This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/4/15. It explores the role beauty can play as an inspirational role model in building a diverse, justice-centered community of hope. This reflection looks at recent events in Baltimore and the ongoing need to remember that BlackLivesMatter.
I was driving home the other day and was stopping a few cards back from a red light; when to my astonishment a mated pair of geese used the red light to cross Route 110 down by the Walgreens. To my even greater astonishment, when the light turned green, and the geese had not yet finished crossing, the Long Island drivers patiently waited – stopping traffic in all directions. Yes – Long Island drivers stopped patiently and waited. You could still tell the geese were New Yorkes though, because when the light changed to green, one of them did a little hop in the air and flared its wings and hiss-croaked at the cars to wait – and it worked.
This really stood out for me. Our local drivers can be some of the least patient people around. I see folks on cell phones; or routinely rolling through stop signs near where I live. I see drivers who are always in a rush to get to wherever they’re going, and often they look unhappy about the destination, even though they’re still in a rush to get there. And there’s often a rudeness around right of way and lights and turns. But you add two geese to the picture, and we become civil human beings again. The natural world somehow reminds us about the preciousness of life in a way fellow humans behind a wheel don’t seem to. We can be very good at dehumanizing those around us when we fail to see them as equally living precious beings.
Why don’t we do that with the geese though? I think there’s something about them being different; they’re not what we expect to find on a road and they snap us out of our humdrum. When we see them in a park making a mess, we may not appreciate them, but when they’re strolling by on the highway, we perk up. Maybe it’s novelty, or newness, but we take note. They remind me of the vase in our story earlier in the service. Sometimes, something that’s beautiful or precious can change how we interact with everything around us. We can add a new vase to a room and want to find it flowers, and clean the windows so the light shines on it better, and maybe redo the paint that we finally notice is chipping because we’ve added just a spot of beauty to a place.
Maybe the geese are like that for the Long Island driver too. “Ooo, maybe I should be my best self right now because the geese are visiting.” It’s certainly true in my household, maybe it’s true in yours; when guests are coming over, the house magically becomes spotless as if we always lived like that. Maybe people can be that for us too – vases that call us to our best selves because they bring attention to what we may have took for granted.
I was reading through a booklet from our archives that Lois Ann brought to my attention. It had a story in it just like this. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.
Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of beauty?” What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them?
We can use a few more new vases here that remind us to be our best selves. We have some projects we need to work on – especially fundraising – which for those who missed our congregational meeting last Sunday – is being led by folks like Ben, and Jenna and Ralph and Barbara. But we can use more. Do you have a vase you can share there? If you missed our welcome this morning, Kim had a generous offer of a one time financial gift to help close our short-term deficit budget. Can you join her in her generosity so that we don’t have to slow down our good and necessary work in the world? I believe our shortfall is an anticipated $500 per household. For some of us that’s impossible, and for others it’s possible. If you can, I would contact (a Board member, or whoever you spoke with on Canvass.)
Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us, as in the case of the intrepid geese on route 110. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building. I have Baltimore in my heart today. I imagine many of us are struggling with the impossibility of the situation; of the pain and the images. The situation is too raw, and we are still short on some facts, while certain news stations do a very shoddy job of reporting. Having colleagues I know serving the communities in Baltimore, I know not all we’re hearing always matches neatly with what actually happened. Time will surely tell us more. But I want to reflect now on the bigger picture, and wonder where beauty may teach us a life-saving message in a time of crisis.
A few days back, wisdom surfaced from the most unexpected of people (a baseball executive) in the most unlikely of places (twitter.) I’ll recap a short part of it, as I read through MotherJones. A few days ago, “when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people’s actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties. [He wrote]….speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”
Strong words, and words that come unexpected from an executive on a baseball team who lives far above the financial reality of the average American. I imagine some of us could argue with some of his points or perspectives. I don’t want to go down that road today. I share his words because however much you may or may not agree with Mr. Angelos, he paints a picture that is all too real for many of us. We have many folks unemployed or underemployed in our congregation. We may have adult children who are struggling with keeping home or job where they live. The shrinking stability of the middle-class is a very real pressure for many of us. And if it’s hard on the middle-class, it’s impossible on the working class. I see my own dad who served in the military and has worked every day of his adult life. He turned 70 last year and will continue to be working full-time for the foreseeable future. It’s very hard on hard-working Americans right now. So let’s remember this when we hear these very hard stories coming out of Baltimore – a city with communities that in some cases face unemployment rates of 30%. Let’s imagine for a moment what that hardship would be like for communities that faced that generation after generation, and then felt the belt tighten even further.
But where does beauty come in, and how can we be a people of beauty in light of these hardships? Our recent national trends of devaluing education, while increasingly funding prisons and for-profit prisons is a marker of the opposite of beauty. Shipping jobs oversees, funneling profits to the few, segregating where folks can live; prioritizing punishment over nurture – are all the opposite of beauty. Diversity, equity, and justice – are what beauty looks like in the public sector. We do well when we raise our people to find beauty in those virtues.
We have those struggles here on Long Island too. Earlier this week I attended a forum put on by the Suffolk County Department of Planning for area clergy. One person there was lamenting the lack of millennials in our area and they said, “We’re losing our millennials because they can’t afford the property tax.”
To which I responded, “We’re losing our millennials because they have $100k in debt from college; they don’t have $100k for a down payment on a house. And we won’t build enough rental stock for them to stay. The same practices we used in Levittown to keep out People of Color are now the same practices that are making your kids unable to stay here.”
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.