This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn, on June 3rd, 2012.
As our year of formal religious education comes to a close, today our Junior Youth group celebrates having spent a year of reflection in the program, “Our Whole Lives” otherwise known as OWL. It’s 27 weekly hour long sessions on sexuality, relationships, gender identity, sex education, peer pressure, plain-old growing up and how our religious values tie into their ethical formation. The media and politics are wrestling with how we should be teaching these issues to our teens in our public schools. There’s a debate in our country right now whether youth should be allowed to receive scientifically accurate information. Yes – in fact the law still does not require sex/health education to even be scientifically accurate. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education.
Part of the program is about growing up. It’s about coming to terms with moving away from childhood into our teen years. We heard a lot about that this morning from our youth’s reflections. (How great was that!) As we were planning our worship together, they chose to focus on the themes of past, present and future; knowing that half of our group will be entering High School this Fall. It’s a major time of change for our Junior Youth group.
When I was entering High School, or finishing my first year of Middle School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? We heard from our Junior Youth already this morning. By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes that our youth reflections spoke about? I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
I want to offer some advice to our graduating class of OWL 2012. As you continue to grow and mature – a process that hopefully doesn’t end for at least another 60 years for you all – try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. My partner and I were strolling through the Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself (there’s probably a music video of that image rolling around somewhere – and if you find it, please do share it on my Facebook wall) or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax (or to my fellow Jerseyeans – Down the Shore?) Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a colleague of mine in NJ, the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, UU minister in Paramus. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that Matt was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose.