This sermon was preached on 9/6/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It struggles with the gospel of productivity and consumption while reflecting on the holiday of Labor Day.
The end of Summer always seems to remind me of my early childhood. I was just turning five when my family finally moved out of our apartment and bought a home and moved to the suburbs. I’d start kindergarten in a few weeks, and I was just meeting the neighborhoods kids. This was back in the days when parents would let you roam around the neighborhood as long as you were with a group of kids, and there were some older teens that took responsibility. What was normal then, would probably get today’s parents a visit from social services. Times do change.
We lived across from a church and a middle school so there were a lot of public parks and sports fields in eyesight of our yard. For a five year old, it seemed like it was as big as the world. I was with older kids, and away from my parents (a few hundred feet) for the first time in my life (5 years and counting), and the day lasted forever. Everything was so new. Newness can stretch time out for what seems like eternity. I remember that late Summer day feeling like it lasted all season. I had nowhere to be, nothing I was responsible for – and that might have been the last time in my life when those two statements were still true – nowhere to be and utterly no responsibilities – and time stretches out.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? My inner five year old saw that first time of nominal freedom to be the most awesome thing in the world. A month later, I don’t recall liking the idea of my first day of school too much. What was the thing you last did for the first time? For me, it was during our recent honeymoon this Summer. Brian, after much cajoling, managed to get me to agree to go snorkeling with him. I knew it would be beautiful – but I’m not a good swimmer. (And by not a good swimmer, I mean, at our recent UU Fahs Summer Camp, I failed the swimming test that most of our 8 years there could pass. Imagine the line of 8 year olds asking how you did swimming, and when you told them you failed, they all said – “How, Rev. Jude, what happened?! You couldn’t have failed! We all passed?!” …So sweet.)
But beyond the logic, snorkeling in the ocean just terrifies me. I never had done it before, and there’s a real reason why for most of us, it’s probably been a long time since we last did something for the first time. It’s scary. But I finally did it. It was gorgeous. I didn’t get eaten by any sharks. I didn’t drown. I only suffered a few kicks to my face by kids swimming nearby – who of course were not only not terrified, but they were having the time of their life. “Yay we’re in the ocean!” Kick-in-face. ….But, when you turn away from the reefs and the coastline, and you look behind you, you see what seems like infinity. Ocean going further than one can fathom…. and then you turn back to the cute sea turtles and you still know, deep down, that infinity is right behind you…. There was a way in which time stretched out forever there too. Intimations of the fullness of life; realizing how reliant we are on this world and the people around us. Helplessness and newness can trigger those moments of lucidity. …Until the nearby kid kicks you in the face again, … and you know it’s time to go back to the boat.
None of this lasts forever. My five year old self – after that day that seemed to stretch to eternity – ended with Mom calling me back home. “It’s time for dinner. Did you have a good day? Are the neighborhood kids nice?”
These memories stand out. But I think they’re so vivid, and so rare, because we live in and we’ve developed a culture where work, production, busy-ness and responsibility are central to our lives. There’s stuff that needs to get done, we need to eat, and have a roof over our heads, and care for one another. That’s all good and necessary. I don’t mean that. I mean that voice inside you that tells you that you’re bad, or wrong or lazy, when you don’t fill ever waking minute with some new responsibility; or that boredom is a bad thing (oh! to ever be bored again!) We might have to do all that. We might have to hold down three jobs, or we’re raising several kids and loving and nurturing them is a very full time job. I mean the voice that nags at us that our worth is tied to our productivity. That’s the wrong voice to follow. Most of us have that voice, I certainly do, and we too often forgot not to listen to it. And maybe some of us don’t have that voice inside us, but we have it coming from a loved one, or maybe just our boss.
The Union Labor movement that won us basic things like weekends, and a 40 hour work week, and the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, was a social force that sought to correct that disparaging inner voice. And these days, with the changing economy, the weakening of wages for low and middle income workers, and the skyrocketing cost of higher education – many of us probably do work more than 5 days a week and more than 40 hours a week. The last I heard, the average American is working 47 hours a week. That is not likely to change soon. Though we may need to do what we simply need to do, we don’t have to accept current affairs as also speaking for our moral compass. The often quieter still inner voice – that silence that points toward eternity – tells us that our worth is grounded in something entirely different; in our relationships, in our connections to the immense world around us, in our times when we stop doing, in making more space for trying to do something new for the first time again. At the end of a long Summer day, mom (or dad, or maybe Spirit) is still going to call us home to eat and make sure we’re cleaned up, the basic necessities will ever and still need to happen – but the worth of the time in between is counted by another measure than cogs, widgets and to-do lists. We often know that in our heads, but we don’t always allow that to sink down into our hearts. We need to let it sink into our hearts.
At the start of a new school year, and the time when most of us won’t see any vacation for seasons, there’s a strong drive to fill our calendars and our day planners with work, and chores, and errands, and sports, and obligations, obligations, obligations. Some of that will always happen – little way to stop it. But how different would those schedules be if we first sorted out what our spiritual priorities were before pulling out our pen? Does family time come before or after the things of the world – career and obligation? Does dinner at home together come first or last? Is our Sunday School – pretty much the only place in our lives anymore where our kids get to reflect on ethics, morals, values and virtues in a structured intentional way- does it come first or last in any week? How do you give back to the world – to those who are marginalized or treated unjustly? Is that the first thing we find time for, or the first thing we drop when the crush of productivity makes its demands?
A culture of productivity over spirituality, or one that raises busy-ness over relationships, not only impacts our home life, our neighborhood’s character, and our capacity to be open to that deeper Presence – that spirit of peace that rests in all things and between all moments. It also changes world events in tremendous ways. I look back at our world of production and accumulation that fueled the Industrial Revolution and Western Imperialism. It taught us to use and abuse our world’s resources to get ahead – for profit or for convenience. There’s a way in which this connects or contributes to more than just the environment. I’m thinking of the seemingly countless number of Syrian refugees fleeing a war torn country – as hundreds of thousands of lives are lost or harmed. I’ll share now some brief words from a colleague of mine, Rev. Jake Morrill. Jake is a Unitarian Universalist minister and one of our military chaplains.
He writes, “Carbon-based energy use brought climate change. Climate change, plus agricultural mismanagement by the dictator Assad, brought drought to rural Syria. Drought sent rural Syrians cramming into the cities. A surging urban population brought political instability. Political instability opened the door for the nightmare of ongoing war, including the evil of ISIS. That nightmare, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, brought Syrian parents to the decision that it was worth it to put their babies in overcrowded small boats on the ocean, because a high-stakes gamble that their children would live is still better than no chance at all. Those decisions have brought the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. To those who wonder, “Why don’t they go back?” One response is, “Back to what?” Another is, “This is the consequence of climate change, coming full circle. It turns out our gas wasn’t so cheap, after all.””
I think we’re past the point of pretending the culture that tells us forever onward, and upward in a world of limitless resources is a sane ethic. I think we’re past the point of pretending environmentalism is only about trees, and fish, and birds. For me, if that’s all they were about it would still be one of our most pressing moral concerns. But environmentalism, and global climate change, is increasingly showing itself to be a matter of international security as terrorist cells grow and develop faster in areas where climate change has radically changed economies and subsistence practices. Or the humanitarian crises we see over and over again – as we remember 10 years later the tragedies Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. All of life is connected; we are all connected; and our challenges and traumas are increasingly connected.
I was raised learning that Labor Day is a national and secular holiday. I’m not sure I think it’s that any longer. I think it’s becoming one of our most vital spiritual holidays when we internalize the message that consumption, work and perpetual advancement at any cost – are spiritual maladies on our souls, our nation and our world. Stop. Take a step back. Raise our kids to respect one another, the plants and the small critters. Model for one another taking time to be, rather than forever do and do and do. Learn to honor silence, and learn from boredom without seeking to fill it with noise or action. Religion teaches us, or tries to teach us, that times of pause and quiet – of prayer and meditation – are key to finding our centers. Making time for dinner with the family might do this too. These practices can change culture. And from the stories of trauma and tragedy in the world around us, we deeply need to change culture.
This month, we as a community will imagine what it means to be a people of invitation. Where can you imagine leaving room to invite quiet and stillness into your lives? Where can you imagine leaving room to welcome family, and community and spirit into your schedules first rather than last? It is my fervent hope that the world finds ways to help welcome the many refugees and immigrants fleeing nightmares into our safe neighborhoods. What does Long Island need to do to become a people of invitation? What changes can we make in our everyday lives that could make space for a need so great?