A Spirited Life

This sermon was preached on Sunday, April 21st at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island. It wrestles with the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon. 

A week has not yet passed since the tragedy in Boston on Monday. Over 170 people injured. Many of whom may never walk again. Four dead – including an 8 year old boy, and later in the week, a 26 year old MIT police officer. An impossible end to a day that is otherwise a marker of human perseverance. Some run for sport. Some run as a sign they have turned their lives around. Some run for countless charities – dedicating their effort for good. The event itself is inspired by the fabled run from Marathon to Athens letting the Greeks know they turned back the invading Persian army. The Greeks would rise to influence the course of Western History – arts, culture, and the roots for modern democracy. They laid part of the path for the political experiment we strive to continue today. The Boston marathon is a modern global improbability – 96 nations represented in this act of peace; this tribute to the human spirit. For the families of those affected – it’s an immense, physical tragedy; one that I cannot fully grasp. It’s enough to lose hope.

And we can do that. We can hold onto the moment captured vividly on TV. The bombs exploding in perfect video capture, over and over. As if they are continuing to detonate into this moment. As if the story stopped right there… and there was nothing more to tell. But that’s not how the story ended. The human story went on to show police running toward the victims to help. The story went on to to hear about marathon runners going the 27th mile to donate blood at hospitals. The story went on tell how a well coordinated medical response saved countless lives – lives that would have ended if there were even minutes of delays – but there weren’t those delays. Our emergency responders were prepared. They were ready to give their time to save the lives of strangers – strangers from 96 different countries. It’s enough to kindle our hope once more.

The successes; the ongoing triumphs of the human spirit do not give us back those three lives. They do not heal the scars of the 170 injured and the countless friends and families who know them. But they do take us away from the stalled journalism that fixates on the moment of the explosion. The triumphs do teach us that our actions matter. They remind us that every story doesn’t end on the worst moment, but begins again – it continues throughout our life. And when our time comes to an end, there is another runner to pick up from where we left off. There is always someone there to say – We are not yet through. There is more that can be done. There are lives worth knowing, loves worth growing, and a depth to our purpose on this earth.

The great statesmen of Unitarian Religious Humanism of the early 20th century, the Rev. Curtis Reese, once wrote, “[Humans are] capable of so ordering human relations that life shall be preserved, not destroyed, that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception. It but remains for religion to place responsibility at the heart of its gospel. When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision and power.”[1] Reese asks us to put responsibility at the heart of our religious mission. With all the randomness of life; with all the moments of chaos and pain; he asks us to take responsibility for our responses. He asks us to approach life with a love that is central to our nature, a movement toward justice despite its inconvenience to personal privilege or power, and most of all, that we bring order to a chaos that can overwhelm us. We seek preservation over destruction.

The mission of our liberal faith can be articulated in so many ways, but Reese’s message is central to it. We must center ourselves in a call that cannot be denied – to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice. In the face of tragedies like the bombing in Boston,… or the bombings that continue throughout the middle-east with a frequency we would find numbing should they happen on our own soil,… we can not give into despair or inertia. We have a responsibility to this world, to our people, to our children. We may not be to blame for any one particular thing that happens to us – the 8 year old who died on Monday certainly has no culpability, no blame, for what was done to him – but we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that honors the memory of those who no longer have that gift. Will our lives be centered in our principles – promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations? Will we strive to make sure everyone has a voice; that each life is sacred?

It’s not always a linear connection. Living a life with this type of integrity may reduce the violence in the world. It may inspire others to temper greed, or ego, or violence. Or it may not. For some it surely will inspire, for others it will go completely unnoticed. But it is a worthy ethic to live in response to a world of sometimes random violence. The chaos of terror is antithetical to the compassionate life. We can choose to live our lives centered so, as a form of public witness that there is another way. Those emergency workers running to the injured lived this way. The police whose gut reaction was to turn toward the bombs, not away, lived this way. The runners, running for a cause, or running to give blood – exhausted as they were, lived this way. We can too.

Trying to respond to a particular thing isn’t always easy, or sometimes even possible. It’s further complicated that we don’t have all the information at this time. Perpetrators’ actions could be based upon any number of strained philosophies. With Wednesday’s journalistic debacle where CNN falsely reported a suspect, it’s hard to know what even to trust when information comes out. Or now that we know who the suspects are, we continue to hear from “Chechen experts” that may be going to Wikipedia for their info; or listening to people that confuse the country with the Czech Republic.

And sometimes, we’re responding to sound bytes that are more concerned with personal ideologies than facts. There’s a national tendency to assess the threat of Islam when mass murderers are from Islam. It’s the very definition of White Privilege to know that when a White person commits an atrocity we will not explore the political threats of Whites to the American Way. At this time, we don’t have any clear idea why these two brothers did what they did. By all current accounts, they did not live lives compatible with extremist militant anything. Yet their ethnicity and religion is assumed to be to blame.

“During an appearance on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that this week’s bombings of the Boston Marathon should give pause to immigration reform advocates who seek to reform the system….The Tea Party favorite said he feared people entering the country illegally or posing as undocumented Hispanic immigrants could carry out “copycat things.” “We know Al Qaeda has camps on the Mexican border,” he said. “We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”… On Tuesday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) also argued that the Boston attacks should slow down the immigration reform effort.[2]” Without giving any credit to the ludicrous “act Hispanic” line, let us remember that the police at this time had no suspects. No suspects. And yet, we’re already talking about a public policy implication that furthers a narrow political agenda of hatred – on the backs of the more than 170 injured, and the four dead. Now that we actually know that the suspects were immigrants from a former Russian provence, some politicians are arguing for more extensive background checks on immigrating children. In other words as one friend of mine put it, “The lesson of the Boston tragedy is that we need stronger background checks for immigrating children in case they someday grow up to perform acts of violence but no background checks for anyone actually purchasing a violent weapon.”

Lest we think these views only come from political extremists, think of the “…twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon (who) had his body torn into by the force of a bomb… he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units….”[3] Why? Apparently, he was originally from Saudi Arabia….

Twentieth Century Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, once wrote, “In our day we confront also the impersonal forces of a mass society with its technological devices for producing stereotyped opinion. In this mass society the individual is always in danger of becoming lost in the ‘lonely crowd.’ One is attacked by a stream of prepared ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’ that issue from the endless transmission belts of radio, movie and press. These ‘opinion industries’ provide a poor substitute for a community of faith. Insofar as they provide a community at all, it is for the most part the community of support for special interests – the interests of nationalism, racism, and business as usual. In large measure this ‘community’ is an instrument manipulated and supported by central power groups. In short, it is a form of authoritarianism.”[4] Adams crafts an odd explanation. Our freedom to say, or do, or think whatever we want with modern notions of secular liberty, have led us down a path where we’ve become indoctrinated by secular idols. Nationalism for the sake of nationalism; racism for the sake of small egos and addiction to privilege; consumerism, money and power as an end to itself – an end that goes nowhere.  His words seem to speak directly to our times, yet he wrote this in 1953.

I saw a political cartoon this week that had a newscaster frantically crying, “What can we do to lessen the grip of fear from terrorism?” In the following panel we see a person at home turning off his TV and smiling. There’s an urge to silence the sensationalism. We want to know what’s going on, but we don’t need to see a bomb repeating over and over with our kids potentially in earshot. That’s not journalism. It doesn’t inform us beyond the most simplistic – “this tragic thing happened.” It doesn’t educate a new generation on how to build a community centered in justice, equity and compassion. This is left for us to do. This is our task.

In the coming year, our congregation will review its mission and vision. This isn’t a bureaucratic task of paper pushing and language games. It’s a chance to reflect on our purpose; to identify what is utmost in importance; and speak why we do what we do. It’s a chance to ground ourselves so that when the horrors of the world repeat … we know who we are, why we are here, and how we will respond as a community of faith. Reflecting on this every five to the ten years is a healthy thing, and should come up from the congregation itself. It reminds us that we are not just a community that is everything to everybody, but a congregation that has a compass at its center that ever calls us, over and over, to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice.

And this is not easy work. It is spirited work. It asks us to live our lives in such a way that it’s obvious to the world around us that we are here for something. We are here for the common good. There is meaning and value that transcends our individual egos. What goes on in the world may not be about us, but we must be ready to be about the world; to be relevant to the needs of our community. This is what a spirited life is about. It’s finding our compass and following it; even when the going isn’t easy – especially when it brings about little inconveniences. We continue to be blessed with life, knowing full well that others have lost their lives this week, and every week. We can not bring them back, but we can live with the knowledge that this life is precious, and should not be dragged down by the little boredoms, the small problems, the quaint naggings that sometimes attempt to steal our focus.

In the words of our offertory, “We are the flickers of yet unseen times. Life in its glory rushes on-ward. Longing itself into ever new forms. Finding the courage to burst from darkness.” We are what we have been, and what we will become. Life does not rest in the moment of pain, or loss. It draws us unceasingly forward; longing for new forms and new ways. May we be the stewards of our lives; caring for each moment with love as our guide.

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