Sermon: How Are You Called?

This sermon preached on 9/8/13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington looks at our religious foundations for our call in life and how that informs how we can live into the world. It also calls for peace in a time of war; exploring the horrors that continue in Syria.

This morning’s culinary story is one of my favorite folk tales[1]. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures – hence all the different pictures we used in the telling. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.

Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.” They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.

What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation? Sometimes it’s a thing that you can do to help. For those looking for small ways to contribute, Sue McGovern will be helping leaders connect with people looking to help with smaller projects. The things that need to be done, but don’t require huge commitments. Sometimes though, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves.

I want to focus more on that latter type of gift we all can share. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call?

I was reading an article the other day that was written with the intention of helping 20-somethings figure out what were the key things they should do before they turn 30. It had some bits of wisdom, and some bits of trite as well. One point that stuck out was more about life purpose. Basically – what stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it? The second half of that question is probably impossible to answer. If something brings us joy – why wouldn’t we be following it? And yet, we often don’t. But the initial question – what stirs our heart – is all too often all too difficult to answer in our contemporary age.

Folk under 45 were raised by Sesame Street. A true gift to society in many ways and yet it trained us to be engaged with something 30 seconds at a time. Folk over 50 were raised with role models who tended to take one job at an early age, and followed the career for most their lives. Stability is a wonderful thing, but it sets a pattern that encourages us not to roll the dice and follow our bliss. These are generalities for sure – and the people in between – in their late 40’s – may reflect either spectrum depending on a thousand different factors. But in both cases, the emphasis tends away from reflecting on our sustained purpose. The next best thing, or the eternal commitment,  distract us from our call; if we let them.

How do you know what your call is? For the bigger picture and how you live in the world outside of here, I’d suggest to find where your heart meets the world’s needs. The classic advice, right? But how does that connect with the everyday, or how you engage in this community? Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 30 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you let yourself find it?

A thousand questions, and no clear answer, right? But there can be some clear answers in between. Our leadership is working on improving how we integrate newcomers or welcome the stranger asking for a bowl of soup that we know we have even if we may sometimes forget how to give it. And on the flip side, we sometimes need to own for ourselves what we commit to or haven’t really committed to in community. If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged?

There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars. And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise. It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.

We commissioned our teachers this morning for the ministry they offer our community. It’s one type of call that many of us hear – either within these walls, or for our professional teachers outside in our schools systems. Each of these teachers will commit to learning along with our children twice a month for the entirety of the religious education year. They will help raise our children and youth with progressive values; with compassion, a love for equity, and a yearning for justice in our world. They will strive to show our children that we are indeed a Fellowship of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.

But each of us carries this burden in a way at times as well. Every word we share within earshot; how we engage with one another over coffee; how we prioritize and live out our values. We can raise our children to love mercy, but if we act in contrast to those values outside the classroom or congregation, we teach a confusing message. Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.

Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals. As a democratic nation ostensibly committed to world fellowship, I believe implicitly that we should strive relentlessly for peace. This congregation also dedicated itself as a peace site – building a permanent marker on our front viewed by all who enter. I fear that our nation is discarding its morals again this week in our likely response to Syria and Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Our likely actions value a Geneva Protocol around chemical weapons over the imminent risk inherent to a military strike for civilians.

A timeline might be helpful here to understand my thinking. In April 2011, we first heard that the Syrian army was firing upon civilian protestors. In September of 2012, cluster bombs were reported to be dropped on rebel-held towns causing incredible civilian causalities. In March of 2013 (six months ago), the UN concluded that fuel-air bombs were dropped on a town. By July of 2013 the death toll reached 100,000 people. This week in September we hear that chemical weapons were used. Now the White House is calling us to act, so that dictators know there will be repercussions for the use of chemical weapons.

I get it. I see that a world that ignores the use of chemical weapons is a world that will see massive civilian casualties in war time. That if we ignore this, the chance of chemical weapons getting in the hands of terrorists is a real threat. However, because of the advancement of military weapons, we already see that horror in our daily experience. 100,000 dead in Syria already. In our current and recent wars in the middle-east, we saw over another 100,000 civilians dead through our actions. That is the nature of modern warfare. Death is not reserved for the soldier, but the children and families. The old, the young, the unlucky.

The White House has indicated that these potential military strikes won’t change the direction of the civil war. That toppling Assad’s secular dictatorship would only cause more problems down the road knowing that with all the ethnic and religious subgroups vying for power in the rebellion, it’s impossible to know what will come next or how many decades it would take. This is just to send a message that chemical warfare is a horror.

I maintain that warfare is already that horrible. If 100,000 civilians have already died, we’re already in an age where we can’t walk into war without knowing it will bleed our humanity that much. I don’t see how violence – that expressly has no intent to stop violence, topple a regime, or bring people to safety – does anything more than beget further violence. We would not be committing to any of those goals. We would only be sending a short-term message that will have limited lasting effect – except of course for the permanent loss of life our military strikes would cause – both military deaths and if history is any indication – civilian deaths as well.

Some of the answers here are not fixes in the short-term – (not that a military strike, by the President’s own indication, would fix the situation anyway.) The longer term fixes involve applying pressure and diplomacy in many places. We can only build peace if our values are grounded in peace. Our national leadership does not appear to be grounded in the value of peace.

Our steps are many. The UN veto process for life-time members of the security council is as broken as our nation’s system of filibustering. Since that perpetuates inaction that allows murders to continue, we start by changing that.  Economic pressure can be more lasting than violence. Syria is heavily sanctioned already, but Assad’s assets have yet to be frozen. As a nation we can stop engaging in arms sales. We could track chemical sales of our allies and put pressure for those sales to stop. We need to change our perception of what acceptable violence is. We can’t even manage a reasonable national gun control policy when the overwhelming majority of citizens think we should restrict gun use more. Or as the noted public ethicist, Stephen Colbert, pithily says, “”The United States has no choice but to attack Syria because Dictator Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people with chemical weapons. Before he was just killing them with bullets. But, if America cared about shooting people, we’d be invading Chicago.” I fear we have allowed ourselves to be so desensitized that we’ve lost perspective; we’ve lost our grounding.

Problems of global crisis require broader solutions other than at the end of a missile. They also require us to root our changes in our convictions and to be honest with ourselves what our convictions are. We could begin funding less military and more development. Or as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “ A nation that year after year continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We could change our tax code that encourage the accumulation of wealth for the very few. In 2007, 1% of our US population controlled 35% of our wealth. These are individuals that earn over $950,000 per year. In 2013, CNBC reported that the top 1% of  the global population controls 40% of the global wealth. Extreme poverty encourages strife. If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. It is possible to draw these lines. Everything does connect. It is never only one thing. And lastly, we could prioritize peace-based education practices globally now so generational shift begins. I invite you to write your senators and representative like I have and ask them to vote against a military strike in Syria. We do not need to be a nation in a perpetual state of war. We do not need to be a nation that perpetually sees the military solution as our primary tool in the toolbox. We do not need to be a nation that fails to engage in long-term solutions, but perpetually chooses long-term military engagements.

All of these changes will take time and conviction. If we’re not grounded in our values, if we’re not called at our core to strive toward peace, we will not know peace. There is no quick fix. There is no magic missile that will nurture peace.

This is what religious community is about. There is no quick fix for the problems of our world and all too often there is no quick fix for the serious challenges in our own personal lives. When we err on the side of expediency, some movement may happen in the direction we hope, but often the underlying problems will remain. Religious community asks us to – Discern our values – Find our purpose – And then learn to live our lives from that call. In some ways it’s easy, and in some ways it’s the lesson of a lifetime. I invite you all to join together in that search, and that most spiritual practice.

 

I invite you now to rise in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn, #318, We Would Be One


[1] Stone Soup

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  1. #1 by Gini Courter on September 9, 2013 - 4:31 pm

    Great sermon, Jude. “That is the nature of modern warfare. Death is not reserved for the soldier, but the children and families. The old, the young, the unlucky.”

    I don’t have the source for this nearby, but I remember one historian describing WW II as the first large scale warfare aimed at civilians. The difference in between the WW I death toll of 20-30 million dead (depending on who’s counting) and WW II’s 60-72 million dead is tens of millions of dead civilians.

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