This sermon was first preached at the First UU congregation of Brooklyn, on October 4th, 2009.
“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I’m really glad for these words from our offertory song this morning. They were written by Charles A. Tindley, an African-American Methodist minister and gospel music composer from a century ago. Like me, before he was a minister, he was a church custodian. My mom thought it was really funny that I chose that line of work while I was first in college, since I never wanted to do anything like it growing up at home. Mops, like broccoli, were undiscovered country until I was 19. I’m a vegetarian now too, so it’s really funny how much I hated broccoli. (Guess what my favorite vegetable is now…)
I have a special place in my heart for folks who have also swept the floors. Custodians make the world a better place, by showing that we care about the places where we live. I feel we have a special wisdom to share with the world too! The first bit is that “custodian” is a big word for someone who gets paid to clean up after other people’s messes. Sometimes those messes are the extra glitter and stars used in craft projects, like last Sunday where our Kindergartners and first graders (you all out there? wave your hands!) met with our Senior High Youth group. They learned about giving gifts to one another as they got to know each other. It was a good thing to tidy up after. Little bits marking the sacredness of joy and community and friendships forming.
Sometimes the cleaning projects are less than joyous. Like when Michael, our custodian, repainted the space in our fellowship hall where rested the evidence of the hate crime of a few weeks ago. His sacramental work reminds us of the holiness of this space. We care about the places where we live; and will not long abide hateful actions. The glitter of fun projects past, even though cleaned up, still carries with them memories of family, community and good times. Just like that, repainting a wall doesn’t remove the memory of the crime, although the cleaning is a necessary first step. Each of us are responsible to be custodians of the spirit here.
Living our lives with respect for difference, making sure the space is kept for voices to be shared, and a smile on our faces even if only to show how grateful we are for one another. I am not glad for the crime, but I am glad that we are known so well for our good works. I am glad that we continue to move forward with our eight year collaboration with Muslim communities in our neighborhoods and Brooklyn at large. I am glad that our respective youth groups will have opportunities this year to do service work together. I was humbled at our 9th annual Iftar to learn that Nadji Almontaser, a Muslim lay leader and friend of our congregation, chose to join his hands with all of ours at our 175th celebration when I was ordained. More than one religious heart commissioned my ministry, and I will remember that.
For those of you who may have missed our Summer services, this Sunday is the fifth in a preaching series of mine where I explore our seven principles. I feel that we have much to gain by looking at our principles as action statements and as religious promises we make to and with one another. How we respond to last month’s hate crime can only inform this for me. Our actions and our promises made and kept with one another will lift this congregation up.
We sometimes talk about our fifth principle as how we we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Our children learn about this principle more as a reminder that all people have a voice and a right to be heard. We as a religious faith lift up our voices as sacred. Each time we do so with integrity and respect, we pick up the mops and brooms of the spirit, and make shine the floors and windows of our sacred home – this community and our earth.
“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I said earlier that I was really glad for these words of Rev. Dr. Tindley. I pray that few of us feel far from home sitting in these pews, but there are times when we all feel this way. … With a smile trying to break free despite it all, Coyote from our Words for All Ages felt this way too. As he journeyed on trying to get away from all those ridiculous creatures, rabbit, moose, and so many twittering birds, he came to the dark of night, and lost the memory of how to be himself; to play his flute, and drum, to sing his song, and maybe someday to lose his fire. In traditional Native American stories, sometimes Coyote taught humans how to make fire – not all the stories, but some of them. For even him – the teacher of lighting our sacred flames – to forget how to do it – is pretty serious indeed. Moving away from his community, he was losing himself. Seeing others as ridiculous and useless, made him feel empty and a little useless too.
That’s democracy right? Realizing that we can’t do it alone, and that other people’s views are important. If we stop talking and learning from one another, if we stop being able to even hear the content of another’s message, we’re a little less human than we were the day before. And Coyote’s a little less Coyote than once he was.
So let’s do something a little different than usual here. Let’s learn from one another during the sermon. This is something I’ve learned from many of the past youth groups I’ve worked with. Let’s do what Coyote did in the story – toward the end, not the walking away bit. Let’s get to know one another a bit better – and realize how much of each other is within ourselves.
I’m going to ask Coyote, Rabbit and one of our Birds to come up to the lectern to ask some questions of the congregation. If it’s true for you, stand up – or raise your hand if that’s better for you. Then, look around. Take notice. Have you been coming here for five or more years? …Look around. Take notice. Is this your first month here? …Look around. Take notice. Are you part of our Religious Education program; a teacher, a child, a youth, a parent, or part of it’s leadership? …Look around. Take notice. Do you serve on a committee of this congregation? …Look around. Take notice. Is this congregation the primary or only place where you get the chance to socialize (and not just work) with people more than five years older or younger than you? …Look around. Take notice. Do you like Play Doh? …Look around. Take notice. Are you living away from most of your family? …Look around. Take notice. Are you a life-long UU? Have you been attending RE since childhood? …Look around. Take notice. Do you take part in our Small Groups Ministry program? …Look around. Take notice.
Are you willing to take on the challenge of this hate crime of a few weeks ago? To live a life with respect for the integrity of others – whether they be Muslim, or Gay, or Black? …Look around. Take notice.
Thank you, everyone, for trying that out with us today. And thank you Coyote and Bird and Rabbit for leading those questions. (I had a pretty good idea with what I thought the results for Play Doh would be, but I wasn’t so sure about some of the other bits.) “Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.”
Sometimes being custodians of the spirit will require small local action like repainting our walls. Sometimes it will require a kind heart and presence in the face of a world forgetting who it is. Sometimes it will be letting ourselves have fun, and hear one another like we just did – ever open and ever learning. Sometimes, living our fifth principle will require more sustained and concerted action. We’ll have to exercise the power we have, with respect to the people around us, so that those without that power are kept in mind.
Thinking of the story about Coyote traveling away from his home, making himself left out in the cold fearful of even losing his fire, reminded me of how many people face this problem here in our own city; only their own actions are necessarily the reason they have no home to goto. About six years ago, when I was still in my second profession as a non-profit consultant, advocate and researcher, I accepted a one year long project working with the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development otherwise known as ANHD. They are an excellent not-for-profit that serves as the umbrella organization for over 100 NYC community development groups. In essence, they do the higher end research and advocacy work for the body of non-profits, so that the member groups can continue to focus on their services. Like Coyote and the other animals taught us, we each have a role to play, and have talents to share and be heard. None of us can do it all, and fortunately none of us have to. They exercise the power they have, their voices in concert, to live out their conscience with effect.
My talent there was in research and presentations. Even before the recession, NYC was undergoing a housing crisis tied to a long list of issues, including national level budget cuts for affordable housing, and the scheduled termination of housing contracts first written in the 70’s when many New Yorkers were rapidly moving out of the city. Where Coyote in our story was choosing to be as far from his friends as possible, NYC residents often weren’t given a choice to remain in homes they could afford.
Wielding my mop once more, I felt like I was cleaning up other people’s messes again. I wasn’t even here in the 70’s, the 80’s or even the 90’s. And yet, I was collating and analyzing data consisting of literally hundreds of thousands of low income or affordable housing agreements. I was able to definitively project where and when, and most importantly, in what district, those homes would be lost. Could you imagine knowing when a home was no longer going to be affordable enough for someone to live there, and doing nothing about it? That’s often what we do though.
So, when I was done, we presented my findings to New York’s City Council. ANHD succeeded in convincing enough council members that they had too many people in their districts that would be displaced from their homes. The work ever and always needs to be continued. But I’m glad to have seen some of the new laws put into place in how we generate affordable housing in major projects like the Far West Side in Manhattan, or some of the Brooklyn waterfront developments, or Williamsburg north of us. It took a lot of people to get those passed. It may not be enough, but it’s more than it could have been. And it’s often, and possibly only, ever accomplished when we work in collaboration; each relying and learning from the gifts of one another. The advocates working with the researchers working with those directly affecteds – and the list goes on and on. The cheerleaders from the pulpit reminding the rest of us, that a way can be found so long as we have the courage to take it.
Transformation, whether it be in city policy or our own spirits, occurs primarily in the light of one another. My ministry grows in light of what you all here have to share. And I pray your ministry does the same in light of what I have to share. I mourned yesterday at my home congregation of All Souls in Manhattan for a mentor of mine in my ministerial discernment and my minister, the Rev. Forrest Church. During the service, one of his son’s mentioned a time when he was watching a sports game with his dad. During one gatorade commercial, Forrest dozed off and woke up suddenly as if from a dream. His son said that he blurted out, “Life is a team sport.” I want to thank you one more time Forrest for inspiring me to make sense of the things that I continue to wrestle with. Life is a team sport, and we can only truly do it when we don’t make ourselves falsely feel alone; or attempt to shoulder the burdens of the world ourselves. It won’t work anyway, even if we try. And it’s not true; we’re not alone.
We are always given this religious choice – do we head off on the road alone – thinking everything and everyone along the way are ridiculous? (Coyote, you’re crazy! Moose – those antlers are so silly.) Or do we recognize that we realize more of who we are, and whom we can be when we enter into covenant with one another. When we use our voices to lift up each other, rather than to tear us down. This is the religious promise of our fifth principle. Playing our flutes, and our drums, and our Coyote yelps in concert makes the world a much more fabulous and human place to dwell.