This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/13/15. It imagines how we can be a people of invitation.
I was swimming in a hotel pool over the Summer when a large Praying Mantis landed next to Brian and I, and she began flailing in the water. Brian went to try to push it to the edge, and I stopped him because I was worried it was going to make the insect more likely to drown. I went over to her, and put my hand under the Praying Mantis so that she could climb out. I took her over to the edge of the pool and gave her time to dry in the sun. Brian asked if I was sure this was a good idea, and I said that it was totally safe. Praying Mantis don’t bite humans, they just eat the things that do bite us.
For the next twenty or thirty minutes, the insect sat on my hand sunning herself, and drying. She diligently would clean off each of her 6 legs in her mandibles, eating the saltwater off while drying. She’d even stretch her back legs up over her head and put them in her mouth to clean up. It was fairly marvelous to watch! I’ve always loved Praying Mantis – and this was a super treat to watch. But as time was going by, my arm was starting to get tired, and I knew that she couldn’t stay there forever, so I tried to get her to jump from my hands to the plants that were near to the pools. But without going so far as to flick her off, she was not going to budge.
SO… I turned around to walk her back through the pool to the dry ground and head toward the hedges nearby. But when I turn around, I realized that every, and I mean every, person lounging by the pool was staring at me. Some with looks of confusion, some were smiling and others looked absolutely horrified by the idea that someone would have a giant Praying Mantis on their hand.
When I got out of the pool one person mentioned how absolutely brave I was, and better me than her. I tried to explain that they eat bugs, not humans, but that wasn’t going to convince her. Another guy said “that’s good luck.” I smiled and said, “yes, for the praying mantis, this was very good luck.” I finally got her to the hedges, and she eagerly jumped off and went on her merry way. I felt really good about what I did, and getting to watch the mantis up close was pretty awe-inspiring in its own way.
This memory reminds me of a folk tale some of you may have heard. I’ll share that now, and then we’ll talk about why all this matters.
(Tell story of the two frogs and the bucket.)
For the frogs, life and death came down to what view they held in their minds. Did they hold onto hope or give into fear and despair? Sometimes, when things are really rough, and we’re stuck in a tough situation, just treading water can be all we have to give, and all we need to do. When the world is throwing its worst at us, or we’re going through a rough depression, or the kids at school won’t stop being mean – in those times, we might feel really out of control and helpless. We can’t always change how we feel, or the randomness of bad luck, or how other people act, but we can choose to keep on trying to get through. Sometimes we have to do that for a long while. If you’re in one of those hard places right now – please – keep treading water. Reach out to us. Even if we can’t fix whatever it is, we’re here, and this community cares. And maybe, we can help you out of the place where you’re feeling like you’re drowning from the pressure.
My story about the praying mantis was a bit different than the frogs. It wasn’t so much about the choice to hope or despair. I think about the fellow pool-goers nearby in the water, or reclining in their sun chairs, and how they chose to respond with fear, or loathing, or curiosity, or gratitude. How do we respond when we see someone arrive out of nowhere looking for help? Do we hunker down? Are we fearful? Do we extend a hand? We’re reflecting all of this month on what it would mean to be a people of invitation, and these questions are important questions when we find folks in need of welcome in our lives. It’s important to consider where we’re coming from, when we choose to act. I especially have this in mind this week, and we learn more and more about the struggle of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe looking for new homes that are safe and welcoming. We might be safely in our poolside lounge chairs right now, but there are still things we can do to help. For those of you old enough to vote, there’s a petition shared on our Fellowship’s Facebook page that asks our country to open our doors to more refugees than we’ve been allowing to come to safety on our shores. We do have the means; we just need to find our hearts again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “intentions” lately. What’s going on in our hearts and our minds when we choose to do the things we do? If we’re thinking about what it means to be a people of invitation, this kind of reflection also help us to be more welcoming – not just in theory but in practice. Our first story today, told by Starr, is one of those interesting cases where we’d probably say all those people pretending to bring something more than water for the feast didn’t mean poorly. They didn’t think their actions would matter, but when everyone skimped at the same time, there was a real problem. If everyone hadn’t skimped, only you or me, no one would have noticed. We’d probably walk away and say – “oh, I didn’t intend to ruin the feast, I just didn’t think it would make a difference.” That’s the funny thing about intentions; we can often be dishonest with ourselves and say we didn’t intend something bad, when however you look at it – the things we sometimes do don’t have a good outcome. Bringing only water to the potluck is probably not a good thing, right – but I’m sure each person “didn’t mean anything by it”…
Sometimes we can mean well, and even our actions on the surface could be viewed as positive, but they don’t match our real intentions. This is a bit trickier to be honest with ourselves about. I think it comes up the most when we’re feeling self-righteous; when we know we’re the only person who must be right and we act from that place of our heads or our egos. One of the signs – sometimes – is anger. Anger isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes it can be a natural response to great injustices. But I’m trying to teach myself, in my everyday moments, when I respond to something from a place of anger – when I’m feeling angry – I’m trying to teach myself to make sure I’m not acting to feed my anger or my self-righteousness first and foremost – rather than acting to fix the thing itself.
I think we all do this. Who here has ever been in an argument about something, that started out simply to correct or change something and then found themselves all worked up and arguing about the argument rather than the thing they wanted to fix? That’s usually a good marker for when we’re doing this. I don’t think any changes we make (for most things in life) will improve anything if we start from a place of anger. We’ll probably end in a place of anger too. This is especially true if we’re angry about small things. Anger is a natural response to the great wrongs in life, even if we may not want to give in to it, it’s a real and honest response. But when we get angry about the small things – we’re probably not really thinking about the thing anymore – and are more focused on ourselves and our wants and opinions – our head and our egos.
It’s sort of like that praying mantis from the start of my sermon. A whole lot of people had feelings about that insect drowning in the water; fear, curiosity, indifference. But the mantis was still drowning – whatever our opinions or thoughts or feelings. We can be the people that stay lounging in the sun indifferent, or we can get ourselves a little wet from time to time to do what needs to be done – and if we’re really lucky – we can do it with a sense of awe and gratitude. Let us begin this Fellowship year remembering the words our Sunday Schools often say – we are the Fellowship of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hands.