This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 6/19/16. It addresses the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando.
It has been a painful, difficult week, following the shootings in Orlando. The tragedy that I spoke about last Sunday with news slowly trickling in, has turned out to be more than twice as deadly as we first thought. We’ve known worse attacks in war, and in our history of genocide, and lynchings, but in the modern era, we have not seen a mass shooting like this on our nation’s soil. Most of us are shook up; some are numb. And the LGBT community, particularly communities of color, are experiencing an extended shock response to the trauma because it’s an extension of the all too often reality many of us live in.
I briefly considered doing away with our Flower Celebration today, but the origins of the ritual come at a time in Europe’s history where the worst violence known to humanity was occurring during World War II. Unitarian minister, Rev. Chapek, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain. Remembering those lost last week is incredibly painful; many of us are experiencing the tragedy as if we knew those victims personally. I remember texting a few friends, during our annual meeting last Sunday, who lived there waiting to hear back; and thankfully they were all fine.
But the perpetual state of gun violence in our nation is leaving us more and more raw, and it’s making it harder and harder not to imagine that it could happen down the street. The political noise around each tragedy keeps real conversation at bay long enough to delay till the next mass shooting. It’s a sort of fog of war: as long as we can’t see straight, we don’t know how to react politically to protect our communities. And the issue is complex, but friends, it’s not that complex. We manage to know how to regulate how much Sudafed someone can buy over the counter, we can figure out how to track AR-15’s. What stops us from organizing as a community for sensible laws that don’t allow people on the FBI terrorist watch list from purchasing these military-grade weapons? Is that really a radical thing to suggest?
That’s my question for our Fellowship: can we organize around this issue? I believe in hope, and I believe in the power of prayer, and I know the value of reading the list of names of those lost to us. And as scripture reads, Faith without works is dead. That’s the bit that I think all UU’s agree with theologically. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we aren’t doing something about those intrinsic values, then that ethic is empty and hollow. I worry about every first responder that needs to go into these places. I’m grateful for the military vet who was on site at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, who saved many lives. And I know in my heart, that there are too many LGBT youth and adults who will now delay coming out for fear of safety. Why do we leave it at that? Can we extend forward our respect and appreciation by working toward reasonable precautions against future harm? While we grieve this great loss, hold-off in coffee hour from worrying about the small details of congregational life that are less than to your liking; hold off from the what if’s and not that’s of life. Use that energy in connecting with one another and imagining how can we be a force for change on this issue that so many of us clearly care so deeply about. The Fellowship can be a crucible for this work, and the world needs us to take part.
It reminds me of the old scriptural adage of sack cloth and ashes after a great loss, or out of a spirit of repentance for a great wrong. I spoke last week about the words of one Rabbi who asked the people to repent of evil before we commit it. Another kind of repentance happens when we have failed to do what needed to be done. We remembered lives lost in our prayer today, and I wonder what I could have done to have prevented that ever from being necessary. And I know this is a community that is big enough to imagine coalition building that extends across difference, to build that safer world. The Flower Celebration originated as a service to draw our eyes back to simple beauty so that we can do the difficult work to address the complex pains of the world. In our hours of despair, may we find a renewal of spirit, to do the work at hand; and not be distracted by the thousand small details in life that keep us from the clear path.
A few weeks ago, I was attending our Tuesday morning silent meditation group, and I heard a classic Buddhist story about a Nun who was carrying a bamboo container full of water. In the water she could see the moon. After some time, the bamboo weakened and shatter, and all the water quickly leaked out. The Nun exclaimed laughing, “no water, no moon” and the story goes that she was enlightened. Traditionally, this tale is one that teaches about some of the classic characteristics of Buddhist understanding. The water and bamboo are the myriad things of the world, and the moon signifies impermanence. When we grasp onto what is fleeting, we can find despair or relief in what begins and ends before us as the water leaks through our fingers.
But there’s another aspect of this story that I find very true. In everyday terms, the water in that bamboo bucket is how we see the moon. We’re not looking at the moon directly; we are seeing the image of the moon in a reflection that draws our eyes away from what is real and true. The moon becomes a story about itself that’s retold dimly from another direction entirely. Everything that we see only through the reflection of the water is reliant upon how we hold the bucket, where are standing or moving at any given time, how long the bucket will last, and even how much water we have over time. The water becomes a story that we tell and retell others to understand the reflection of the moon – not the moon – merely it’s reflection.
This is really true about life. What’s the story we hear in the media, or among our friends, or the one we ourselves tell about what happened in Orlando? Do we have the story memorized that tells us any act of violence by someone who professes Islam, is an act of terror first and foremost and more about the clash of civilizations? Or do we have the story that homophobia can be internalized and cause grievous harm to ourselves and the world? Do we have the story that the Second Amendment trumps all other forms of liberty and rights? Or do we live into a story where we imagine we can never be fully safe? Since (most) or probably all modern mass shootings have been instigated by men, I have a story that there’s a way in which we are raising our boys and men that is fundamentally flawed. Masculinity has been twisted to mean power and aggression. I think that story is right, but it’s still just one way of looking at it.
As we recommit to building the world we dream about, we are going to need to find points of connection with people who have differing opinions than our own. Lives are very much on the line. Despite what we might hear colloquially, surveys show that most members of the NRA are in favor of reasonable precautions around the sale of military grade weapons. It’s not us vs them, rather the lobbyist organization that is the NRA is not in alignment with the vast majority of it members on this issue. We can hold onto a story that says otherwise, but it won’t help move the dialogue forward.
We can hold onto the story that this attack was solely against the US, which is sadly a story that has far too many politicians shutting their eyes and proclaiming. That story falsely tells us that any child of an immigrant is a potential risk. This shooter’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan at a time in our history when that nation was our ally against Cold War Communism. Do we stop immigration from any nation that’s our current ally because we do not know what will happen 30 years later?
We are people of stories. That’s often what makes us human. Myth, and story-telling, is the heart of my vocation in many ways. We can communicate the depth and breadth of humanity in story. But a good story helps crack open meaning and truth. As religious people, it’s our challenge to get better at telling what’s a good story that brings our humanity out to the surface, and which stories trick us into believing in the reflection of a moon.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather this evening, in peace, in sorrow;
in grief, and in pain.
We bear witness once more to such a deep,
human loss for all our communities.
We mourn the death of 49 lesbian, and gay, bisexual and transgender people;
Bright souls with parents, and siblings;
some in the vibrant youth of their lives,
others who lived for decades, getting to see our nation,
too slowly turn toward equality for all,
and at least one – who was in great personal pain – who brought that tragic pain to bear upon so many others.
We bear witness to the parents who will no longer see their children come home; parents who will not get the chance to celebrate their sons’ or daughter’s plans for marriage or for children of their own, for a long life denied them.
We have no words in the face of such loss….
Mother of Grace, we pray you write this grief into the tablets of our hearts,
so that we may no longer go into this world complicit with the quiet hates that embed our streets, and schools, offices and houses of worship.
As we have seen so much loss, teach us to hold tight to one another,
while we can, and live into this world with Your sacred trust; with respect and compassion; especially when it’s hard to find.
Move us out of inaction and complacency,
and use us to build the Beloved Community on this earth.
And turn us away from fear, and easy blame.
May our people not look to the actions of one man,
and blame the whole of his religion.
Ever teach us to question any lesson that ends in fear, or hatred;
that lifts up the differences over our common humanity,
that divides us and makes us forget we are all children of God.
We pray for a healing of the toxic masculinity that puts all of us at risk;
may we raise our boys into men whose hearts are stirred by justice and forbearance;
men who find strength in solidarity rather than in power,
who find self-acceptance in compassion rather than insecurity from fear.
Where we feel helpless before the enormity of it all,
remind us that our work in raising families and communities grounded in Spirit and centered in love,
is the very work that each of our faith’s call us to do.
We are the hands of the Holy on earth,
and may we ever reach those hands out to one another,
in times of loss and in times of celebration,
building and rebuilding our world.
Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/22/16. It looks at the points of connection and difference between our UU Faith and the Catholic church with an eye for the positive and for what can challenge us to be a better people of faith.
I want to begin by thanking Maria Nielsen for supporting our Fellowship this past Fall through our Services Auction. She generously bid to support the many works and ministries of this congregation and won the opportunity to pick one sermon topic this year, and this sermon reflects that choice. What we can learn from Catholicism.
I’ll begin with a little bit of my own history, talk briefly about the sorts of things we share in common with Catholicism that you’ll often hear me preach about, and then move onto the areas where we could do better in following some of Catholicism’s strengths that are in line with our values – but where we may not currently do so well. If this is a sermon topic that’s a struggle for you in any way, come to it from a spirit of ecumenism or interfaith openness.
I was raised Catholic and most of my family remain devout Catholics. I left that faith mainly over the doctrine of Hell, and I doubt being Gay was ever going to really work for me there. But I never left with a sense of drama over the church, much of the faith worked for me and still informs my spirituality. But I probably have too much of a questing spirit than what would neatly fit into mainstream Catholicism.
That being said, in Seminary, two of the more influential teachers I learned from, were a Catholic nun and a Jesuit Priest, who taught Feminist Liturgical Practices and Church Ecclesiology – respectively – or in more everyday language – how we worship together and how we do church together. Although some word choices they used might not work for you, I’d be hard pressed to think of one lesson that would be in seriously conflict with our own teachings. There are fundamental ways in which religion, at its core, is compatible across divisions. We would do well to always remember that; to always come to places of difference and ask – where can we find the commonality. It’s the only way we’ll move forward in this world that seems to be increasingly defined by divisiveness; it’s not only unhelpful, it’s often untrue. In that spirit, I want to make sure you don’t miss a guest speaker preaching here on Sunday, June 26th from the Islamic tradition, Mr. Hakan Yesilova. We have much to learn from one another.
When I was still employed in the non-profit community organizing sector years ago, I worked with various Jesuit Priests and Catholic Nuns in the area of affordable housing and homelessness. It was a central value to the Catholic Church to be on the side of the poor and oppressed. It’s a central value in our own UU faith; a common point where we often find alignment in our justice work. I mention this in part, because I think that when we begin to talk about the places where we’re challenged by one another, it’s important to start from a place of understanding how we’re supported by one another, and in the areas of economic justice in particular, our religious traditions do support one another very much.
Starr mentioned earlier Sister Simone, from the “Nuns on the Bus” fame. Last year, I actually devoted three sermons here that reflected on her talk at our denomination’s annual Ware Lecture at General Assembly, at the suggestion of some of our members who also attended that major lecture with me. So I won’t go into detail again today, but you can go to our website to find those sermons if you’re interested. But I’ll say here, that I think it’s helpful to remember the complexity of a faith tradition when we so often can succumb to sound bytes that diminish or devalue. People and religions are complex.
And in the spirit of economic justice work – it’s timely and important that I mention this today. We heard earlier from Judie Gardner about our recommitment to our Food Pantry work. We’ve had a strong commitment to growing fresh produce for the local food pantries through our Grow to Give Garden, and Judie is re-challenging us to deepen our charity when we are in the supermarket. This, in line with our Cold Weather men’s shelter, is the direct service and support side of economic justice work. The other half of that work is changing the system. Diana Weaving and our Social Justice team is organizing a petition for Farm Workers’ Rights – to ensure that workers are given a living wage. We housed 15 marchers this past Sunday in our Social Hall, protestors who are marching from one end of Long Island all the way up to Albany, to protest the poor wages that farm workers can legally receive. Please head to her table after the service and flex your legislative muscle for good by writing a letter or signing a petition.
Now, where can we be challenged, for the better, by Catholicism? I’ll begin with our monthly theme: What would being a people of blessing mean? We began our service with a short ritual led by Starr around passing blessings on. Starr and I saw this done at the UU Metro NY District Annual Meeting in Morristown, NJ at the beginning of the month and it was led by the District Youth group. The youth were tasked with, as discreetly as possible, clipping the clothespin blessing onto someone without drawing much fanfare or attention for it, and over time, each recipient of the blessing was tasked with repeating the humble, quiet gesture to someone else who needed it or maybe deserved it, or maybe as a simple random act of cheerleading kindness.
For some of us, this was a fun and neat experience. For others it might take time to warm up to it. I hadn’t made it into the service in time and was sitting outside the doors and when folks were stealthily coming up behind me I remember briefly thinking, What is this person doing, and why are they doing it? Is this for real?! Blessings, generosity, humble kindness, can sometimes feel that awkward in a world that tells us cynicism, consumerism, and aggression win the day. We sometimes get infected by the worst of societal pressures, even when we otherwise would never consciously support them. Humility in the face of Grace; hope in the face of cynicism; simplicity in the face of greed – are all bedrock Catholic values. Not that we don’t share those values ourselves, especially in the value of hope; but if we’re going to be really self-reflectively honest with ourselves: humility and simplicity are a major challenge for a tradition that is rooted in intellectual achievement and what Rev. William Ellery Channing famously preached about Salvation through Character. We are saved by our virtuous actions; we develop through a sort of will to character – and that’s fundamentally opposed to the idea of humility as a saving grace – (unless you manage to also nurture humility as a character trait.) In a world where consumerism and productivity, push the wheel spinning further and further into madness, humility might go a long way toward slowing it down. Character may also, but we must remained cautioned about too long relying on the value of achievement (even personal achievement) to undo the failings of a social work ethic of achievement. Sometimes doing less is more, and we’ll certainly spend next month imaging what it would mean to be a people of simplicity, as simplicity is next month’s theme.
I grew up with incense and holy water. I remember with great fondness when I finally made the pilgrimage to what was colloquially called “Smoky Mary’s” in NYC, where it was sometimes tough to see through the haze of incense in the Mass. (I had already converted to UU by that time, and was actually invited to that Mass by my college religious studies professor who was a mentor to me, who was Conservative Jewish. I know, very UU of me.) “Smoky Mary’s” is more formally called “The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin,” and it’s actually Episcopalian, not Catholic, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Whether at that extreme, or at the more everyday Masses at local Catholic churches, there’s a comfortable sense of ritual that punctuates the cycles of the years and the seasons and placed us into a stream of timelessness that echoes back through the eons of humanity. People have been in this ritualized and sacramental moment, since the dawn of Christianity, and will continue throughout the epoch of our species. There is something stunning about stepping out of the everyday and into that kind of structured eternity. Often we miss it, but the devout experience it eventually or often. You’ll hear me speak about it almost every week here, only I usually call it by a different name – mindfulness. There are many ways to get there, and none of them are “right” or “the only way.”
That structured timelessness deepens a sense of devotion in those that make a sacrament of it; those who commit to it. Devotion, where the ego is tempered by humility, leads to mindfulness. It’s a core truth of faith; and when we mock it, we miss the whole point. When we come to faith with a sincerity of religious expression, we have a key that unlocks a door that we might have walked past a thousand, thousand times.
We often pretend we don’t have this in Unitarian Universalism because it looks different, or because we may be carrying scars from former religious traditions, or because if we were raised as UU we learned to come to these values and encounters through action and not silence. Our youth who grew up learning a devotion that was centered in a self-less, justice-centered ministry – they have been raised steeped in a tradition that teaches us to temper the ego through through humility in service to the world. But our adults, who may have come from another tradition may miss the fact that we do have rituals, they just look different.
We hold sacraments as well. Our child blessings, full of words, water and roses, start the cycle of religious life. We tell our children that this time we’ll gift you with a rose with its thorns removed because of our commitment to their growth and well-being. When they reach Coming of Age, they are challenged to publicly speak their faith in their year-long study of our tradition. We ask them to take it so seriously – to spend time and energy on it, to speak before their community, their friends, their extended family. There are retreats, and a pilgrimage to our place of founding in the US, and they are asked to work with a mentor because they can’t do this alone. Often, their words are so important, and there are so many that are doing it, that we have two services of celebration; one for the wider community and families, and one in our own congregation. The minister often skips preaching a sermon that day because so much is already being taught by our youth. And when it comes time to transition into adulthood we hold a third sacramental ritual, that of Bridging.
In some communities, we give them a rose with its thorns still on, recognizing it’s time they handle this challenging journey of life as it is with their fullest sense of self. In others, that thorn-full rose is given at Coming of Age. And true to our UU, some communities don’t give another rose, but give chalices symbolizing our faith, or even compasses reminding them which way forever points home, and to always seek their moral center. These rites are as important for our children and youth as they are for our adults. We teach our faith over and over through rite and song; through prayer and candle-lighting.
We may not have incense, but we have songs and candles and bells and flowers. We may only rarely anoint, but we commission and ordain, we bless and we lay on hands. We may rarely offer shared moments of contrition (usually once or twice a year), but we maintain a covenantal life that constantly calls us to return to right relationship over and over again.
Maria, you asked what are the things we can learn from Catholicism and I’ll close with this last pairing built up from all the rest – devotion and contrition – those two words are probably our toughest growing edges.
For most of our Fellowship, we are at a time of liveliness, camaraderie, and growth. We are welcoming new faces, returning to a time of active justice and service work (our cold weather shelter, our warm weather food garden, the food wagon, marches, and petitions for Economic Justice issues and Gender Identity Justice issues, and our stance that Black Lives Matter.) I am deeply involved in the denominational changes that are happening as we restructure districts into regions and the impact that has on LIAC (our local cluster of Long Island UU congregations); and I’m deeply involved in youth ministry in the wider area and in Long Island – something that this Fellowship said was a major priority when it began the search for this new ministry. The prioritizing of our youth and children as a Fellowship, is a remarkable gift in this time when so many congregations allow their family ministry to dwindle – we have doubled-down and are watching it grow. It’s an amazing time to be a UU at our beloved Fellowship. Our youth group is growing, our kids are maturing into kind and spiritual people, our choir sings with joy, and our meditation groups are bringing more and more newcomers into our faith.
I’ll say it again: Devotion, where the ego is tempered by humility, leads to mindfulness. When we come to faith with a sincerity of religious expression, we have a key that unlocks a door that we might have walked past a thousand, thousand times. There is so much that is good and right and well in our community. But devotion and contrition can be a challenge for all of us in our lives. What do we commit to? What do we never let go of? This is as true in our congregations as it is in our families, our neighborhoods, our classrooms and our workplaces. If you’re finding yourself – every week – finding fault, whether that’s here, or at work, or at home. I challenge you to redirect your sense of devotion to what is going right. Be devoted to what is excellent or inspiring. This doesn’t mean never to speak out about short-comings, or to take care of yourself, or your loved ones. The people that rarely lift up issues, or defend themselves, are not the ones I’m speaking to right now. I definitely want to hear from the folks that rarely speak up. But if you’re always speaking up, and you’re finding it harder and harder to enter into a sense of the holy, humble quiet, then the spiritual depth of a different kind of devotion may be spiritually instructive here. Learn to look to the good once more, and go deeper where things are well and nurturing. We can fixate on imperfections to the point of idolatry, and yes, UU’s teach against idolatry too, it steals away from us the timeless. Idolatry and mindfulness have a hard time dwelling together.
Call it a contrition from perfectionism. It’s about us, the community, the Holy Church (to take a teaching from the Catholics.) Idolatry wears away at community, and compassion, and patience. It wears on friends, on family members, on coworkers, and fellow congregants. It wears away on lay leaders and volunteers who give their all, week after week and year after year – including yourself when you find yourself in the thrall to the idolatry of perfectionism. In Catholic teaching, one understanding of the Body of Christ is that is refers to the population of the church. The living community is God’s body on earth and in eternity. There’s a powerful lesson there that has meaning for our covenantal faith – our religious community – the people that make us up – is the grounding for the holy – may we ever strive to live into that truth.
Catholicism taught me that humans aren’t perfect. A simplistic understanding of our earliest Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing who I mentioned earlier, taught a theology of Salvation through Character- somewhere along the way got mixed up in our DNA to think that he meant “Perfection through Character.” He didn’t mean Perfection through Character. He meant that our souls grow and mature through character; not that our egos achieve perfection through character. He didn’t mean for that to get confused, but we got sloppy as a faith, and let that seep into our spiritual DNA. Right Relationship and Covenant bring us back into community and wash away the idolatry of perfectionism, but you need to be willing to let it. And being willing, being contrite before our sense of Rightness (not righteousness, but our sense of Rightness) is a deep spiritual challenge for all people. But that is part of the spiritual work this Fellowship is called to do.
And when you find your mind wandering away during the prayer or candle-lighting – sorting through to-do lists or your kids’ sports schedules – come on back to the time of mindfulness, of awe, of spirit. I promise you, the busy and the production will still be there when you come back to it. The times of quiet and song lift up our gaze, and our center; they renew us for the work ahead and soothe the times of hardship that can’t be willed away. It’s in these moment that we find that key to the door we’ve walked by a thousand, thousand times. In humility before the awe at the center of life, may we grow to be a blessing in return.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/15/16 as part of our annual Bridging service recognizing our Senior Youth’s transition into adulthood.
Our annual Bridging service always makes me think about growing up and changing times. Over the years, I’ve noticed how we all have someone in our lives who will always see us as the same person they knew so many years ago. You all know the phenomenon. You’ve got a sibling who will always see you as the controlling type. Or you have a daughter who will always see you as the annoying mom. Maybe you’re the happy type and some friends have a hard time recognizing when you’re in pain. Who here has parents who still see them as mostly irresponsible and totally uptight? (You all have diplomatic immunity right now, so parents this one doesn’t count against them.) Who here has children who still think their parents haven’t a clue? (see turn about is fair play.)
Earlier in our service, Starr spoke about the story of the “Hero’s Journey.” Stories are powerful and informative; sometimes they lead us forward and sometimes they get in our way. Starr spoke about the positive kind of stories; I want to talk about the ones that aren’t so positive, even if we sometimes think they are. We have two competing stories in our society. “If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life.” The second pops up in dating advice when things go sour, “No one ever really changes.” We sometimes flip back and forth between those two when we want to hear a different answer. Both are true in their own way, or we wouldn’t repeat them as much as we do. But both are also not quite right.
For the first – dreaming big enough – think about school. The story goes like this: If you work hard enough you can get into a great school, and a whole lot of opportunities can open up for you. But sometimes dreaming big isn’t about getting into the great school, it’s about stepping away for a time from how things are usually done. It can be about taking the time away from the crazy pace and reflecting on the life you want to make. What is it these days – starting most seriously in 7th grade or 8th grade – test after test that determines compliance with national data points rather than personalized teacher goals? Our Coming of Age youth feel the pressure, and many of our parents don’t like it, and many of our teachers think it has the opposite impact than intended.
And by 16 you’ve got pressure to decide what you’ll study as an adult – if you take the path of college – that may or may not determine your first career. The story goes: If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life… just make sure that you start planning it by the time you’re 12. If you can’t hear the italics in my voice from your seats, know that that’s kind of fantastical thinking. At the age of 12 you’re not going to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, so take a deep breath, and know that it’s ok.
To our Seniors graduating High School this year, as an adult you can always decide to do things differently. Sometimes you’ll have repercussions for the choice you make though. Here’s a secret I’m going to let you in on right now. Even if when the time comes to make that kind of life-changing decision, you decide not to do things differently, there are still repercussions. That’s the great lesson of adulthood – you can’t get away from it. You can change your major 7 times like I did, and still be fine. (environmental science, teaching, English, anthropology, archaeology, religion, urban planning and then (finally) onto seminary.) You can drop out of college, like I did, and pick up the pieces later. Or you can delay college, and take the time to figure out what you need to do without the pressure of high cost tuition till you know what your heart wants. And your heart may change over time – in fact it likely will.
That’s the part of cliche dating advice, “No one ever really changes,” that’s a bit off. A lot of people actually change quite a bit over time. We just don’t always see it over the short-term. It’s why some of us will always be seen as the controlling sibling, or the clueless parent, or the irresponsible child. Changing bits at a time are often hard to see, and families tend toward stasis … acting the way we always acted …. having the same fights we’ve always had. (Does that happen also in congregational life? Do we have stories we tell over and over again that are only felt because we keep telling the false story? We probably keep telling them because the folks that know the stories aren’t true stay quiet. That’s another hard lesson of adulthood, silence doesn’t make problems go away.)
With adulthood, there’s a chance to change some of that, and yet we often change less than we could. When we move out of the house (for the first time) the world feels so different. When we return home for the first time – everything feels like it hasn’t changed a bit, but it all feels so strange. It feels like our childhood home could fit in one of those glass snow globes, and we’re a stranger looking in from the outside, able to shake out the memories but not go back inside.
For those of us who have been driving already, maybe for a while – do you remember that first time you got into a car and drove away from home? Even if it was just for the afternoon? What did that feel like to you? I remember this incredible sense of freedom – even though I knew I needed to go back home that day. Things were somehow different. I had more control over my life. Entering adulthood is like that feeling. But as time goes on, that feeling disappears. Maybe major changes, like shifting careers, or moving to the City or away from it, or graduating from college, might trigger the feeling again. But for the most part, over time those feelings are forgotten.
I think that forgetting is part of why we start to believe that people don’t change, or that we can’t change. We fall into our habits, or take on responsibilities, or feel real obligations, and change becomes harder and harder with greater and greater repercussions. But remember – repercussions happen whether we change or not. We just need to choose or accept which repercussions we can learn to live with.
Growing up is like a scene from “Mission Impossible” (I’m thinking the old T.V. show and not the snazzy recent movies – but that’s just because I’m of-a-certain-age.) Some mysterious figure comes up to you, hands you an otherwise impossible assignment, and pretends like you have a choice in the matter. Then all record of what you have to accomplish goes up in a puff of smoke and fire, and you’re left picking up the pieces. For the most part, everything will work out as well as it could for an otherwise impossible set-up. You just have to figure a way with the cards that you have been dealt, with the team that you have. Or in the words of the great UU Philosopher-Theologian, Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” (from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)
But there’s another flip to all of this. Growing up is not just about you. If you can change, make big choices in life, see and live in a new way – then the people around you can do the same as well. When you find yourself saying, “why won’t Mom realize that I’ve grown up, that I’m an adult now,” …and believe me you will find yourself saying that very soon… look for how you’re treating Mom or Dad the way you always have. If they’re treating you the same as usual, you’re probably also stuck doing the same. As an only child I can’t say from personal experience that it’s worse among siblings, but I’ve seen many friends whose sibling rivalry or sibling friendship grow only more intense over time. It’s a great trick in the work-world as well. It’s why people give the advice, “Start as you mean to continue.” Because whatever way you begin, is often how people will expect, or even demand, you to be around them. It takes a long time to change your patterns, and folks often take an even longer time to recognize the newness in your habits and styles. Just keep at it, and your world will eventually catch up.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Mothers’ Day 5/8/16. It hearkens back to the origins of the holiday as a women’s movement for peace.
Happy Mothers’ Day to all our mothers, and to all those hoping to some day be mothers. Since Fathers’ Day is rarely celebrated here in the Summer months, let me extend the same to all our dads, and dads-to-be. And for those of us who are mourning our parents, or mourning our kids, may we hold them in our hearts this hour so that the memories that are good may echo on in our own living actions.
As some of you may already know, before there were Hallmark cards, Mothers’ Day was started as a day of peace. It was a political activist call for Mothers to stand united to call for the return of their sons and daughters home from war. It’s grown into a secular holiday that celebrates motherhood, but it’s rooted in a peace movement.
A peace movement may seem a bit quieter these days than it did generations ago, but it’s no less important. As I remind us from time to time, my generation, and the generation that came before me and the generation that’s coming after me, have never really known a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war. Even if it might seem to most of us that war doesn’t really affect us. Some of us have family that are abroad, or have friends who have died in war. I personally haven’t felt that loss close to home, although I do have a lot of family on both sides who have served, or are serving right now. For most of us who don’t know anyone serving in active duty, war is a thing that’s far away, or just in video games. We don’t have to put ourselves at risk. We don’t have to ration butter like they did in World War II. We don’t have to risk being drafted by the military against our will, like folks had to in the Vietnam War.
For many of us, we can kind of forget about it. And that’s a sad thing. It’s not sad because we’re not really affected. It’s sad because some Americans are very, very affected, but most of us don’t have to share that burden. A few people are asked to accept huge risks to their safety and quality of life, while most of us don’t have to shoulder anything at all. It’s sad because it makes it easy to think war’s not that big of a deal, when it’s a huge deal for some people. It makes me wonder if bringing back the draft weren’t a good idea after all – at least everyone would realize that war might affect them, and maybe we would go to war less frequently or with more reservation. I do recognize that sometimes defending ourselves is necessary. By less frequently – I mean – “not being at war all the time.”
Now, I’m not going to solve the problem of war and peace in the following 10 minutes, but I would like us to look at the idea of peace in a possibly different way. I think there’s kind of an art to it. I remember a Buddhist proverb that I’ve mentioned from time to time, that says, “If you want peace, smile.” I recall that the first time I heard that I thought the Buddhist teacher was a little crazy, and probably minimizing the idea of peace. I’ve come to see it a little differently. Let’s do a quick experiment.
Everyone here – try something with me for just 10 seconds. On the count of 3, smile. And not a half-hearted smirk. I want a real, full-blown, smile. Pretend your happy – just for 10 seconds. Ok, ready… 1…. 2… 3…. :::smile:::
Alright everyone, you can stop smiling now. If you need to go back to frowning, feel free. Although you may want to bask in the waves of niceness coming off everyone for a few more minutes first. Did anything bad just happen? Did anyone break out into a fight? No, good. By a show of hands, did anyone actually feel better, you know, happy?
That’s what the Buddhists are getting at. With some rare exceptions, if you smile, a sense of peace does break forth. I learned this smiling trick had some real-world work applications too. In a former career, I ran a computer helpdesk for 5 years. I would tell my staff that the more someone on the other end of the phone was driving them crazy, the more they should force themselves to smile. It’s hard to sound mean while you smile. I’m sure you can do it, but it’s tougher. … (smiling) “When you say that your computer crashed, and you went to your email, and then nothing happened… what sort of nothing actually happened…?”
So where does the “art” piece come in that I mentioned? Let me tell you the story of Vashti and “the Dot” by Peter. H. Reynolds.
… “She handed him a piece of paper and said, ‘show me.’… and now.. ‘please …. sign it.’” I think that’s where the art comes in when we’re talking about crafting peace in our lives. It’s not about being perfect, or doing it all, or having all the answers. It’s not always about diplomacy, or bigger muscles, or smarter brains. Sometimes it’s about being willing to make our mark, even when we can just muster a smirk on our faces. It’s about play, and experimentation. But it’s also about being willing to “sign it.” To put our name, or our commitments, to the things we care most about.
You notice how Vashti realized that she wasn’t the only person who could learn how to make art? I love this story because it reminds us that even when she’s kind of the hero of the tale because she learns to be an artist, she extends that gift upon someone else. She finds another classmate who was feeling all down because he was really bad at drawing a straight line (a fellow after my own artistic heart – a ruler doesn’t always help me either.) (In fact, I had to ask Starr to help me with setting up the easel and
especially the straight lines that were pre-drawn on our canvas for this morning’s story. Yes, sometimes’ I’m that bad.)
So Vashti finds that other classmate, and she inspires him to bring about his own talent, to make his mark, and to sign his name onto what he just crafted.
That’s the art of peace. It’s about coming to accept we can do whatever small thing we can do – even if it’s just making our mark in a small way at one time and place. Then owning our efforts for what they are. And most importantly, helping to inspire another person after us to be creative in their own way.
During our service this morning, we crafted mosaics out of many differently colored squares (were there any peace mosaics made?) Each was just one little bit of color, that on its own didn’t do much to create the colorful symbol of peace. But when many of us each made our own mark, over and over again, it became a lot easier to make out the symbol of peace that was lying there waiting to show vividly in color.
For those of us who believe in God, we often see God’s presence in things like this. Individual acts of compassion or care, over time, seem to paint a pattern that’s hard to see if you only look at the one act. We all benefit from so many acts of kindness that have allowed us to live as we do, too many to see by themselves, and there is a sense for some of us that they’re leading to something more.
When we leave this service, what can those marks of peace look like? Let’s hear some ideas, I’ll repeat them back if I can hear you so that we can all hear…. what can those marks of peace look like?
Those are all great. We can start even before we leave this room. Go back to that exercise we had earlier in this homily – the smiling one. Start there. Go up and speak with someone you don’t know – whether they’re new to us, or you’ve been ignoring them for 20 years. Take this day to deepen your connections with a friend or a stranger. It’s the foundation for peace.
It’s also the art for building a more effective ministry in this congregation. To paraphrase a colleague, “To be welcomed, is to be welcoming.” When we haven’t been reached out to, we can always be the one to reach out. I think of Vashti and her teacher. Vashti had no interest in making art. Her teacher didn’t accept Vashti’s lack of excitement for an answer, and kept meeting her halfway till she came along. Sometimes we all have to do that in community, or in our playgrounds. When others aren’t meeting you where you are, sometimes you have to meet them where they are. There’s no rule for it, but there is an art to it.