This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Nov 15th, 2009. This sermon is about not making an exception of oneself.
When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!
We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.
At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures back in the suburbs. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many of us New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and are immediately convinced that means us too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.
Our quote at the top of the order of service today by Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. Vroom, vroom – I can make it through. Or for those folks, like me, that rely on sidewalks and mass transit – the depiction on the banner would have to be a green turn arrow paired up with that “do not walk” red pedestrian.
I feel this traffic issue, is a microcosm (or a smaller version of a bigger problem) regarding the world we all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Not to mention remaining completely unaware, or uncaring, that someone might be trying to sleep in plain earshot.
There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war in Iraq and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…” Then I compassionately told my inner New Yorker to shut-up, and I sorted the response away for later inspection.
We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From our multi-generational skit to our best efforts at singing a round during worship. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Brooklyn. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – sometime.
That’s what our Words for All Ages were about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts.
But it wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.
This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle, that promise that our liberal faith ever reminds us of, is that we do not need to believe the lie that we are alone, or that we alone bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders; whether the world is the middle east, or dealing with that bully in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, come to Patrick, go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.
I want to share with you now something that I often feel like I’m going at alone. It’s a problem here at home. But like that left turn signal, jay-walker, honking noise problem of my old apartment, if we can’t solve this one I don’t how we’re going to be able to look beyond ourselves long enough to help bring peace and justice abroad. It’s not the same thing, but all things are connected. I want to read to you a blog post from “StandingontheSideofLove.org” by the Rev. Meg Riley who is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She wrote it the morning after our recent elections results in Maine where citizens voted to deny people the right to marry those of their same gender – those whom they love.
“It is the morning after election day. I went to sleep early last night, when results were still unclear in all kinds of races around the country, and learned about them as I learn about many things now—on facebook. The first posting I saw was from a ministerial colleague—I am heartbroken for Maine. My stomach twisted and my heart sank. We have faced so many of these ‘mornings after.’ The people who live in the states where their full humanity and their equality has been shouted about, argued about, snickered about, and ultimately voted upon, now have to get up and go about their business. Those I feel most for are the parents, preparing their children to go to school this morning. Kids who see elections pretty much as they see sporting events, who want to be on the winning team, must now go to school to face the gloating that losers always face. We who parent send our hearts out into the world each day, and those hearts are broken today. And yet, I know from parenting my own daughter, the strength and resilience and vision of the next generation is what pulls us through. In my daughter’s short lifetime already, we have moved quantum leaps towards marriage equality, towards valuing all families. Part of me is amazed that 47% of the people in Maine voted for the rights of less than 10%. The whole notion of putting the rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority is blatantly undemocratic, completely counter to the notion of the Constitution as I understand it. I am incredibly proud of the work that people of faith did in Maine to present families of all kinds with dignity and love. So, on this morning after the election, I am mostly grateful to know that I am in the company of other people of all ages, shapes and sizes whose still stand on the side of love, even with broken hearts.”
The Rev. Meg Riley’s words are powerful. As a gay man, I get hopeful every time one of these votes are held – and at the same time – to be quite honest – every one of these votes horrify me to my core. I am horrified that my fellow citizens think it is appropriate to vote whether I am fully human or not. What audacity it takes for anyone to determine which person anyone ought to love. If you think it’s not a question of humanity, consider this. Most world religions place love and compassion at the root of their theologies. We are putting to the popular vote what is considered central to human nature – love.
We often say at this congregation – “Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. Humanity has the chance to be the first at something – if only we allow ourselves.
There was a discussion on the blog post about leaving room in a democracy for difference of opinion; that once the votes are cast we need to accept them since they were determined democratically. I was happy to see an excellent response by one of our own congregants, Sean Fischer. He wrote, “Taking away the rights of a specific group of people (including through a popular vote) solely based on their identity runs counter to our 1st, 2nd, and 6th principles. At its heart, our faith seeks justice and freedom for everyone. Putting the rights of minorities, including LGBT people, up to a popular vote is always wrong.” Sean also made the connections between putting up the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women to a vote. I would personally add, that all of these other identity groups have in fact had their humanity voted upon in similarly, and in my opinion, often more demoralizing ways.
If we were to take a poll of folks in the room right now who fall under the category of disempowered minority – it would without any doubt in my mind – be the majority of this room. Yet, vote our humanity away, we still do. I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children. With a show of hands, how many people as a kid or an adult were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? Look around – that’s exactly what I thought. Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten. For all our kids in Kindergarten – listen up – you’re learning some very, very important things in your classes. If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” So sure, if we need to vote about our humanity as people of color, or women, or gay and lesbian and transgender, then let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affect us. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.
The second half of our sixth principle determines the possibility of the first half. Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which slice you cut they’ll take. The call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.