The Art of Connection

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/14/16 and looks at the intersecting roles that desire and connection have in building a world centered in justice, equity and compassion.

When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!

We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.

At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures out here. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and is immediately convinced that means them too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. …Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, has a notable quote that speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. …Vroom, vroom – I can make it through.

Traffic can be a smaller version of a bigger problem, that we in the world all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks, or our traffic lights, for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Rush hour commutes probably warn us all the same thing.

There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war we were waging at the time (I believe it was Iraq at the time), and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…”

We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From a silly story, to my best efforts at singing a hymn. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Long Island. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – something.

That’s what our Wisdom Story was about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Are we running through our lives chasing the biggest desires, or is their an art to the connections in our communities and in our households? Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts. It reminds me about building this religious community too.

It wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.

This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle promises us that we are not alone, and we don’t have to bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders alone; whether the world is the Middle East, or dealing with that bully at work or in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, and go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.

There’s a saying that’s repeated from time to time in our Fellowship, and it’s said at many UU congregations across our denomination:“Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. “Our humanity” has the chance to be of first priority at something – if only we allow ourselves.

In the season of political primaries, which seems to get longer and longer every year, we hear so many competing views and solutions to the crush of worldly challenge. I’m often amazed at how any candidate for national, or local office, on either side of the aisle, acts when they are finally elected. For example, looking at our own Long Island, even progressive politicians will vote against local issues like affordable housing, or allowing for more rental apartments. It’s gotten to the comical-if-it-weren’t-tragic place where our own adult kids can’t afford to live in Long Island. Something happens when we live in community, where we can forget how our actions impact another, when we can’t see it directly. As UU’s we often talk about justice and how minorities, or the oppressed, can be unfairly treated. And that’s so true. But I look at our own nominally affluent communities where we live, and remember that our own adult kids can’t afford to live here, and wonder how we’ve made it so impossible for so many. Everyone experiences hardship, yet we too often make communal choices that take away the humanity of our neighbor – or at least make it harder for our neighbor to live to their fullest.

I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children; though I know the complexities of economics and public policy go far beyond that; there’s something still worth taking from the lessons from our childhood. With a show of hands, how many of us were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? (Look around – that’s exactly what I thought.) Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. (Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten.) If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” I wonder how different our world would be if when we made policy decisions that so drastically impacted the community around us, that the least among us would get to pick the slice after it was cut; if we let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affected them. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And anyone who has ever worked with or raised kindergarteners knows, that kindergartners know fair. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.

So our sixth principle, and the art of connection….Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which of the slices you cut they’ll take. And remember, the call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.

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