity, of fear, of hate. That’s the religious call. Shatter the golden calf, turn toward the graffiti artists, and tenement halls, and hear the needs of the people, all the people.
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. As the powers and principalities would see us unnervered, distraught, in despair, and disorganized – I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? I’ve asked this before, and I’ll ask us again, would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. This feels like a central part of our collective life here, and we should be proud of what we do. Who are our leaders in this work here – raise your hand. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 15 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming upon us, there are opportunities to still volunteer. Joan P. and Mary S. are leads in this effort and it does take all of us. If you are one of our monthly managers, raise your hand – If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. We have a vibrant Pastoral Care team that helps me in visiting those who are sick, and helping along the way. Will our pastoral care associates who are present please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. I think where we most closely succeed here is our work starting the Rapid Response Network in this part of Long Island, where folks accompany detained immigrants going to court; to strive to witness what they face, and to help honor their humanity during a difficult time in their life – a time that our nation makes unnecessarily difficult. If you would like to join in that work – reach out to our Social Justice committee, and they can connect you. Who here is involved with the Rapid Response Network, please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In the push and pull of the mixed messages of consumerism versus spirituality, we get to choose to what we will bow our heads and pray. And in these days of increasing bends toward the harsh realities of fascism, do not allow yourself to succumb to feeling powerless. Remember that that which is universal is essential.Stay true to the common sense spiritual teachings we all know to be true. Do not believe the lie that compassion is on the fringe, and fear and scarcity are in the center. Progressive faith, diverse faith, compassionate faith, is essential and true. Let us diligently lead by relentlessly fostering the ties and connections we can that are before us, and find strength, and find power, in that solidarity.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/7/18. It responds to the pain around this week’s news, especially in relation to the Supreme Court hearings, and sexual violence.
For those of you who follow me on social media, you already know that I was contemplating replacing this week’s message with 20 minutes of yelling the rage I’ve felt from this week’s news. As disappointing as that may be for some of us, (me not actually doing that,) I know it would just scare our babies, and the last thing this world needs is another angry white man making loud noises.
But I do have a ministerial responsibility here; wehave an institutional responsibility here – in the face of the psychic harm so many of us who have endured sexual violence – those who have endured, were forced to manage all over again these past two weeks. There are many calls to action that are easy to find, but today, I’m going to try my best to help us form a stronger grounding in our faithful tradition. To sort out where we come from, and to nourish the parts of us that need to find our center again. And for those that are called to act, that we offer some food for the work ahead, and our broken hearts.
The direction of this sermon will be different than originally posted, but we can’t ignore the world around us. And we will still find our way to the posted metaphor of Growth Rings.
I want to begin with Jewish Scripture, 1 Kings 19:11-12. The prophet Elijah has fled out to the wilderness. The people have broken their covenant, the other prophets have been put to the sword. And then the prophet Elijah hears the Word of the Lord. I grew up reading this not as a booming voice, but that small still voice. “11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”The section goes on to hear the Lord’s message to Elijah to anoint new leadership. From the silence, that still small voice, there came the new beginnings that would change the fate of Elijah’s people.
Think about Elijah’s mental state right there. He’s seen his people break their promises; kill his friends and fellow spiritual and ethical leaders and he comes to the place of God – and witnesses a tremendous wind that could ruin mountains – but God was not in the destructive winds. Then an earthquake, but God was not found in that threat of ruin. And if this chaos was not enough, a fire, but God was not the fire.
When we witness week’s like this week; week’s where there is moral failure in our leaders, when truth is put to the sword, and our government agencies are wielded like fire, and quakes, and institution shaking winds – we need to remember – in week’s like this, that God (and conscience), is not in these destructive forces, but in the sheer silencethat fills the aftermath. From that moment of silence, comes the still small voice that calls us to action. Our collective conscience can not be heard while the whirlwind drones on, but we must center ourselves in that conscience.
And for those in our room today, who are survivors of sexual assault, be especially gentle with yourselves right now. We know the whirlwind in our government is retraumatizing. But know that God is not in that whirlwind. God is not in that whirlwind. As helpless as we sometimes feel in the face of it all, scriptures tells us that after we witness the whirlwind, the voice that speaks from the silence shows us the way to anoint a new world and new leadership. This isn’t an empty hope, but a bedrock for sustenance when all seems turned upside down.
This week will leave its mark…. You know how trees have those growth rings showing their age. Those rings also are a map for what happened in the world around them. The rings show the impacts of drought, or fire, or insect plagues, and so on. The stories we tell, or not tell; the inner places of our hearts and minds, are our human sort of growth rings. The raw places of our spirits, show the markers of another kind of cultural drought or plague. If we were to look at a cross section of our spirit, we could map out the world around us. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As a new growth ring forms in our lives, we do not yet know how we’ll understand it a generation later, even if it seems like all we could focus on in our world at the time. That map can only be understood backwards, not forwards….
Earlier this week I got asked, “what’s my plan.” The “plan” in the big sense of life. And I thought for a few seconds and basically said, “I don’t really do plans anymore; they just tempt life to laugh at me.” Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them?
This morning’s story focused on the parable of the terrified squirrel; a squirrel with a plan. The plan would address all the fears and horrors of the world, should he ever be forced to actually face them. Silly things like green martians and sharks in the woods, to falling out of a tree. Falling out of the tree can be a very serious risk, especially if my dog is sitting under the tree when the squirrel falls. That would be serious enough to leave a new metaphorical growth ring on that squirrel’s psyche. (For what it’s worth, that fear seems to be a weekly occurrence in my backyard. So not all of Scaredy Squirrel’s fears were unfounded.)
Now that cute kids’ story, was about how our best laid plans don’t always work. But it was also about not living one’s life forward. When the Unknown is a threat to avoid, we hunker down into our singular trees. And when he moved into the unknown, he learned something new about who he was and what he could do.
Do you remember when you last had a plan? Do you still make them? Maybe where life deviated from our best laid plans, we can see those markers in our spiritual growth rings, when we look back, even if we can’t understand it at the time. I find that spiritually sustaining in times of chaos. Get a good night’s rest, stay hydrated, in times of chaos, and know that even if the thing will still be horrible in the morning, we may understand it differently down the line. Maybe the horrible thing, like in the silly kids’ story, will teach us that we’re able to fly after all. I know I’ve had that lesson in life, more than one time. Or in the case of the Prophet, knowing that God was not found in the destructive forces before him, but in the witness, in his conscience, in the path forward. It doesn’t make anything that happened any less horrible, but we understand our story differently looking back; even as we live forward. And another growth ring is formed.
How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong? We all had plans; and maybe some of us still do.
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script, there’s no plan that will 100% survive the real world. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore. Each one of those events, when we look back, is another marker of where we’ve been, and who we become. They never leave us, even if we’re a new person along the way.
I love Joan Didion’s words from our reading earlier, especially one part that stood out for me: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”. Some of our earliest Unitarian theology, by the minister William Ellery Channing, in the early 1800s, spoke of a salvation by character.He had the notion that it was our primary work to develop and nurture our character throughout our life; that God’s salvation would be found through that work. And that society would benefit from that personal progress. It was still a communal outcome that he sought, but he would translate the Puritan work ethic into a theological spiritual formation of the individual.
I put Channing and Didion’s words into conversation with one another intentionally. She is reminding us that despite however much we may believe the person we are today – our pains, our joys, our annoying habits – is the person we actually are, she is reminding us that in a generation or two, we won’t even recognize that person we are so very attached to today. If Channing’s call is of worth, that formation of character is a saving grace, then Didion’s very practical human wisdom, is drawing a clear picture for us. Our hearts, our minds, our egos, our spirits – they all change and form and grow and recess, over time. For most of us, if we allow ourselves to be in formation, we won’t be the same people we once were. Hopefully, that’s for the better. Like Joan Didion said, I know I was a very annoying 19 year old – and I was sure of who I thought I was back then. As another growth ring, and another form, our spirits form more fully, along with our character – even and especially if we no longer recognize who we once were.
I gave two common plans earlier. But maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic plan. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of plans. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those plans thinking they’ll have answers….
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? To look at our own growth rings, and to know that we are who we are today from it all. When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
This heretical statement I’m about to make, is probably especially true this week, in light of the world we have endured. People don’t come here to be happy.Our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. We’re here to hold context, to offer a theological grounding for understanding the world, and to sustain us when our hearts have broken open with good and meaningful words.
Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today. Listen for the sheer silencethat precedes the still small voice. For it will surely tell us a new way. And another growth ring forms.
I’m close with the words of Teresa Honey Youngblood we heard earlier in the service.“And yet, we carry a constancy: the still, quiet voice within that knows the difference between the window dressing and the big, wide, beautiful world beyond the window. We feed this wise little voice with prayer: breath, song, service, bare feet walking circles on the ground, slow-cooked soup, gentle gazes held when words fail.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/23/18. It looks at the meaning of Sukkot in our times of long periods of change and adversity.
Happy Autumn All! Where I grew up, we didn’t have a lot of birds in my neighborhood, so I’m a bit slow on the uptake, with all the new-to-me flying critters we’re coming to know out here in Huntington (even after over 5 years and counting.) And since we’ve planted more trees back on Earth Day, Cyprus and Birch, even more of a variety have been showing up this year. I’m slowly starting to see the patterns of which birds nest in our little corner, of the earth, each part of the year. Robins and Blue Jays, then the mockingbirds, then the orioles and goldfinches. And as it cools down, the blue jays return and duke it out with the squirrels, and at some point there’s a starling swarm that sounds like an alien invasion to my ear – that honestly terrified me the first time I heard it a few years back. The woodpeckers seem to know how to pace themselves though. Nature’s littlest migrants, finding shelter along the way – some they build for themselves, some left by other birds who have moved on, and some- these strange humans – provide. Some instinct calls them on, to warmer weather, and better days, to return someday along with the spring’s fullness. It can’t be all that easy, picking up and moving all the time.
This year Sunday also falls on the start of the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot. It’s an ancient harvest festival, where Jewish Pilgrims, back in the days of the temple, would return to the temple. It also hearkens back to the 40 years of wandering in the desert after freedom from Egypt. For Sukkot, there’s a practice of building small makeshift, temporary shelters, called Sukkuhs.
Back in my seminary days, my school, Union Theological, would collaborate with Jewish Theological seminary, which was training people to be rabbis and cantors. JTS was across the street from us – on the other side of Broadway and 122nd. (As it happens, on the other corner is the Manhattan School of Music, where our Music Director, Jie, studies for his doctorate.) A lot of the Union and Jewish Theological students took classes together, and folks swapped back and forth to attend certain faculty classes. But Union had one of the only (and I think theonly) internal garden courtyard in the city – that was surrounded on four sides and open to the elements. It was a perfect place to honor Sukkot while in the midst of the city that never sleeps. Students and faculty from both schools would build a sukkah large enough for 50 or so of us to worship under for our daily mid-day services.
The services would honor the transitional time of year; they would recognize our places of fullness, and they would remember how we were all lost and wandering in the desert in our religious past, and probably at some point in our own personal pasts. The religious story, is all our stories.
The word sukkah, refers to both the temporary shelters workers in the fields would use during the harvest season to remain out in the fields rather than make any long travels back home, in between days of working the harvest. It also referred back to the temporary shelters used in the Exodus story; some protective cover always had to be built, as a whole nation was traveling to a new land. On the long road of life, we find hardship and shelter in unexpected places. And as hard as it was in this ultimate story of perseverance, there was always a way to find a shelter along the way; even if you had to build it – with your neighbor.
As I was working on this sermon out on my back porch, a flock of geese were flying overhead. As a kid, geese were the perennial reminder of change, of migration, of cycles and patterns to me; nature’s eternal migrants. Over the last 30 years, we’ve built up a lot of suburban parks with lakes, and many geese don’t leave for winter anymore, but when I was a child it was different.
Always moving, always migrating, can be a lot of work. Some years ago, I was co-leading a youth week long leadership development school out in Summit, NJ. It’s a town not that different from Huntington. We used the true story of how geese migrate to teach some important lessons in leadership development, but it also applies to thriving in life. After we taught this lesson, the youth would roleplay being geeze in flight out on the town square – honking away!
Here’s what we taught – and all credit goes to our Goldmine Youth Leadership Schools:
“Geese go south before winter comes, to avoid the extra cold weather, and when they fly long distances they make a V formation in the sky.
Now, geese are very smart about some things. They know that they have to travel hundreds of miles to arrive safely at their winter nesting place, and this cannot happen by accident. They know by instinct how to keep their flock intact, how to work together to reach their goals.
Those high flying geese are like a religious community in many ways. They do three things in particular which make for success. These three things work well for the geese and they work well for us in our groups: Sharing The Lead, Keeping Company With The Fallen, and Honking From Behind.
First, Sharing the Lead.
Geese fly in a V formation because the wind rolling off the tips of one bird’s wings helps to hold up the bird just behind it. It is a basic principal of flying called aerodynamic up rush.The bird out in front, at the point of the V, has to work the hardest, of course, but not all the time. It leads for a while, and then rotates back, and another bird comes forward to take the lead. They share the lead and the work.
Our Unitarian Universalist groups work much the same way at their best. People take turns as leaders and many share the work. When we work closely together, the energy from one person keeps the others involved and refreshed.
Second, Keeping Company with the Fallen.
If a goose gets sick or is shot down by a hunter, often a mate or friend will fly down to the ground and sit beside the fallen goose. The partner tries to protect its fallen comrade and find food, and it will sometimes wait for as long as a week until both birds can fly again. Sometimes a bird gets tired and cannot keep up with the big V formation. It will drop behind, but is never left alone to fend for itself. Two or three other birds will fall back and fly just ahead of the tired bird, helping to hold it up and encouraging it along in a smaller V formation. The next time you see geese overhead, look for a large V and the several smaller V formations likely to be coming along behind.
In our UU groups there are many kind people who look out for those who may be tired or sick or in need. They give both attention and time, bringing food, sending cards and letters, or doing whatever else is necessary. Keeping company with the fallen is one more thing that geese and good group members have in common.
Third, Honking From Behind.
In every flock of geese, there are birds who take turns flying way at the back. They honk loudly and often, partly to encourage the younger geese and partly to keep them going in the right direction.
In our UU groups we have loud voices that call to us from the past. Voices like Clara Barton, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson – (we heard at length about one of those voices this morning – John Murray.) These are the voices of Unitarians and Universalists who loved our religion and built it up in the past. Their lives, their deeds, and their writings call out to us and encourage us to stay on course.
Religious educators and youth group advisors are other groups that honk from behind. They work mostly in the back rooms of the church building, calling out the value of Religious Education, teaching about life and Unitarian Universalism, and encouraging new generations to reach for their goals.
In any setting, each of us can take a turn honking from behind, to affirm those with whom we’re flying, so that we might all get where we want to go together and in good shape.
When you think about the groups that are important to you, remember the high flying geese. Like these smart and effective birds, people contribute greatly when they Share the Lead, Keep Company with The Fallen, and Honk From Behind.”
Thus ends the parable of the migrating geese, in V formation.
Whether it’s evidence in the natural world, or the wisdom teachings of scripture, there’s a resounding message through it all, that calls us not to go it alone. Meanwhile, wider culture tries to teach us to lift up our singular achievements; as if, the bigger, better, and farthest we can achieve on our own, the more impressive we are. It can be impressive, but life isn’t about being impressive. It’s a communal act of bringing us all along. (Maybe Tell Buddhist story of the table being a marker of all that is – about how life is a reflection of community.)
Ok, one more migratory metaphor; I’ve told this story once before, but let’s look at it in this newer light. Some years ago, I began using a Fit Bit. It’s this device you wear around your wrist that tracks how much walking you do (I’ve since upgraded – show watch); it estimates calories burned, and tracks the food you eat so long so you enter the food on a matching phone app. Besides encouraging you to hit certain goals around “steps-taken” every day, and keeping the calories down a bit if you want to, it plays to the conventional wisdom that if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and eating, you’ll be more likely to make better choices.
Although it’s been pretty effective in the first few weeks, and my dog loved how much more she got walked, it’s also created some comic moments and an interesting lesson or two. A few days in, the weather was pretty bad and I didn’t quite hit my 10,000 step goal (which is about 5 miles a day.) I found myself walking in circles throughout the house until I hit it. At home, Brian was laughing at me. I know it probably didn’t really count for caloric burn, but I figured if you’re going to make a purposeful commitment to something, you might as well not break it three days in.
I also learned that I walk about 3/4 of a mile every time I do the laundry. Between the back and forth up two flights of steps, folding and putting away, it’s actually a fairly intensive home chore. So if I’m running short on steps, I’ve been more religiously doing laundry – which is better than having Brian continue to laugh at me for walking in circles. Three and a half years later, this is still true.
Hardship in life, is often experienced as a kind of endurance run, many of us have to hold onto, over the long haul during periods of difficulty. Whether it’s illness, or accomplishing a meaningful goal like school, we sometimes think of these in terms of seasons and years. The other side of this though – is this step – and the next.
There’s a reason tools like Fit Bit set daily goals rather than monthly. If that device asked me to walk 150 miles this month, I think I’d laugh. But it’s the same thing I’m doing, by going five miles a day. We can only take it day by day. Yet, from time to time, we all force ourselves to look at a difficult time in our lives as that 150 miles. Our community has faced a lot of loss in our lives over the past few years. Loved ones have died. We’re supporting friends through prolonged periods of illness. Even surgeries that have gone well, take their toll, sometimes for a long time. We can’t wish away the grief, and not all disease will be cured. But we can let ourselves take it five miles at a time. We’ll still have to face the whole long road ahead, one way or the other, but we can give ourselves the gift of facing just the part that’s before us today. It’s the only stretch of the road we can ever face after all.
So how do we face it though, day by day? The common wisdom has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. And none of that changes if we’re overwhelmed by it all. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with grief and loss.
Some of us know all too well the power of grief to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.
Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And as Jesus taught, worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.
The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.
When I’m at my worst, I’ve lost my sense of awe, and I yearn for a sense of reverence. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow – Life calls us on.
Goldmine Youth Leadership School, Metro NY District 2012
This sermon was preached on 9/9/18 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as part of our annual multigenerational water communion service, where this year, Rosh Hashanah was also celebrated.
(Tell the story of the Waterbearer🙂
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of vocation. It’s a big word that can mean work, or our job, or a profession. Religiously speaking, it also means “calling” – what are we called to do or be. In the water-bearer story, the leaky bucket felt pain because it wasn’t doing what it thought it was sent out to do; but it was actually fulfilling its purpose – flowers were growing from the broken places. Our calling in life, is where our total humanity fits the worlds deepest needs. But we don’t always recognize it.
Instead, sometimes we can get really focused on the cracks in our buckets, that we don’t see where they can be of value – or how they may help us or the people around us – or how they play into the bigger world around us. By a show of hands, who here often feels like they have to be perfect – to have to hide the cracks – to never let any water spill. Ok, look around (that’s a lot of hands.) Ok, put your hands down. Who here expects the people aroundthem to be perfect all the time, to never show their cracks, to never let any water spill? We all know some people who seem harder on others than themselves, but that seems to be less common, plus we never know what’s really going on inside their heads, maybe they’re really quietly rough on themselves.
Why are we normally so much harder on ourselves than we are on others? We can beat ourselves up real well. Why? Some of it is about our ego. We hold up our sense of self-worth so high, that any mistake we make that makes that picture of greatness less than perfect, is something we focus on again and again until we can erase it so our ego looks shiny again. I doubt many of us think or feel this way on purpose, it just happens. That’s kind of a faith in our ego, or our false sense of perfection. And that’s something that our principles teach us against.
What does our first principle say? (Inherent worth and dignity of every person, and some may say every being. In our classrooms we often just say, “everyone is important.”) Do we all agree with our first principle (can I get some nods, hands, amen’s, or even hear-hears!) Well, I’m going to ask us all to have a little faith in that first principle. Sometimes, that’s what religion is about – trusting in a teaching or a value even when you might be having a hard time seeing it or feeling it. Just because you’ve lost faith in your worth despite our imperfections, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because the kid at the next table during lunch hour is being mean to you, doesn’t mean they’re right. When people are mean to you for little reason, it’s normally much more about them than it is about you. And this religion teaches us that we have value, we have worth, despite our little cracks, or our mistakes, and especially regardless of what the mean bully (of any age) may tell us. People are always going to share their opinions, but they’re not always going to be right.
(People are always going to share their opinions, but they’re not always going to be right.)
And for those of us who are always the stable ones, the ones helping others, the ones who are the problem solvers never with any problems of our own (on the outside), I remind us that sometimes even the caregiver needs help. Sometimes, we’re not perfect (usually in fact), and sometimes our cracks help something else grow like in the case of the water bearer. When we feel rough, or bruised, or tired – where are those places that feed our inner wells? Where’s the water come from that the water bearer is carrying? Many of us brought water forward earlier symbolizing the places in our lives that nourish us. How do we build those wells in our lives? How do we make sure they’re close to home?
Think about those places in your lives that feed you. What is it about them? Is it the community or friends? Is it the scenery? Is it a sense of peace, or ease, or just a place where you have no responsibilities? Maybe it’s the sense of history? If you can’t think of a place or a source that feeds you, please, come up and talk with me later and we can sort out how this Fellowship may give that nourishment.
Some of us may have brought water from our local summer camp, Fahs. (A lot of us have the camp’s t-shirts on today.) It’s a place where people are acting their best selves; it feels safe; there are chances for fun, for challenging yourself, for growing up, a chance to rest, it’s been a beautiful spot too.
All these things nourish ourselves. Rest, good people acting well, safety, fun, challenge, growth and beauty. Getting away, traveling to places like this, are definitely important and worth doing. Sometimes we just need to get out of the routine of the every-day to get back to ourselves; to see the world anew. But the truth is, those wells that nourish our spirits, are in our backyards too. The garden at my house that feeds (mostly the birds, squirrels and resident rabbits these), and encourages our puppy “Lola” to play, leap and get muddy, is a well too. And not just for her. Sometimes allowing the silly into our lives may not be efficient, or clean, but it can remind us to have fun. That it’s not all about being serious, or diligent, or working hard. The muddy dog, wet from the garden hose foolery, is the very image of turning that-which-is-a chore into something rejuvenating – something nourishing – even if it means that maybe the puppy can’t come inside anytime soon. My husband will call out; “Lola is not allowed on the couch!”
The trick, or the challenge is to allow those places like Fahs Summer Camp to be allowed into our lives the rest of the year in small ways. To look at the routine in new ways and turn it into something different. I recall as a kid hating Sundays in the Winter. All that was on TV was golf (ugh) and it was too cold to play outside, and we didn’t have computers when I was young (gasp), and I was an only child. The very image of boredom! Now a-days, with job, school, and volunteer efforts taking us in so many directions, I wish for boring days at home! It’s how you look at it. Boring isn’t always such a bad thing, and sometimes it’s good for us to learn how to be a little bored and comfortable with it.
There’s often the drive to pretend all those places of nourishment are far away, or only available at another time. In the Winter we hate the cold and in the Summer we hate the heat and humidity. In September comes the great debate between those who love the pumpkin spice, and those who love to mock it. We wait all year for a great vacation (if we can afford the travel) pining for the warm beach, and finally when it comes, by the end of the week or two we’re sometimes pining for home. (Sleeping in my own bed, is a phrase we often say when travel becomes a chore, rather than a dream.) They’re all normal reactions, but they’re all a little crazy-making too, right? Building those wells that nourish us, wherever or whenever we are, is the religious practice. Universalism teaches us that wherever else Heaven may be, Heaven is also on Earth, here and now. We only need to be open to seeing or feeling it. To not saying that Heaven is some place else that I have to wait to get to. The summer camps of the world are awesome places, with a community we love to spend time with. And that community, in large part, is literally here too – all year long. For the lovers of Fahs (we have something like 60-80 from our community there every year), for the Fahs lovers, I challenge you to bring Fahs here as much as you can. What was the theme for Fahs this year (it’s not a place, it’s the people – here’s a clue, read the back of someone’s Fahs’ t-shirt in front of you.) To be your best self in this community, as this community has been its best self at Fahs. To make this Home a bit of the places of paradise you’ve found elsewhere. It’s already here; even if we can’t always see it.
As we come to a close, I’ll remind us of the wise imagery we heard earlier in the service from Rev. Amanda Poppei: “Life has often felt to me like a jigsaw puzzle… or really, like the mess of pieces when you first dump out the box. When I’ve been faced with multiple decisions at the same time, it’s felt as though I’m not sure which piece to fit in first. Little by little, I try piece after piece until one clicks. Then I can recognize the pieces that might fit around it, and eventually the pattern emerges — not just in the picture I’m creating, but in the mess of pieces I have still to pick up.”
Being a people of calling can mean taking up the challenge of the jigsaw puzzle; our lives are not always straight forward stories about progress by progress. Sometimes our lives are about making sense and meaning out of the mess of the pieces dumped out of the box. Sometimes, what’s left behind, the pieces that are still remaining, are more about our calling than all the neat places we’ve fitted before.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/19/18 and looks at the importance of spiritual practices.
I just came across a favorite fake quote of mine as Facebook likes to pop up memories from past years from time to time; it’s attributed to the Buddha, but the Buddha never said it. “The trouble is, you think you have time.” Even though the Buddha never actually said it, it’s the kind of contemporary language that points to a spiritual teaching that’s pretty close to what Buddha taught. In all the passing of our days and years, we tend to parcel out our lives as if time were a central truth to our spirit. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to pain and suffering. Living by the clock, thinking by the clock, and waiting by the clock. And waiting by the clock is one of the most painful ways to live.
We all have that happen to us so often in our lives. We’re waiting for the job offer that never seems to come. Or college acceptance letters seem to travel at the speed of snails. Or we’re grappling with the possibility of having to accept that a serious illness may have just entered our family. Everything else seems to go out of focus and we fixate on the thing that will validate us, or show us the way forward, or redefine all our future days. We’re waiting for the map to unfold and make clear where our path will take us. Who we are, while we’re waiting, doesn’t seem to matter to us any longer – only ‘come what may’, seems to matter to us.
But sometimes, it’s much less serious. Sometimes we get distracted by triviality, or get sucked into another person’s opinion of us, or define our day by a thousand small things. In a very real way, a million magical things happen every moment we are here to see them – whether we take note or not. So long as we are breathing, the seemingly fantastical is right before us. Our kid’s laughter. The love of a partner. The life that teems all around us. Breath itself – a completely miraculous gift we only notice when it’s hard to find. When you hear me speak of “reverence” in my sermons – it’s all of these things that I point to. It’s the feeling of another sun rising – through no fault of our own, and it’s the feeling many of us experience toward God. It’s one aim of religion to help us to come to a place where we can appreciate that subtle awareness – without getting too caught up in defining it.
There will always be a thousand distractions, some small, some very serious – but how we connect with a sense of reverence in our daily living will determine the depth of our life. It’s not just a witticism for the spiritually enlightened. It’s practical advice for daily living. For remembering what actually matters, and what makes us think we don’t matter – as we are – right now.
And sometimes, we don’t live in the future, we live in the past. As a congregation, we’ve endured a lot of loss and struggle over the past 10 years or so. We’ve gone through so many transitions…. Your previous called minister ended his time with you dealing with health concerns. We grieve the loss of our last religious educator, who left over medical concerns – though she’s thankfully getting the care she needs. And our previous religious educator before her, ended her time with you caring for her husband during his terminal illness. Many members had to step up to respond in loving and supportive ways. Some of you may have felt like you were all of sudden employees of the Fellowship to ensure that things continued to work. I know it felt that way again this last time around as well. Thank you for that. Thank you for doing what you felt needed to be done. Thank you for caring for your staff as best as you were able. And some of you are likely still completely wiped from the effort. For some of us, we may feel soul weary. And we’ve had a tremendous amount of death in our membership these past five years; we can neither wish that away, or pretend it’s simply in our past, lest we run ramshackle over our hearts. And yet still, today is where we are.
The practical advice for daily living is that in times of change, or stress, or extra effort, we must be extra diligent to find room in our hearts for reverence. Or we will burn out and what we sought to nurture, or protect, will become a burden we begin to wish we could just drop. And soon we may just drop it. We can avoid this by developing spiritual practices that draw us to experience a sense of gratitude in our lives. What might feel like a daily dose of triage at first, can transform into a healthy regimen.
In the months to come, we will focus on growing more opportunities for the discipline of spiritual practices. I know that we already have groups that meet for meditation and yoga throughout the week. We will continue to offer small group ministry (what we call Journey Groups). We will be growing more such circles after September where a group of 6-10 people can come together monthly to reflect on the content of our services – to share, to go deeper, to be nurtured in community. I think we’ve averaged about 30-50 congregants attending them each year, and I would honestly prefer if twice that number were in those groups. I will be taking over preparing those sessions and facilitators this year, with our full time DRE cut back to a half time coordinator. Each of the monthly sessions will be in response to the sermons in the month. Starting at the end of this month, we’ll be sending out a newsletter again, this time focused on the theme of the month, rather than the events of the week, and it will include a short teaser for the Journey Groups for all to see. Please check it out, and consider making this commitment to these spiritual practices. More information will come out later this month. If you’re interested and have experience facilitating such reflection groups, please do call or email me soon. We will need several folks to help make this a reality. And this Fall, we’ll be doing a deep dive into our theology, and our principles during worship, as I plan to prepare another preaching series on our principles and our religious philosophy. If you’re new to UU, this will be a great primer. And if you’ve been around a long time, I’m sure it’ll help you finally memorize the principles.
I just attended a 15 hour workshop on faith formation this past week, and after this service today, I’ll be heading out to our Summer Camp called Fahs, to co-lead the 9thand 10thgrade youth group programming for the week with Patrick M. Fahs started yesterday for the staff, and this afternoon for the campers, and I’ll be dashing out right after service to get there in time. It’s the main reason why we have so few kids today. About 100 Long Island children, and youth attend this camp each year, along with about 50 adults. The workshop helped me come away with a renewed appreciation for ritual, for the discipline of spiritual practices, and for repetition. Faith formation is a lifelong practice, and religious communities thrive over the long haul best when it’s member focus on those things. A shared practice and a shared sense of self, are key to our health and success. Anyone who has attended Fahs or has sent their kids to Fahs, knows how vital and transformative shared practices, traditions, and values are for building lasting, meaningful communities that matter in our lives. I invite you to seriously consider making such a commitment in the months and seasons to come. Building community is the most vital spiritual practice we can commit to, and our broader world needs it even more than ever.
Before I began my ministry here 5 years ago, we didn’t have this practice of communal silent candle lighting as we do now. The ritual of prayer and meditation is the second largest part of the service (after the sermon) and I think it’s become key to our communal practice of worship. Seeing our kids each week, bring their parents forward, is a practice that is informing this generation, and will be remembered, probably for their entire lives. As a religious community, centered in shared spiritual practices, it is vital that we raise our children to appreciate these practices as well. Or they will not be here when they are too old for children’s religious education. Our youth may not even stay through High School. It’s also crucial, that we share our sacred practices with all ages. Because as a community – we are Fellowship of all ages – our practices should reflect our identity and our values. For most of us this is probably a given, but I’m realizing over time, that sometimes it’s important for me to say obvious things, to remind us all that we’re intentional in what we do. And if this is your first time here today, please know that we try our best to center the needs of our children and youth. Kids are welcome in all our chairs, not just the wiggle room in the back. (And much like Junior High School classroom rules, there’s always a safe bet, that the front row will be free.)
You will often note that with all of our spiritual practices, I will often use different ways of talking about the same things. This morning alone, I’ve already said prayer, meditation, reverence, and gratitude. For some of us, this is a given. For others it can be a challenge. Openness in times of change can be a discipline all in itself. I am forever less concerned in the details of creed as I am in the experience of a meaningful practice. There are many truths. I hope that we can each be renewed by our Sunday services – each in our own way. That times of silence can give us the breather we need, while times of movement and ritual can energize. Where one thing may not speak to us, may we learn to appreciate how it very well may be speaking to the person who is sitting right next to us. Each of us matter, and we strive to make room for all of us to be fed. If this week’s sermon doesn’t speak to you, next week’s probably will, and know that someone here today needed this message.
Robert Latham, an author and a UU minister, talks about this in a slightly different way. He suggests that the old trinity of Unitarian thought – that we’re grounded in Freedom, Reason and Tolerance – is probably not the best matrix to be relying on. To put it briefly — saying we’re “free” implies anyone who hasn’t joined our faith isn’t themselves free. It’s not a statement that’s very generous of spirit to other traditions. Where reason will always be important to us, it only touches upon one half of our mind (or maybe less depending on how important you rate virtues such as compassion and empathy.) And tolerance — try to think of the last time you said out loud — “!I am so grateful that you tolerate me!” and meant it! No one likes being tolerated. At best it’s the baby step toward living with respect for the world around us.
Rev. Latham asks us to measure our faith by another standard. He suggests: Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. We put those three words on our letterhead after I was called here, and they are central to each sermon I write, even if I don’t always use those words. I’ve talked at length about the first and the third already. Mindfulness is a general awareness of what is going on before us blended with our more intuitive core. This triad is a spiritual practice in itself. It can directly help us in times of stress and change – whether the matter is frivolous or life-altering.
A practice of openness can save us from some arguments with friends, fellow congregants or (maybe on a good day) our families. It’s hard to assume good intentions with all the world. It’s hard to accept that there might be another way of seeing something when our feelings have been hurt, or we’ve been asked to change some long-standing practice. But in religious community – at least in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – we are called to be open. We don’t necessarily need to change our minds, but our faith demands of us that we don’t come to the table with our minds made up. And that we do so knowing that we’re in there in relation to the people around us.
The practice of mindfulness asks us not to do a thousand things at once. For some of us – not doing a thousand things at once – is a really hard thing… not to do. It also involves allowing our reason to dance with our heart. When we get lost in our emotions to the point where we can’t see the road before us; or we endlessly fidget with all the options ahead of us, mindfulness calls us back to a place of centeredness. We can appreciate the feelings and the challenges without losing our place in this world. We already have a place in this world. The struggles and the challenges before us do not define our value. We are already of value.
A practice of reverence may be the most counter-cultural act we can ever make in our consumer-driven world. Messages, media, public pressure and finances all urge us to gain the next thing; to desire what we can’t have over the gifts before us; to be consumers in our world rather than be citizens. Reverence informs us that all this is fleeting, that the quest for the shiny new toy is the least way to experience our lives. Or in the words of my mentor, Rev. Forrest Church we ought to “want what we have.” Reverence teaches us to value what is always before us.
We can stay centered through our lives (well mostly centered) because of our spiritual disciplines. I try to stay open to the ebb and flow of crazy in my day knowing that there’s always a story hidden behind every challenge. I seek to remain mindful that this and that will sometime pass. And I seek ways to appreciate the beauty in our world. For the past 21 years I’ve honored a daily commitment to a walking meditation. It is the absolute rarest day where I don’t walk for at least 3 miles. The practice calms and centers me along with reminding me that my soul is not defined by the work that I do. I am not a machine here to accomplish things, but a spirit that is here to encounter other spirits. Often I feel like I don’t have the time to walk, but I follow the old Rabbinical saying: “I pray every day for an hour, except for those days when I’m too busy. On those days, I pray for two hours.” As it happens, I also pray every evening – though I promise you not for 2 hours.
I would like to remind you of the words we began with this service by Maxx Kapp to light our chalice. “Carry the Sacred Flame to make light the windows of the world. It is we who must be keepers of the flame. It is we who must carry the imperishable fire. It is our watch now! It is our watch now!” Keeping the flame of progressive faith alive it not solely about social justice, or being a voice for the oppressed, or healing the pains of the world. It is all of these things for sure. But it is also keeping our own inner flame alive, loved, and vibrant. May we seek ways to practice a discipline of spirituality, and may we do so with gladness in our hearts and kindness on our lips. For to care for the world we live in, we must first care for our sagging shoulders, and our weary grins, knowing that we never do so alone.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/12/18. This family friendly homily looks at grudges and forgiveness.
Grudges. Our story this morning packed them all up, and stored them heavily in the backpacks we all carry. Weighing us down, we can never forget their presence, and often have a hard time letting them go — even though we know we don’t want the added poundage on our shoulders. Or do we?
I remember one crazy week when I was serving the UU congregation of Shelter Rock. I was still living up at Riverside Church in Manhattan, which is right next to Grant’s Tomb – the civil-war General for the North. It was a day or so after New Year’s. I had been borrowing a small car from a congregant who was gracious enough to help ease my commute from the border of Harlem all the way out to Manhasset, Long Island. It was the choice between a 40 minute car ride or close to a 2 hour mass transit trip. It was a really great gift she gave me.
Well, one morning, I went out to that car. It was parked right outside my apartment window. In fact, my bed was right at the window, so I was literally sleeping 10 feet from the car. And I’m living beneath Riverside Church – the great Protestant “Cathedral” (as some call it) of NYC. The window was all smashed in, and someone had stolen the $10 radio inside. But instead of carefully extracting the cheap radio, they simply ripped it loose from the dashboard. Well, the dashboard decided it would go along with the radio. So the ten dollars the robber would get for selling it on the street, was going to cost me $800 in repairs for someone else’s car which wasn’t even worth $800 itself. On my 60 hour a week internship salary – that was almost 3 weeks of work.
So I have this unusual personality trait. The more absurd a thing gets, the calmer I become. Let me tell you, I was very … calm. This high level of calmness lasted all the way till the police finally showed… 4 hours later; when one detective asked, “Did you lock the car?” I innocently responded, “Yes.” The police officers laughed and shook their heads while jotting down notes. “You really shouldn’t lock your car. It’ll only cost you more in the end.” …. That wasn’t the thing to say, to me. Even though they’re right. “Oh, now it’s my fault.” Fortunately, in a rare moment of editing brilliance, I managed not to say that out loud.
So for the next two weeks, I didn’t overly fret over the cost of the repairs, or the sense of violation by some stranger, or dwell on any sense that my neighborhood was somehow less safe. I took the longer commute in stride, and had the difficult chat with the congregant who was loaning me the car. All of these chores were unpleasant, but I handled them well enough considering. But that cop, who told me I shouldn’t have locked my door – Oh Em Gee. Strap that backpack on, write me some grudges, and fill it up please sir. I will gladly increase my burden, to stay angry at you.
Anyone else ever do that before? Or is it just me? Find someone to be angry at, and hold on tight to that anger? There’s a certain sense of rightness … maybe righteousness… that we gain when we do this? “The way I see the world is correct; I’ve been wronged somehow, and as long as I maintain that strict position, I get to stay right. Yay!” Sound familiar? That’s the fundamental story for most world literature, movies, after TV specials (they still have those right?) and our daily living. It’s the central thing that religion strives to undo. Well, pluralistic religion – in any of its many forms. Because it’s pretty clear every religion out there has some form that says it’s got the right answer and everyone else is wrong. But there’s a challenging tenet at the core of religion that values the virtue of forgiveness.
The Jewish teacher and the Christian Saviour, Jesus, made this a central focus of his ministry. When someone “wrongs” you, “turn the other cheek.” We could leave it just at that. Forgiveness is tough to do, but we should do it. But why? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. Different translations will call it the Kingdom of God, others will say that it’s “among us” or “within us.” Whether it’s in our midst, or among us, or within us – it implies it’s here right now. Not some other worldly location that’ll happen at the end of time. Right here, right now. It’s the difference between living in Grudgeville and renaming it Joytown.
It’s more than being “nice.” Forgiveness is a religious discipline. It’s practice not only makes our individual weight less burdensome; it not only reconnects us with our “wrong-doer” whoever or whatever they might be this time; it also rebuilds community. Without it, we are condemned to a life where we fixate on that past moment. As this morning’s story goes, we carry the burden of the grudge of our grandfather who was called a horse-thief some decades past when he was running for mayor; rather than enjoy our life in it’s renewing newness. It’s the choice between remaining unhappy with a work-place slight, and being free to enjoy the next day as you otherwise make or accomplish something. It’s remaining unhappy by the thing you were told you were not able to do by a parent or teacher, and forgetting that there’s so many other things you can still do. It’s not letting go of the way things were 30 years ago, in your family or in this Fellowship — if we don’t let go of how things were, we can’t really see the people around us for who they are now. Look around you right now — these are some pretty awesome people that are harder to meet with our backpacks stooping our shoulders since it fixates our eyes on the ground.
With a show of hands — how many people have ever felt wronged? How many people thought at some point in their life that the thing that wronged them was the biggest thing in the world at the time – that it was the end of the world? How many of those of us who have felt that way are still here right now? Forgiveness is about this perspective. It helps us to recognize this truth in life. Life will go on beyond that thing, whatever it was. We just get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. But it will go on.
Now, this doesn’t mean we need to stay in abusive situations. It doesn’t mean we can’t identify when we’re being taken advantage of, or being mistreated. It doesn’t mean that we can’t look for healthier or more balanced relationships or life situations. Forgiveness means that when we realize we need to move on or through something, that we do just that. We don’t hold onto a sense of guilt, or shame, or condemnation for ourselves or others. While we work to remedy whatever is genuinely ailing us, forgiveness means that we commit our focus to that end; not using most of it to remain in anger.
I said before that we get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. What is staying back mean though? It’s losing our way. Jesus spoke a lot about his school being “the followers of the way.” It’s a way into right relationship. It’s a way into living into community with love. It’s a way home. Whether you believe Jesus was a teacher, or the Son of God, the core message in his prophetic teaches, I believe, is the same. It’s not just about ethics and morals, though they are certainly there as well. It’s about showing up. It’s about recognizing that whatever you name or see or feel about the details of the sacredness of life, it’s only going to be found in our midst, within, between all of us. It‘s recognizing that we realize the world’s sacredness when we allow ourselves to be open to the people around us. Without learning to forgive all the things we think we can’t, we’re lost. Without forgiveness, we only cut ourselves off from the connectedness with being, with living, with our classmates, with each other. Forgiving is a way home to our birthright.
I just said a very odd thing. Forgiveness is about showing up. Usually people say that forgiveness is about letting go; and that’s definitely part of it as well. I don’t feel we’re the same when we hold grudges. I believe that part of us that really matters isn’t present. I believe that although we might be standing in the room, when we hold onto something we think wronged us, we’re just holding onto a vision of how things might have been rather than how things are. Not only do we not accept the world as it is, but we keep ourselves back in that moment we didn’t particularly like. Frankly, grudges are kind of pointless. They don’t change anything. And that’s key — they don’t change anything. They keep us right back in the moment of pain, or disappointment, or frustration. “I didn’t get to stay up that extra hour to play,” or “your salary just got cut,” or “that shelf hasn’t been dusted in weeks.” Some of these are serious and some of them are not. But holding onto all of them keeps us from coming home. They each, in their own ways, keeps us from showing up to the world that is. They keep us from engaging our community in healthy, loving, full ways.
At the beginning of this homily I asked whether we really wanted the grudges we hold onto or not. We know they don’t do anything to make us feel any better or solve anything, and yet, every one of us – including myself – holds onto them from time to time. Some of us, even have our specialties. We excel at identifying certain types of offenses. And look!…we find them everywhere we turn! I think the problem is simply that we forget ourselves. We forget that birthright I spoke of. We forget that community and fellowship is more important than being right, as if being right ever changed anything – if you’re unsure about this last bit, take a look at politics or any dinner table conversation at home to know that being right is of little importance. So, next time we find ourselves being seduced by being right, let’s commit to letting that go and maybe we’ll find more forgiveness coming our way home.