This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on March 22nd, 2009. It look at Faith through the imagery of Bridges.
Have you ever walked, jogged, or rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge? Up until moving to Brooklyn, I can’t say that I’ve done that myself much even though I’ve lived in the area my whole life. After work earlier this month, I was meeting up with a friend in the West Village for dinner, and I decided to take a stroll from here to there. In my mind, it seemed like it was going to be quite a bit of a stroll, but it was a warmish evening and the sky was clear. I think some of you may already know this, but over the past few months I’ve returned to a spiritual practice of daily walking to center and focus. Perfect! My mind was set, and off I was.
It took me a little bit longer to figure out how to get onto the bridge in the first place. Traffic patterns, turn signals, cement barricades and one entrance feed later – I found my way. On paper (or the internet) the bridge is pretty close to us – but you kind of have to already know the patterns to join the pathway. Even with the clearest map the electronic highway can produce, you have to do it once yourself, with all the natural missteps along the way, in order to get it. And between you and me… I broke out the GPS… shhh!
So I get on the entrance ramp, for lack of a better word, to one of the world’s greatest bridges, and it’s only about as wide as I am tall. No wonder I missed where it started! Walking along the now clearly demarcated pathway, stopped traffic was only separated from me by about 5 feet and low cement walls. People’s frustration was clear on their faces, all the while I was feeling a sense of success for finding my way and the surety of knowing I didn’t have to make any more choices for a bit of time.
Then the first cyclist came clown-bell ringing his way toward me. Enough of the sight-seeing; momentum and a narrow walkway meant I had some quick twisting to do. Surviving a few encounters with fast-paced inertia; the sort where you realize unless you move differently, no one’s going to, I achieved the bridge!
It was about at this point that I recalled exactly how bad my fear of heights actually is. I’m pretty good if there’s some width, or breadth or dozens of feet between me and down. In my head I was thinking, “There are whole car lanes between me and down. I’ll be fine.” I had forgot that the pedestrian walkway has those lovely little holes and slats that show you what’s below you. You have to face it all. No one’s going to hide the brutal reality of “down” for the feint of heart. After the initial horror, and then the wondering why no one thought to cover that up, I have to admit, it was kind of exhilarating!
After the acrophobia subsided a bit, I started to notice how I was the only person walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I began wondering if I missed the memo, news flash or Facebook/tweet status update somewhere. In a city of 8 million, how is that no one is walking this direction? The sights are awesome, and the view is energizing and scary, but I’m having that not so infrequent NYC alone feeling even though I’m around a ton of people. It can get much worse than any sense of loneliness I ever experienced in suburbia. So many people dream of being right where I am, and I’m wondering how did I get here, where am I going … and why are those 8 million people walking in the other direction?
When I got to the midway point on the bridge, I took a breather. I reveled in the solidness of the central pillar. And by “reveled”, I mean to say, “clung” to the solidness of the central pillar. And by “breather”, I should say, “started to breathe” again. I could see how awesome the view was. There were a lot more people hanging about here. Propping cameras up in small crevices so that their timers could capture a moment between a couple. Fingers pointing toward this or that. The night was our first warm night despite it not yet being spring. I had a better sense of where I was, and which way to go again once I was ready. I was comforted by the peacefulness of the center’s surety, but I had dinner plans to go to. The West Village was calling, and there was a long way still to go.
And thus ends the parable of the bridge. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and takes on it during coffee hour as folks get to know one another better. I want to share with you now some of my thoughts on this story. Broadly, I see our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as that bridge. It is what I consider one of the world’s great religions. Spanning back to the reformation, Unitarianism in Europe formed from the thoughts, writings and martyrdom’s of those that came before us. We have grown into a very contemporary religious expression, and we are deeply rooted in sacrifice.
Having a 400 year arc of tradition and change, how does one who is new to the faith, find their way in? How does one who was born into our religion, balance their life-path with the demands and rigors of our values? It can often feel very difficult to find one’s way onto the bridge. The many traffic signals, cement barricades and the on-line maps of life tell us how to live and how to be. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they just don’t speak the truth. Consumerism teaches us to be more productive at the expense of living deeply. The crush of NYC and the protestant/american/capitalist work ethic (whichever descriptor you feel is most accurate) informs folks who are salaried or who are holding two or more jobs, that working less than fifty hours a week is being lazy. I’ve heard this concern enough times before and since the recession, that I think it’s crucial to point out the following value – and it is very much a value. The 70 hour work week might be a reality for some of us, but lazy doesn’t start at under 50 hours.
I remember a high school education with 8 classes, no lunch period – didn’t need it since the teachers would let me eat during class time, choir, track, and theatre. Mornings that started at 6am, and homework that ended by 9 or 10pm at night during the week. And mom still sent me to church and church school on the weekend as a kid. As a teen, I began returning the favor to mom, reminding her to make it to Mass.
Cement barricades that serve their purpose; they keep traffic flowing, give solidity to our way of life. They also make some of us have to walk a few extra blocks out of the way to get where we’re going. Where’s the path that lets us maintain our jobs and find time for a religious life? Homework on Sunday mornings means there’s no room to explore our values; just our facts. The cement dividers are here to stay. We have to find another way. When we print out, or memorize those google maps and see where the blocked paths are, we need to make the personal choice to not be surprised when the path is long. We need to manage our expectations. And when we still lose our way, and know that we will all lose our way at least at one point, the GPS of congregational life – our clergy, fellow congregants, our parents, our sons and daughters, need to be ready to help point the way.
So, look around. … This might surprise some of us, but this week, we are the ones who made it. We’re walking up the entrance ramp. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done so. Coming to the congregation might be the challenge, with seemingly narrow paths to joining. You haven’t seen all the activities, heard all the stories, served the call of justice-making in all its ways yet. At first the walkway may seem tight, but trust me, if you keep walking forward it will seem more open. One significant widening of our pathway is happening this coming Saturday morning. Our congregational brainstorm on how we will move forward with our social justice programming is an exciting integration of our values. Individuals and committees already serve in this way, but now we’re intentionally seeking to connect, and to verbalize how we connect, our Unitarian Universalist values to our social justice making at this congregation. I encourage you to join us Saturday morning to help in this widening of our spirit and our faith.
For some of us, we’ve been coming for years and are active members. We volunteer our time, money and a ton of heart. We agree with the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. And yet you might still be figuring out how to feel your way onto or up that ramp. You’re inline with our ethics and our causes, but the question of identity still seems elusive. The spirit in Unitarian Universalism hasn’t caught hold. The zeal of evangelism, even if it’s only to evangelize yourself, hasn’t taken grip. You might seek to figure out where our religious tradition’s values matches your own. You agree that people have value and worth; that justice, equity and compassion are imperative in this troubled world; that beliefs need not divide us in all things; that the search matters; that all voices should be heard; that world community is a goal; and that we are all related and that the natural world is inclusive in the word “we.” These principles ought to be impressive, because they are daunting and very difficult to follow.
For those of us who this describes, let me challenge you a bit, more than you already are in striving to live up to these values. In the month ahead, ask yourself what does our faith tradition ask you to do? When you catch yourself thinking, “I agree with that ethic, or value, or principle,” follow-up by asking yourself, “What can I do, or say, or consider in light of that value that I wasn’t doing, or saying, or considering before?” Consider it a spiritual self-assessment. We do all sorts of assessments in our lives – with our finances, our job performance, our buildings and homes. It may be time to perform one over what matters among the most in our lives.
For those of us who are ready for Advanced Lifespan Religious Education 405, take what you realize, or learn, or remember from that spiritual self-assessment and share it with your fellow congregant. Today Nell Evans in her reflection, and Lisa Hanson in her moment of witness, have modeled this engagement on the larger scale. Lisa recently reminded me that Hannah Arendt suggested that the highest form of human action is speaking amid and engaging with others. I agree with Arendt on this point. I think this point is often particularly difficult for Unitarian Universalists, not the speaking up bit, but the engaging with others about our spiritual values. We often act as if we are imposing on others should we engage in a discussion about values as they pertain to religion. Raise your hand if you are easily swayed; if you do whatever you’re told; if any belief shared with you becomes your own. (Be gentle with those whose hands are up.) We kid ourselves into thinking we are being responsible by not engaging with one another over our values. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage.
Our Senior Minister, Dr. Patrick O’Neill, and I have talked from time to time about our philosophies of religious education. That sentence gets at the crux of it. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. Parents have often heard me remind them that most of our religious education happens at home. One can not learn Algebra or Spanish by studying it one hour a week for nine or ten months a year – it only adds up to about 40 hours, or one week of school. Believe me, I tried that approach with Spanish, and it did not go well for me. It takes immersion. We are that immersion. If religious education ends in the classroom, our oldest youth may have as much as 12 weeks of full-time class with very little homework or 3 months – one semester. Our folks who joined us as adults may have but a few hours. Since we are that immersion course, I need you to help me out by practicing our spiritual fluency with regularity.
As a quick aside, just like the widening ramp, let me warn you, at some point in your religious life, you will likely encounter someone speeding toward you rapidly ringing their clown-like bell to get out of their cycling path. Whether you may feel that’s coming from the pulpit, or coffee hour, please do not take my challenge toward deeper engagement to sound like a ringing cyclist on a narrow path. Be nimble, be swift. Take what is of value, even if it turns out to simply be that cycling (like spiritual engagement) is a healthy sport, and turn to the side as you need. I control not the sounds and bells along the way, only that we continue to have a path to share. How we share it is all our responsibility.
Some of us lament the lack of neat, simple answers in our faith to the questions of belief. Like my acrophobic-induced panic attacks, we do not cover up what’s below us and around us with straight, hard, and opaque answers. There are times in life where we feel we may desperately need the certitude of truth to be known by us as clearly expressed belief. … We don’t build that way. We lay walkways and frameworks that allow us a clear view in all directions – even the scarily downward ones; yet the path is firm. Millions have walked it. And it can get exhilarating if you let it. Know that belief does not equal faith. The path we walk is our faith. We may construct that faith with varying beliefs, but the wise choice of wood, metal, solid, or porous does not diminish the path. These choices will change the view though.
Some of you may question my choice in the West Village as the destination of my little spirit-walk. Kingdom of Heaven, Beloved Community, or Nirvana it may or may not be. But it was where I was going. I just so happened to know this time which way I headed. We don’t always know that. But the path remains as firm as it needs to be. We have chosen, or continue to choose each day, to walk through this precious and rare gift that we know as life in the manner we do. Each day we see a rebirth to this life, and are faced with the most serious question we can be asked. How do we live? Knowing that the majority of our religious education comes from one another in how we choose to answer this question of living; consider how you model the role of teacher? As our offertory song this morning from Rodgers and Hammerstein suggests – you have to be carefully taught. What would your students learn from you? How would they learn to live their life? Where do you connect with our values? Where do you fall short? From time to time, we all succeed and we all fall short. Each day that we see a rebirth to this life is a new opportunity to change, to grow and always and ever to teach.