Sermon: Walking Toward Trouble

This is the first in a three part sermon series looking at the 2014 Ware Lecture by Sister Simone Campbell (of the Nuns on the Bus fame.) It looks at how communities affect change.

We’ve had quite a bit of snow over the past week and look to be getting more and even some freezing rain tomorrow. I think we’re past the obligatory period of fawning over the first pristine snow and have moved into the long-standing New York tradition of being angry or disappointed in the weather reports’ accuracy of what actually fell. I also was heartened to know that despite the snow, when we were finally able to drive again, die hard Long Islanders didn’t allow the snow to change their dedication for driving speed or for our propensity for making sharp turns into on-coming traffic. Area clergy tell me that I’m obliged to curmudgeonly preach at least once a year about Long Islander driving patterns. So… check, got that done early this year.

Walking around town with our one year old puppy proved to be an exciting challenge. Balancing her strength and excitement against snow mounds and ice patches; she leaps like a dolphin through the snow drifts and I flail like a crazed cat on the ice. I noticed a couple of times where cars were stuck on a snow bank. I saw one postal truck getting helped by, a father and son, to free them from a snow bank. And Brian went out on Wednesday spending 30 minutes helping strangers whose car had slid onto our property and were likewise stuck on a snow bank. We’re now relying on the services of a neighbor who makes a living in part by driving a truck with a plow. Thinking of all that, along with the stores and homeowners who shovel sidewalk after sidewalk, I began to marvel at how much gets accomplished by communal human effort.

There’s an old Buddhist parable that essentially teaches that a crafted table is proof of life and interdependence. The wood has to be put together by a carpenter, and cut down by a lumberjack and grown by a forest and from there we delve into the complexity of a whole environment. We can also surmise all the support systems necessary to house a community that supports the carpenter and lumberjack as well. The farmers and teachers, and artisans and so on. So as I’m focused on making sure that my puppy’s exuberance, at her first real blizzard, doesn’t pull my arm out of my socket, I’m remembering this Buddhist parable and thinking about how Blizzards, being cleared, prove life and interdependence.

Community is human interdependence at its best. We specialize and diversify. Each trying to do our own very best, and relying on others to do their own very best as well. Arts, economics, education, construction, medicine – and so on – all improve when we do what we do best – for the greater whole. I can barely remember to take the trash out so I’m really grateful someone more skilled than I knows how to do basic things like, grow vegetables, and dig wells. I also think that it’s through community that we are best able to affect change in the world.

This reminds me of major speech I heard last June at our annual UU General Assembly. Sister Simone Campbell spoke at the annual Ware Lecture. Sister Simone is most known for her work on “Nuns on the Bus” touring the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. Our annual Ware lecture is a 90 minute talk from someone largely outside our faith, reflecting on some aspect of our religious tradition and how it intersects the world. Such luminaries ranging from Martin Luther King to Kurt Vonnegut to Mary Oliver have been past speakers at this event that draws roughly 4000 people annually. All this month we’ll be looking at different parts of her speech. For those who are interested in hearing the next speech live, the chance to register for this year’s General Assembly will open on March 1st for the event that happens at the end of June. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June.

Here’s a brief quote, from that 90 minute talk, that I’d like to focus on this week. Sister Simone says, “I’d like to reflect with you on the journey of faith as walking towards trouble….our videographer (from Bill Moyer’s news program) … asked me this question, ‘it seems like whenever there’s trouble, you walk towards it. Most people run away.’

And I got thinking about it. And I realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. Now, that means if the high-level leaders do that, isn’t that the witness that we all try to follow? … But there’s a part of me that has always believed we can make a difference.” 

This quote of hers, of the people who walk toward trouble, came to my mind over the blizzard. I began thinking about what equips us to be the people who walk toward trouble? What empowers us to be able to affect change in the world, or to help those in need or in danger? We might know others need aid, but awareness and desire to help, aren’t always enough to enable us to affect change, or to affect lasting change.

The lesson from the parable of the blizzard, or the Buddhist parable of the well-crafted table, comes to mind here. We’re not going to get all those roads cleared ourselves. When our car is stuck on a snow bank, we’re going to need someone with a shovel and some extra strength. We live this life together; we find our solutions together; and we carve out a path forward in community – whether through strangers or friends. Justice, progress and healing, happen through community too.

I hope we as a congregation continue to be the people who walk toward trouble. Sometimes it takes awareness, and sometimes it takes courage. Our theme this month is that latter part – courage. Standing up to oppressions, or sorrow, or pain takes courage from time to time. Helping people in need isn’t always safe – whether physically or emotionally. There’s risk involved in addressing some social ills. Maybe not always to our physical safety, but sometimes to our sense of self, for some of us it’s a risk to our sense of privilege, and sometimes it risks our hearts being in a vulnerable place. It take courage to walk toward the places many people walk away from.

Yesterday, in this room, we honored the life of Lou Koulias. I’d say we had almost 300 people present here sharing their love for Lou, who finally lost his battle with cancer this week. I heard story after story of how Lou helped the people around him. Over the past year and a half, I also heard story after story of congregants here reaching out to help Peggy and Lou in the most varied of ways. Making a meal, driving a car, dog-sitting, sending a note of encouragement – they all might seem like small things to you; but they add up to something more immense. In a way, they’re one expression of walking toward trouble. Helping another human being in the face of death and loss is one of the most courageous things we can do. Death is scary. And sometimes we let it stop us from reaching out so that we don’t have to face it. Sometimes it scares us enough not to allow ourselves to open our hearts while we still have the chance. Openness can be scary; it takes courage to be open to other people’s fears and loss. It takes courage to be open to our own fears and loss. This congregation has been very courageous. When folks are in trouble, we walk toward it and help as best we can.

Sometimes the trouble isn’t centered in our homes, or hospital beds, sometimes it’s very public. As we return soon to the 50th anniversary of the March toward Selma, our nation is rightly reflecting on our painful history around race relations. Some of us are joining a UU sponsored pilgrimage next month to go back to Selma and study and learn on the anniversary. I’ll be there along with a few of our members. Some of us were in Selma 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Willams, was one who was there, and has an exhibit in our gallery of her memories of that fateful march. I think this is another form of walking toward trouble. We don’t necessarily know all the answers, but we know we need to witness the pain in the world and be present to help affect change.

And we don’t do this alone. We do it through community. You will often hear messages from me that go through the details of social justice concerns happening on our streets, or you’ll hear me talk about the theology that undergirds our pastoral responses to strife. This week, I’d like to focus on the practical. In order to build the world we dream about, we need to build strong communities. Strong communities are built through each of us giving from our passion, or from our expertise, and sometimes when we’re very lucky – from both at the same time.

Communities are built from the volunteers, the members, the participants that make them up. We become able to walk toward trouble, when the everyday necessities are cared for; when we’re all looking out for one another and helping to keep that next loose end covered from our places of skill and talent. We are able to host a shelter for men during cold weather months because we have people who care for this building, people who help to raise funds, people who put out the beds, and cook the food. We’re able to be a pastoral support for our members because we have so many folks who can drive when needed, or cook a meal when needed, or be a caring ear when needed. Every part of our Fellowship matters. Every contribution makes something else possible. As we begin our month looking at the virtue of courage, I invite you to consider what part you can give to the workings of this spiritual home. Immediately following this service is our annual Volunteer Fair in the Social Hall. Check it out and see where your talents and passions meet the needs of the world.

Some of us are not in a place where we can do the heavy lifting needed to build the world we dream about. We can’t all travel for marches or protests, we can’t all stay up over night to be host at our shelter. We all have struggles in our lives, and there are times for action and times for recovery. But the folks who are greeting every week, and the folks who are making sure the lights stay on, or there is something warm to drink on a cold winter Sunday, are part of this justice building we’re committed to. Society needs people to plow the roads, and congregations need people keeping an eye on our hospitality and our maintenance – or we wouldn’t be able to even function, let alone contribute to the healing of a world that is in much pain. Every task can be spiritual, when we remember the bigger whole we are part of.

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