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.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/5/18. It looks at conversation as a core religious practice, at diversity as a social value, and at the increasingly fragmented extremes of contemporary political life.
Happy August everyone. It’s good to be back in the pulpit after my July break. We just heard a story from Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister serving our congregation in Austin. She’s talking about raising her sons with questions, and conversations, rather than them learning to talk atfolks, and to avoid talking at length without hearing the other. There’s a little bit of a jab at how so many boys are raised to become men who talk at, and talk at length. But it’s more about raising the next generation to learn to strive to be in conversation with those around them. Conversation – the bedrock of community. It’s essential to meaning, to connection, to understanding our neighbor. If loving our neighbor is a core religious principle, then conversation is a core religious practice.
Our nation, and our communities, seem to be drifting away from free dialogue, from conversations toward talking at one another. I don’t mean to suggest that every extreme notion, every hateful ideal seemingly plaguing us daily, should be normalized and respected. There are apologists aplenty for every hateful thing these days, and they deserve censure. Separating children from their parents on the border has no rationale based in merit or ethic; white supremacy is alive and well on our streets, and on the internet, and should be instantly and loudly rebuked. The media is clearly not the enemy of the people, and anyone espousing such reveals themselves as a fan of tyranny – that is a long-established fact if we make even a cursory look at the history books.
But I’m increasingly seeing otherwise normal views and opinions from traditional conservatives, everyday centrists, and progressives on the left, being blown out as radical ideas or extremist in perspective. Or ideas that once were a given, are now put into question. Talking points become wielded ateach other, much like our story where one kid speaks at length without making room for conversation. (Some of my liberal friends can’t seem to find common ground with some of my progressive friends, over the slightest difference of perspectives.)
And worse, views that are in the range of “normal” get framed as crazy. Just this week I’ve seen or heard TV, News, or social media decry the idea that ‘should someone working full time be paid enough to afford their rent’ as a radical left notion…. radically Leftist, to be able to work for a living. We now have the ability to 3D print plastic guns and there is a sizeable contingent that fervently believe blocking that, is a threatto their first and second amendment rights; as if not being able to trace killers were suddenly a social good, or not being able to screen known criminals were in our best interest. And apparently now, funding election security has become a partisan issue – as if the sanctity of our democratic process is suddenly a debatable point. This is not normal, and it should remain abnormal. But for all the rest, I think we have some work on our hands in reknitting the social fabric, for the common good. Conversation is a core religious practice.
I was talking with a Canadian colleague back in June while working on one of our UUA continental committees, and I casually made the old melting pot metaphor that most of us grew up hearing as normal. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I knew it was going to be problematic. The old goal of everyone coming to America and melting into one common identity, as if we were some primordial soup, was progressive in its day, but it’s regressive for us now. It doesn’t leave room for folks who were here before the US; it doesn’t leave room for folks who were brought here against their will. And especially saying that to a Canadian who has a different sense of national identity, it wasn’t a helpful phrase. She suggested what they prefer in Canada, when they are talking about people coming together – they say making a mosaic together.
Now for the more cynical of us – I grew up in New Jersey, and I lived in New York for 15 years now – I know cynical. The cute phrases can make our eyes roll. But in our current climate where the absurd and hateful is given free press, and the normal and kind is called radical, I’m going to make room for any cute phrase that gives us a chance for imagining a new way. Mosaics are a better metaphor for both a national and a community roadmap.
The theme for this month, is Unity and Diversity. Each week this month we’ll reflect on what it means to be a people of Unity and a people of Diversity. How do we do both? When we build mosaics in arts, or on our bathroom tiles, we take a range of shapes and colors and blend them together to create a broader picture. What came before is still there, and its uniqueness is used to craft something new – unity and diversity. The melting pot ideology that informed my grandparents generation left my family speaking only English. My mother grew up hearing her grandparents speaking Italian, and her step-father speaking Spanish, but none of it stuck by adulthood, because her mother wanted to ‘help her become American’ – which meant then, onlyspeaking English. …I’m lesser for it. My grandmother had the best of intentions, but the melting pot metaphor hurt my family, and stole from me part of my heritage and culture. That shouldn’t be normal.
The image in the news of white people screaming at people to speak English in America, is the logical conclusion of a weaponized form of the melting pot. It’s also not normal – it’s a form of social sickness – it’s the inversion of loving our neighbor, that all religions teach us. It’s also an extreme form of talking atone another, rather than seeking conversation.
In many ways, it comes down to this: We have a quote at the top of our order of service from Audre Lorde that reads, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” At the founding of our nation, we valued freedom, liberty, and justice for all – but the for all part meant mostly white male landowners – and of course heterosexual. That for all part would expand bit by bit over the decades – slowly. But we didn’t yet have in our national identity a sense that diversitywas a value we ascribed to – or celebrated. Diversity wouldn’t really become a national value until the 1960s (at best.) I never grew up in a world where that word wasn’t seen as a positive – in the broadest sense. But that’s comparatively new to our national identity. Valuing diversity seems normal to us now, but it wasn’t always so, and it appears that part of our nation wants to go back to a time when it wasn’t valued. As hate speech, and hate politics, become normalized at the highest level of our government, it’s increasingly coming under fire. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
If conversation is a core religious practice, we come now to our second core religious practice – developing the muscles that help us to recognize, accept and celebrate diversity, to celebrate our differences. The kneejerk toward sameness is more than unhealthy; it is dangerous for our neighbors. And as our world becomes smaller and smaller in this era of globalization, straining for sameness is dangerous for our nation and our planet. We’re all human, but we’re not all the same; and seeking to force everyone to melt into yoursense of identity, has never been the answer. We shouldn’t be treated less for our cultural background, and we shouldn’t ignore our cultural differences either, they are who we are.
Our central values change over time. Justice for all has become wider and more mature as we have developed as a people. Diversityhas become a moraland an ethic, and we are better for it. Audre Lorde reminds us to not only accept, and value, but to celebrateour differences, for they are praiseworthy. The art of mosaics only come about through those differences placed together. We as a people change and grow over time, and how we see and understand the world is circumscribed by the tenor of our philosophy, our education, and our religious wisdom. Do we hear in the news about a government sponsored “Religious Liberty Task Force” and know it to mean a body that will protect the rights of marginalized religious groups like Muslims, Sikhs and Jews (who still suffer under anti-Semitism in broad daylight,) or will it become religious and political code for ensconcing the religious bigotry of an already overly empowered and privileged extremely conservative and regressive form of fundamentalism that borders on religious law – the very opposite of what our nation was founded on? Doublespeak, and political grandstanding should not be wedded with true religious life, and as spiritual people, we need to remain stalwart against such travesties as the anathema they are. We must celebrate our differencesand not seek to replace spiritual righteousness with an empty monopoly of privilege. (Remember in the original Hebrew, “biblical righteousness” implied community, it meant solidarity with all the people, not the stridency of those already with power.) The stridency of poweris a cult form of Christianity, and holds no spiritual depth, or meaning.
We change and grow over time, as individuals and as a people. To stay with the general art metaphor that comes about from thinking of mosaics, art history reflects this growth. Classical art was often an expression of things as they were, studies in light and dark, studies in form, studies in contrasts and dualities. Impressionism would come along and rock the art world, as a study in how things appearedto the artist. Perspective and location all of sudden mattered. Modernism would argue that there was still one central truth, but we all saw it from our own understanding. Post-modernism (now 30 years old at least – wow), would radically say there were multiple truths simultaneously. Radical for Western philosophy, but plain as day when looking at our global world.
Balancing on the theological cusp between modernism and post-modernism, the Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church would describe theology, spirit, and God as a Cathedral of All Souls. Each window in the cathedral was different, from clear, to mosaics that reflected all the world religions. He would suggest that God’s Light would emanate the same through each window, but each window would reflect it in accordance with it’s particular flavor. There is still one truth, but we each understand it according to our perspective and location in the cathedral. It’s a little like the story of the elephant and the blind men, each describing the part of the elephant they touch, as if it were the whole or essential elephant. They all have a piece of the puzzle, but arguing over which was right, as if all the rest were wrong, is a clear example of what Audre Lorde cautioned us against. Learning to celebrate our differences brings us closer to an intimation of what we can not see ourselves alone.
This homily on blessings, begins with a celebration of our music director retiring after 21 years, and ends with a hard look at our government’s practice of separating children from their parents on our border.
This morning’s story is one of my favorite folk tales. You’ll likely to hear it from me annually at some point, and I think you have. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.
Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.”They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.
I’ll begin this message with celebration, and the local matter of our own Fellowship, and we’ll find our way toward the broader matters of our world, along the way. Richard – you’ve been with us for 21 years. It speaks to your talent, your temperament, and your ability to teach us in ways that we are open to. I picked our wondering this morning, the story of Stone Soup, thinking of you. It’s the story I told on my last worship service with my former congregation, and I know it applies even more so here.
The stranger in the story with the magic stone, is the parable for the best kind of teacher. Blessing their students with an awareness to their own talents. There’s an art to teaching, and there’s an art to such blessing. Some of our singers are pros, and some want your help in bringing out the talents they don’t always know they have. It’s the ego-less way of teaching. I know we’ll joke from time to time about how just a look from you can terrify the choir into action. But as true as that may be, your ministry with us is mostly from that place of ego-lessness. You remind us that we have that spare parcel of food in the kitchen, and we have it within ourselves to share it with the wider community – so that together we can make a meal for all that come to our table hungry on Sunday mornings. Thank you for that precious gift.
And, eventually, the stranger in the story leaves; and leaves the magic stone behind. The town learned the secret of building community. Other meals would be made together, again and again. All of the work any of us do in life, is always interim, always in-between. Sometimes it’s far shorter than we would like, and sometimes we are blessed with a long tenure, as we have been these 21 years. The mark of success for any of us, is how well we honor what came before, and bring it forward, true to who we are always becoming. I’m confident our choir will continue to show your success.
A strong choir is a good metaphor for a strong congregation. The person conducting has to manage their own sense of ego, while helping people to bring forth their talents. Although the choir director often can sing, themselves, they can’t do 15 part harmony alone. So too, that’s true for our congregation. It takes all of us to live that 300 person harmony in the world.
As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, I’ll ask each of us to use this time as a chance for reflection. I asked this question of us five years ago when I first arrived here, and with this major transition in our ministry team, it feels right to ask it again. We should reflect on this as a community from time to time. Our committee on ministry will be leading some of this reflection work in the new Fellowship year. But for right now…
What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation?
Sometimes, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call? This is the art in blessing – fitting the world’s needs with the grace we have been given – and letting ourselves admit that we may have that grace stashed away in the kitchen cabinets of our soul.
What stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it?
How does that connect with the everyday, and how you engage in this community? … Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 50 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you letyourself find it?
We sometimes need to own for ourselves – what we commit to or haven’t really committed to – in our community. Sometimes it’s the world, or the congregation, and sometimes it’s us.
If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? Sunday school continues all Summer long. Just as will our services. If you’re in town, and not on vacation, we hope to see you here. [possibly insert flyer for July preaching.] (and I’ll be back in the pulpit all of August.)
If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged? (Who are our social justice team folks – can you raise your hand? Consider talking with them over coffee hour, the world still needs us in July.)
There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars.
And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise.It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.
Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.
Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals.
I’ll close this sermon by talking about the other meaning of the story of Stone Soup. Sometimes people coming into town with magic rocks, aren’t bringing out our best selves; sometimes they are charlatans, and they are taking advantage of our worst selves, for their own profit. Not all stones are magical, and not all teachers are true.
The implicit lectionary for this week, was given to us by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. He blasphemously quoted Romans 13 to argue that God approves of pulling children from their parents at the border, because we should follow the law of the nation. The tragic sentiment was echoed later in the day by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by using the racist dog whistle of saying we are a nation of law and order to echo that the Bible supports following the law.
Now, I could spend our precious time this morning arguing that proof-texting scripture to fit your personal and individual moral code is bad exegesis. Romans 13 was largely telling Christians – basically – yes, still pay your taxes. But that the core of the message is that “loving your neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.” Essentially, the Attorney General, like a Pharisee of old, relied upon the letter and not the spirit.
For those that want more of those details, follow me on facebook, and much of my posts of the last few days have been about that. But there’s a much deeper concern with this take on scripture…. It’s been done before…. When the US government tried to qualify the atrocity known as the Fugitive Slave law – proponents of “law and order” strategically quoted Romans 13 to demand northern states return escaped slaves. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant.
Nazi Germany, would use Romans 13 to argue that Jews should be rounded up. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant. Now, the sitting Attorney General of the United States, is putting himself in the hateful company of Nazi and Slave apologists by falsely using scripture to argue we should separate immigrant children from their parents on our border – with one of the rationales being stated as “a deterrent for other immigrant mothers.” As if children should be used as a leverage to win some political game. This is sin. This is exactly sin. If that word makes you uncomfortable, this is the right moment to use that word – sin. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – here are the people that separated children from their parents – Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. We have crossed a line – we have become biblically speaking – empire at its worst. It’s the exact moment in Hebrew and Christian, and Muslim scriptures that teaches us loudly – turn away, and back to that righteous path. And the leaders we should follow, are the ones that are being targeted by Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. Not the ones hiding behind empty and hypocritical claims of law and order.
I thank Greta, and our many members who gave public witness on Thursday night for the atrocities at our border. We will continue to keep all of us as informed as we can as a community. This week, our denomination gathers in Kansas City for our annual General Assembly. I fully expect we will be making formal statements of condemnation for this practice, with further calls to action. Expect to hear more soon. And remember, when charlatans try to dance around and make mockery of basic ethics and morals, remember, loving our neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.
This sermon reflects on the intersection of the Beatitudes and Liberation Theology.
All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of blessing. Last week we celebrated the blessing of our youth, as they discerned their own sense of faith through their year of coming of age, and where we recognized our oldest youth joining our ranks as adults. We very much are blessed by their presence and their insights.
Blessing, or being blessed, is a word that means different things to different people. From the most mundane greeting after a sneeze, to the curt “bless your heart” after someone is less than their best selves – we casually use it in every day language. Sometimes, it’s a prayer for another in times of hardship, and it’s the spiritual response or emotion in the face of Grace realized in our lives. In the common American Christian sense, it’s all of these things. Jesus leaned toward a meaning closer to a sense of Grace than the others, but he did so in a way that our modern ear doesn’t always register. Blessing wasn’t a cutesy thing for Jesus. And his sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, were a series of very serious teachings about blessing.
We’ve heard two contemporary versions of the Beatitudes today – one a poem by a UU clergy colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, an active leader in the Moral Mondays movement, following the national leadership of Rev. William Barber. And one a video clip of Rev. Nadia Booz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints. Both women having a calling in the ministry that seeks to serve those who are not always well served, who are judged, who are held back and held down. Our quartet sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional words just now as well.
Let’s hear them again as they were written in scripture:
“The Beatitudes (NSRV)
When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The last line is the one that many of us hear that gets us to think all this is about heavenly rewards. Jesus does preach salvation; and he also preaches that the “Kingdom of Heaven will be known in [our] midst.” He’s talking both about a spiritual reality and he’s talking about salvation while we’re alive – building a community that is heaven on earth – in our midst.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount, is a sermon on blessing, and a teaching on how we might understand the spiritual message more deeply. Blessing is a gift of sorts, and it is also a teaching for all of us. Jesus is telling us where God resides. God blesses the poor in spirit (the downtrodden, the exhausted, the oppressed) and God is with them; God blesses those who mourn, they are not alone in spirit. God blesses the meek and tells us the earth is their true inheritance. Mercy, peacemakers, and those who are wrongly persecuted, all find God’s blessing. Blessing isn’t about a feel-good feeling in the Beautitudes.
Like most of Jesus’ teachings, some of this doesn’t seem to logically follow. Most of those blessed, are choosing the harder path – or have the harder path chosen for them. Little of the Beatitudes point to anyone going through anything we would easily call a gift; but Jesus says they are blessed. We shouldn’t understand it as a reward, but a natural outcome of being in right relations with our neighbor. Grace, peace, and mercy are the outcomes of living a path of grace, peace and mercy.
This is core to the Christian message. Power, and privilege, are not the way of Jesus. God is with the least of us, the exhausted, the meek. Dr. James Cone, the most influential Christian theologian of the past 50 years, and whose life was recently celebrated and mourned at his funeral at Riverside Church in NYC, would change Christian theology – or rather I believe, course correct it – by teaching that God was on the side of oppressed. His theology was a large part of what helped save Christianity for me. He was the founder of Black Liberation theology in the US, and Liberation theology globally. Dr. Cone would famously state, like Jesus ending on the Cross, God was on the lynching tree. Each generation is guilty of crying “crucify him” or “them” again and again. And those guilty are certainly not the heroes of the parable or the heroes in the news today. In seminary, Professor Cone would ask us where we kept ourselves, where we positioned ourselves, amidst all the horrors of the world. It would be no stretch to say today, as we hear the horrors of children being stripped from their parents at border detention centers, that God is lying in those cages today with those children. And we can hear the echos of the crowds crying crucify them in our tragic politics of xenophobia and isolationism…. Where are we? And Jesus teaches, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek.
There’s a tendency to try to strip Jesus’ teachings of their punch. To think the Beatitudes and blessings are sugary coated truisms. Jesus was never sugar-coated. Jesus was teaching what right living was about, and where we should find ourselves. If we are full of judgement more than mercy, if we are building up cages and walls more than we are making peace and aiding the poor and hungry, we are assuredly not blessed. Where we give room for no mercy, we will know no mercy ourselves. You can hear that as a message about the afterlife; you can also hear that as a warning for the state of our own humanity as we live into our days.
To tie the earlier Navajo (or Dine) teaching into Jesus’ message of flipping the story of power – beauty is all around us.When we walk in such a way as to honor the beauty around us, move with meekness in the face of reverence, rather than with power over all before us, we flip the story of power, and the blessing in return is our inheritance. For those that lord over the earth, who rule over things, and treat people as things, are themselves living as things. In the clutch and grab of greed and avarice, in the callousness of mercilessness …we have things… but we have no spiritual inheritance. We fail to know the beauty of creation, to appreciate the gift of life, and we abandon the deeper comfort of the spirit, the true value of this earth, and we know no mercy in the relentless hunger of the ego. And create hell on earth for those around us.
That’s the core of the Christian message. We should not live as kings over things, but as equal citizens of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. That’s what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven would be known in our midst. We build it, and God’s blessings point us on the right path. That is the inheritance Jesus speaks of when he teaches the meek will inherit the earth. It’s the early meaning of righteousness that gets lost to our contemporary ear. I’ve said this recently, but I’ll say it again, because misunderstanding this word causes so much harm in our world – righteousness. Misunderstanding it pushes so many people away from religion. The early Hebrew meaning of righteousness implies a sense of solidarity with the wider community. It’s justice with the implication of community. We all come ahead together, or there is no righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That sounds very different when you think righteousness is about right belief, than when you know it means justlycaring for all the people as one community.
I’ll end with some actions in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, now led by the Rev. William Barber, is deeply theologically rooted in Jesus’ teaching of blessings. It may intersect with our political world, but it is a purely theologically grounded prayerful action. I know some of our members are taking part in public witness with this work up in Albany (check with Social Justice, or Susan K to learn more about how you can take part.) This coming Thursday, Greta will be taking part in public witness with an event our Fellowship is cosponsoring in Huntington Village- a prayer vigil drawing attention to the 1500 children who are missing after our government separated children from their parents at the Border. I don’t mean the kids that are kept in cages at the border, I mean the 1500 children we took from parents and lost track of. And this practice predates our current administration – going back from some news reports as early as 2014. Parents and kids are separted when both parents are taken into custody for criminal action. Typically, they are fostered out for the duration of the criminal custody of the parents. Associated Press reported recently that with this practice, our Government typically doesn’t get more than an 85% response rate from the households where kids are fostered – when they try to check up on them. This whole crisis is exaberated now, as our current administration chooses to prosecute parents as criminals for trying to seek saftey within our borders. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
I know so much of what we hear feels like a daily firehouse of horror. We each can’t attend to everything. And it’s still important to pause and remember all the things that we should not think are normal – and make sure they remain understood as the horrors they are in the public mind. If we mindfully keep that truth in our awareness, we can continue to act where we need to act. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
This sermon was preached on 5/20/18 and reflects on learning to be creative, when your verve feels gone.
All of this month we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of creativity. From the creativity of our choir and our Music Director-led service at the start of the month, to last Sunday’s celebration of our almost one hundred year old Flower Communion service, which sought to imagine new ways to include and honor the diversity of humanity. This week we’ll look at the inverse of creativity, when we’ve lost our verve, and need to find our spark again.
There are some ways where this is a pretty constant challenge for many of us. In our current exacerbated political climate, which fosters serious risks to historically marginalized communities, many of us feel fatigued by the barrage. It’s always been there, but it seems right out in the open now, plain as day, and the wounds are very sore. I found myself numb on Friday when I learned of yet one more school shooting. Of course many of us are emotionally and spiritual worn to our core. We should be in the face of all that is broken in the world….
How do we keep our spirits up, how do we imagine new ways, how as good religious citizens, do we do our part as our hearts break again and again – sometimes to the point of numbness? And for some of us, home- and work-life is enough to keep us feeling like we’re just threading water. Keeping a family fed, or keeping a family together, or maybe leaving an unhealthy relationship, is all that we have the heart and will to manage right now. That might be enough to feel like our sparks have been blown out. And when they have been blown out, we feel the void in the center of our chest. How do we keep our spirits up?
There’s the practical side – not any one of us by ourselves can fix all the crises around us, or have control over all that happens in our family and work life. But we all, from our places of strength, need to do our part to help where we can. And still, the barrage leaves many of us feeling helpless and uninspired. And losing our verve, impacts all aspects of our life. We sleep more poorly, we’re less creative, we forget to feel joy, we become less effective.
I’m going to talk about how we can find our spark when we feel we lost it today in two main ways: 1) following our intentions and 2) following our distractions. Both are important in their own way – we all need a balance of intention and distraction. We’ll start with intentions, and I’ll close the sermon with talking about distractions.
[Tell story of the stonecutter]
I remember an old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Finding our spark, is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using that as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hardand forgetting to focus on our core intentions. The bad, or the not perfect, becomes our focus, and we exhaust ourselves to the point we stop seeing the good.
On Friday, as part of our Services Auction, I hosted a gathering for about 25 of us here, where we watched an episode of Doctor Who (a popular British kids show that’s been around for over 70 years.) I followed the showing with a reflection on the spirituality found in the episode. There’s a closing line in this one episode we watched where a character tells another, “There’s good in the world, and bad in the world. The good doesn’t always erase the bad, but the bad doesn’t override the good.” When our gaze forever and only falls on the bad, we let it erase the good for ourselves. And that’s exhausting, and usually heartbreaking. (Not that we should ever ignore the bad.)
I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. As the presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal church preaced at the Royal Wedding on Saturday morning, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” That’s at the core of what I’m talking about. Recognizing the worth around us, coming from a place of love. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And to be moved to actwith reverence for the people and life around us.
And what we bring to our everyday connections, is sometimes what we get in return. (Tell story of the dog that got lost in the funhouse mirror room.) And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts. It’s going into the mirror room at the funhouse and recognizing that how we related to the world around us, will be the scope of what we encounter in return.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it.
Fortunately, there’s nothing needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would do.
Take the night sky. Sometimes it’s hard to see many stars since we’re so close to NYC, but other nights it’s not so hard, and as Summer comes, I look forward to our youth camp out on the east end of Long Island where it’s very easy to see many stars. But assuming a clear night, the sky and stars are there every night, but not every night do we see it in all its glory. Often we just pass it by, with casual indifference, as if it were not some tremendous, amazing wonder, we are lucky enough to live beneath. It’s a modern retake on one of our oldest stories, of Moses and the Burning Bush. We can treat that story literally, or we can think it’s silly because bushes don’t burn and speak, or we can look a little more closely to what the story is teaching us. God speaks in a moment of vividness when the bush before God is alight. In a rare moment of grace and awareness, Moses sees a bush alive with fire and life – shining before all else, commanding his full attention. It’s a reworking of the story from the Torah, that later Rabbi and theologian Martin Buber would use to explain his theology of I-Thou. Buber would use the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive to your sight, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.
To take it down a notch, when a kid is seeing some awesome thing by the seaside that is so entrancing, or a cool rock that commands their attention, and their parent casually dismisses it, maybe the kid is onto something, and the adult may be missing out on a little bit of wonder. For most of our days, we pass by a thousand burning bushes, leaving thoughts of them to madmen and artists.
Where we place our intention, and maybe our attention, leads to cycles of joy and despair, we all have our spiritual swings as human beings. Whether it’s prayer, or meditation, a belief in God, Gods, or the oneness of all nature and being – we can go from deeply reverential moments knowing briefly the sanctity and splendor of creation, and in the next moment we can think we are alone and empty because a friendship ended, or a loved one broke up with us. The night is still starry with the wonder of creation, there continue to be burning bushes all around us, and yet we’ll still find ourselves distraught in our beds.
And we close with the opposite message. Creativity, and finding our verve again, is not always about what we do, what we intend, or what we attend to. Sometimes it’s about distraction. Looking at my own writing practice, folks will sometimes ask how long it takes to write a sermon. Most clergy who have been doing this for ten or more years, will say, it takes about 8 hours plus whatever reading you had to do to prepare for it. Some may say, it’s about half the job for a full time minister. Both are right and both are wrong. The weeks where I hammer out a 20 minute sermon in 4 hours of writing, happen because I spent most of the week with the idea in my head, and constantly stepped away from it, and back again. All the creative work was done up front, and the productive work came when the hard part was done.
When I get writer’s block – no amount of staring at my screen will add one more single word to the text. My best recourse is to get distracted. I’ll walk the dog for an hour and when I get back to my desk, I’m writing again. An important caveat – any distraction will not work – email is notoriously horrible at inspiring any creativity.
There’s a part of our human psyche that wants to believe everything we accomplish is fully due to our efforts, our intentions, our attentions and our strivings. They do matter, but when we’ve lost our verve, working harder won’t relight our spirit’s spark. But turning our gaze toward burning bushes aflame with the light of life, may turn us back on our right course.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/22/18 and looks at the perennially changing nature of life and spirit.
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
I’ve been reflecting a lot this year about being immersed in a season of change in our lives. It seems perpetual. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. (Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.)
We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story. They come together and they fall apart.
What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in? What changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?
And in the life of this congregation, I’m especially wondering about our new staff team in the coming year. When I got here five years ago (This weekend is the 5thanniversary of when you voted to call me to the ministry here with you,) all the other staff were here from periods ranging from 1 year to 16 years. Now the only staffer with more seniority is our bookkeeper who comes in twice a month. We have had a tremendous amount of transition, and we continue to. Some things we can control, and some things we can not. “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
Shortly we will hiring an acting religious education coordinator to cover our program while our DRE is on medical leave, though should she return after this long medical leave, the permanent position will no longer be full time. And after 21 years of service, our music director will be enjoying retirement. (Thank you Richard again for all that you have given us.) Whoever comes –next, will not be Richard. In the coming months, we will need to allow ourselves to leave room for grief, for relief, for misery and for joy. These are the days we are given.
And we choose to spend these days in community. What emerges from community can be the spiritual discipline to manage the pain, and to celebrate the good. In community, we grow, we fail, and we achieve. In community we learn, interact, exchange and connect. As Rev. Nguyen’s reading earlier reminds us, “We are part of community when we show upshiny and not so shiny. When we bring our sour and our sweet. When we shed the shiny and show up hungry.”
As a religiouscommunity, our central purpose, our strength on our good days, is in the realm of values. These days, we seem to be that rare place that explores values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams. And yes, change will happen here, even here – maybe especially here.
Instilling values is an art. It’s integral to the process of growing up. I have the suspicion that growing up is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Growing up is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe they are, then this is the greatest gift we can offer – both to the wider community and to ourselves.
Pema Chodron’s quote points us to the “longer view.” (Tell Buddhist Parable of the lost horse.) The failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run.
I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine. It doesn’t take away the horribleness of the sudden turn in or lives though. (The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy)
Last Sunday I told a little more about my own time growing up, laughing at the absurdity of all the well laid plans we make. I want to quickly focus in on one of those moments with today’s lens. When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life, just like we don’t have to be toddlers to still throw a wailing tantrum. (As I said last week, we are all the ages we have ever been.) Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same. I personally think it’s very bad theology to say everything happens for a reason; but I do think it’s true that we can find meaning and purpose in all the things that happen. It’s how the story of our life emerges. That ability to tell a story, may be the very thing that defines our humanity.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty to fifty years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is our task, regardless of age, to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor.In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives.We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, April 8th and looks at the poetry of T.S. Eliot as it speaks to times of change in our lives.
We just heard a few words from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland. The great poet, was one of ours before he wasn’t. He was raised Unitarian Christian, before he would begin to explore the world’s religions in depth, only to find his way back to Christianity in his later years. There’s a tension in his poetry that seems to return us again and again to that central reverence in life – the moment between the moments, when all else stops, and we are present to the eternal. There’s a way that in all his questing through world religions, he was striving for that eternal spirit at its core.
I first came to Eliot through religion. It was taught in religious studies, rather than English literature, at my undergrad. Going line by line through his dense allegories, required far more knowledge of folk, religion, and the classics than the common poem. And in an age before google, translating his non-english pieces took far more work than it does today. But like language and word choice, poetry sometimes takes the long way round, in order to help the hero in the story get back to the heart of their meaning. “The moment between the moments,” may reveal more meaning than telling someone to “simply pay attention.” It’s evocative, and that evocation brings us somewhere new.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” There’s so much to his epic narrative poem, but this line is the core spiritual message we’ll reflect on today. Eliot is traveling through the Wasteland. He’s feeling tired, feeling aged, and April is reminding him of the possibility all around him, that he feels cut off from. The world has possibility; he does not. Lilacs from what has died, brings back memories of yesteryear, and fresh spring rains taunt his dull roots that ultimately won’t respond. It’s an act of cruelty from his vantage of spiritual decline. Aging becomes a condition, rather than a perspective; banality rather than wisdom. And spring’s hope feels like a thing flaunted, rather than the road forward. It’s an extreme case of being cut off from the moment between the moments; the fullness of time causes us to forget the fullness of life.
The first few stanzas become a walk through memory lane. It shouldn’t surprise me that the poet that can write these sentiments into words, would be the same poet who would pen the silly verses about cats, that would lead to the same named Broadway play. If you instantly want to evoke a sense of nostalgia, begin playing in your head the song Memory, from the musical Cats, and it might get you to where Eliot is taking us in this poem at the beginning.
I want to point out two more ideas from this poem, before I go through my own sort of memory lane, and how we can spiritually use memory, or be used by memory. The point of this poetic message isn’t in staying in the Wasteland, but in finding the key through, in the image of the Hyacinth Girl. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl. – Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.” (empty and desolate is the sea). [The earlier german quote and this one together, are a reference to Tristan und Isolde, an 1865 opera by Richard Wagner about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde. The opera is based on a medieval romance that was absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with Tristan escorting the captured Isolde by ship to Cornwall.] Talk about pressing into a few words the fullness of another story. We know Eliot’s connection to the Hyacinth Girl is likened to an ill-fated romance. But what does she signify?
The flower and the girl are the counterpoint to lilacs out of dead land; the other side of dull roots with spring rain. She’s the force that doesn’t allow winter’s snows to keep us forgetful, but warm. If April reminds us of the fullness and the sting of time, the Hyacinth girl reminds us of the fullness of life – and that fullness, can leave us speechless – our eyes can not contain all of it, and it reminds us that all the things we think we know, amount to nothing in the face of that fullness.
How do you story your days? In the fullness of time, reflecting the cruelty of April’s seasonal time-clock of the spirit, or do you story it in the fullness of life, being stunned over and over in our not-knowing before it’s face?
Over the years here, I’ve told most, or probably all of these stories in one way or another. Today, I’m going to try to story them (this time) by reflecting on the tension of time and life.
When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.
I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 65 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat (and today, I laugh and laugh and laugh at all I did not know.) It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advice to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.
But not to knock the teens years too strongly, many of us keep coming back to that hard lesson in every stage of life. I learned in human development, that we areevery age we have ever been.Wanting what we already have doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we age.
I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves, or loving others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves – in the fullness of life – seeing the hair dripping wet as the poet tells us, and being stunned by encountering worth.
Moving forward in time – Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose. Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.
Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives (and I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.) Why do we tell that story? Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”
And for those that work hard, and succeed, or do well enough to just get by – believing in that roadmap – sometimes think it’s mostly about their effort, and not about the grace of being in the right place at the right time too. Or living into a world that privileges some, and makes it even harder for others. A recent study in the news this week indicated that “40% of white Americans think African Americans just have to work harder.” It’s painfulto hear that – 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. That so many white folk can forget the parts of history, the parts they need to forget, so that they can still pretend that silly map, that silly, dangerous map.
I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. (That combo is probably the main reason why I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot as I do.) I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected; That all hard work, in the fullness of time, is neatly sequential and ordered. When you hear me say that aloud, you’re probably thinking, no, of course it doesn’t work that way. But then we go about and live our lives as if that story was in fact the way it worked.
Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live.The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.
Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” All the rest are details. All the rest,will likely drive us mad if we let it. Human connection, attentiveness, being fully present to the fullness of life, rather than tracking the achievements in the fullness of time.
That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” (avoid making the joke about The Tick here.) Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace.
For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do. Lilacs do rise out of the dead land – and we don’t need to see them as April’s cruel reminder of possibility for other people – we can rise out of our own dead places, suddenly, through no fault or cause of our own – Grace.
But we still age – and the Wasteland will not allow us to avoid this truth.
For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.
Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t quite fit anywhere – but they were in the room, they kept making sure they were in the room.
That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends,who also loved you, around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.
That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed. Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?
For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing of her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, if I am so lucky as to make it to my elder years, that I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirit – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm. It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.