To Be Tamed

This sermon was originally preached at First UU in Brooklyn, NY on June 6th, 2010. We were celebrating the Bridging of one of our High School youth into adulthood.

This morning we celebrate our annual service of Bridging. Recognizing the massive life transitions for one of our children becoming an adult, Unitarian Universalists celebrate in ritual what is a sacred occurrence. A childhood of scraped knees, stressed out test taking and more head colds than anyone but a parent can truly appreciate, sacred is the most apt word I can find to name that moment that all this led up to. That moment that will in turn yield to a lifetime more. But before this moment, there was our first conversation together. We heard it a little bit ago from Dawn’s reading of the excerpt from the Little Prince.
“‘Come and play with me,’ the little price proposed…. ‘I can’t play with you,’ the fox said. ‘I’m not tamed.’” You may not recall ever asking this Olivia, you were likely too young remember. But I imagine you can hear the same question asked back at you from our youngest children, one of which shares the pew with you most Sundays. Our children ask us, the whole congregation, the whole Unitarian Universalist faith, to “come play with (them.)” To share in joy, and silliness, in chalice lightings and play-do. They come to us, asking to be in relationship with us, only they use the word “play” instead the big and fancy ones; but it means the same thing in the long run.
And the congregation responds, “I can’t play with you… I’m not tamed.” It takes years to tame us. “You have to be very patient,” the fox answered. “First you’ll sit down a little ways away from me, over there, in the grass. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye, and you won’t say anything. Language is the source of misunderstandings. But day by day, you’ll be able to sit a little closer…”. Countless Sundays teaching us through snack times reminding us of your needs, and the infants’ cries in worship reminding us to take solace in one another for the goings will not always be smooth. Over the years, our children and youth call us back to relevance for them. Requesting a worship service that at least has a time set aside for them, with the dream that someday it’ll all make just enough sense. You’ve taught us to offer an education that speaks to where you are, what you might become and gives you the capacity to make the life decisions you’ll need to make.
Not all foxes out there learn to do this, but this one has been tamed enough, I feel, to realize our role. Our role is to be tamed, or as the fox puts it, “to create ties.” We’re here to help bring more of our world into community with one another. We’re here to learn to forge real connections with the people near to us; and to develop a sense of compassion for those not in our sight. And we recognize that it takes a long time and a great deal of patience.
And sometimes there’s a parting of ways. ‘And when the time to leave was near: “Ah!” the fox said. “I shall weep.” (but) “I get something,” the fox said, “because of the color of the wheat.” Then he added, “Go look at the roses again. You’ll understand that yours is the only rose in all the world.”’ Olivia, the color of the wheat in the field is different now for our meeting. Wherever you travel, remember that you’ve been here. Remember that we’re more than a place with people who tend toward a progressive view in life. When you start college know that not all liberals you’ll meet will think like us, and some conservatives you’ll encounter may actually. We’re not the sum of our beliefs and opinions. Unitarian Universalism, this congregation and our relationship is a way of living, of acting and interacting. It’s religious and it’s cultural in differing ways.
But central to this is our commitment to walking together, even when we’re apart. In a recent conversation on this topic, a UU colleague of mine from Ohio, Ellen Carvill-Ziemer, suggested that I point out that although our twenties (that are fast approaching for you) are generally filled with wonder, and promise – they can be a rough time as well. You’re likely to find yourself wrestling with meaning and purpose in the world as you change towns, schools, work and careers. You’ll have to sift through thousands of conflicting messages, and we’re not likely to have given you all the answers. The fox reminds us of his secret that speaks directly to this. “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential is invisible to the eye.” Facts and details give way before relationship. I’m personally glad for this point. I was raised up in a faith that gave me the impression that it had given me all the answers and when I came to the realization that that was far from the truth, I felt a bit lost. I found myself searching and I found myself in this faith.
Ellen’s reminder though is a good one. This faith and this congregation and this community of friends and family will remain. When you feel backed into a corner, give us a call, or a post on our Facebook walls. (My text is even posted to my info tab – please use it.) Walk into a local congregation, or join a campus ministry in your area. (And if there isn’t a campus ministry let me know you’d like a hand and maybe I can help you start one. We’ve done it at NYU and we’re starting another at Pratt in the fall.) The answers may still be just as elusive, but we’ve never been in the business of answers – we’ve been in the business of building a bigger and closer neighborhood. You may have gotten into the habit of thinking this congregation is about this location. Almost all of our activities center around this beautiful home. But when you’re further away, don’t feel like this is gone. Because it’s really, really not.
I know that might be hard to believe. Some of us know you pretty well, some very well, and it’ll feel like a lot of folks barely know you at all. “…Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.” You know, when I first read the Little Prince as a High School French student I totally missed all the important bits like these because I was so focused on learning the words. This makes so much more sense in English. This message is completely true. I joined my first congregation, the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, when I was 19 years old. I was a young adult convert and was there for only three years; albeit three very full years. Thirteen years later, should I ever run into anyone from those days anywhere in this country, whether it’s off the coast of New Hampshire on an island, or a convention center in the middle of Utah, they come up to me with a smile on their face and look that says, “you’re one of ours.” They fully believe that my ordination is a positive mark on their record. And they’re probably right. There’s something to the Little Prince’s and the Fox’s notion of the rose you water and the wheat field that’s full of memory. As long as we’re here, we will be proud of you in your successes and ever available in your hardship. I say all this to convince you of my sincerity when I say, “reach out to us whenever you need.”
We take seriously the fox’s last injunction. “People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose…” “I’m responsible for my rose…” the little prince repeated, in order to remember. This is where the running metaphor gets tricky. Who exactly is the rose? We all are. You’re part of the congregation and you have both cared for us as this rose in your years of attention and commitment, in the caring you’ve given as a youth to our youngest children, in all the stories that took place before I myself got here. You’re also the rose. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned and you can imagine, we likewise feel responsible for you. Even as you graduate from our Religious Education program, let us continue to be responsible for each other.
“Where shall we adventure, today that we’re afloat, Wary of the weather and steering by a star?” this quote from the R.L Stevenson poem, Pirate Story our offertory was based upon, draws our wonder to the path ahead for all of us. There’s likely a big part of you that’s done with everything the high school years have come to mean. There’s likely a big part of all of us that are done with everything that the “insert your life-stage of choice here” has come to mean. We’re afloat, a bit weary for the tides and storms, and feel like we’ve come this way by doing mathematics in the dark of night, with nary a compass or sextant at hand. And yet this is also the beauty of a faith without neat, clean answers. We get to travel, with an ancient star as our guide, finding direction as best we can interpret with the tools we’ve been given. With a sense of wonder and a knowing that the story may never truly end. This adventure demands the “we” Stevenson’s poem calls our attention to. We never adventure alone, we always and only do it in relation. So, Olivia, where shall we adventure?

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