Inch By Inch
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/28/16 for our annual Stewardship service. It looks at the wisdom of Rev. Robert Fulghum and everything we ever needed to know we learned in Kindergarten.
Earlier this week I was on a two day retreat, with about 15 local UU ministers, up in Stonypoint, NY. We were reflecting together on what is our call – what’s our purpose in life and in our vocation. So many of us, and this is true for all of us, not just ministers – so many of us can find a thread somewhere in our lives that seems to indicate where we’re going or at least, after we look back, a thread that helps us make sense of what just happened. I think a congregation can a have call too, a purpose that pulls us forward. But whether is inspires us forward in our lives, or drags us despite ourselves, it’s a movement forward that takes us step by step, or sometimes just inch by inch. I believe it begins years before we ever really know to even think of finding a call or purpose in our lives.
Remember back to your kindergarten years. We heard a reading about that earlier in the service. Small chairs. Milk boxes with straws. A time in our lives when “nap time” was a four letter word – we clearly had no clue about anything if we thought naps were bad. Learning the basics of being in community and sorting out how to even be around people. But there were some key lessons that set us on our paths.
So if the UU minister, and author, the Rev. Robert Fulghum is right from the read we heard earlier – we already know all we really need to know about living as good people. Is he right? Can it be that simple? I want to start off by saying why it is that simple – and then we’ll talk a little bit later about why it’s not really that simple. If you’re new to UU, let me tell you that this is a really good example of how we think here. Or as my Italian mother would say, “Well.., yeah, no.”
What did Rev. Fulghum say again? In short – “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” Now these are some rules to live by. For the most part, I think we can all agree that following them would make for a better, kinder world. We might come up with some exceptions for self-defense, or caring for our loved ones. But for every day living, it’s hard to argue with them. If you’ve graduated from Kindergarten, and you have taken these rules to heart, you have a graduate degree in human living!
But do most of us live this way most of the time? Do we always share? Maybe we don’t have enough for ourselves. Or maybe we feel like we’ve worked so hard for what we have we don’t want to share any of it. When we do share – why are we doing it? (Call out some answers — kindness, helping other people, we feel better, sometimes we’re lucky and others are unlucky.) Sharing or – as we’ll talk about later at our Stewardship luncheon – generosity – makes us feel better but it also helps the world. It reminds us that we’re connected to the world around us. It’s an expression of the reality that we all got where we are today by the help of others in the world – the parents or caregivers that raised us; the teachers that taught us; the scientists and doctors who discovered a cure that keeps us healthy and so on. Because so many people have come before us and done things that makes our life and happiness possible – we in return share. And the circle continues.
I remember a story Gini Courter once told me. She was a recent former Moderator of the UUA (think Chair of the Board for the Denomination.) She was driving on the road one day and came up to a toll booth and was pulling out her wallet to pay (this was back in the ancient days before EZ pass- just after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth.) The toll collector said – “You don’t have to pay me today. The guy in front of you paid for your toll.” She got a smile on her face from the kind deed. What do you think she did? (allow for answers) She paid it anyway and said give it to the next person. What just happened? She’s not coming ahead in money at all! Yet she’s only smiling even more! Instead, just like how the generous person ahead of her put a smile to her face, she gave that smile to the next person coming after her. Now maybe that next person really needed the break – or maybe they’ll just get a smile to their face. But I can imagine a long row of drivers having a very different view of the day from it.
What are the ways you pay forward what’s been done for you? I know some of us teach in our classes; some help host our winter shelter – HIHI; some join our pastoral care team and help ease the suffering of others who are struggling through crisis. When we speak of generosity, or sharing, there’s a way in which that’s what we’re really saying. We tell the people around you that you care, that we’re willing to help, that they’re not alone. It’s not about giving up what we have, but about recognizing how much our friendships or our relationships means to us– how much more than the thing you’re sharing.
Sometimes I think generosity is like planting a seed in a garden; maybe imagine our Grow to Give Garden on our grounds that we use for community food banks. We plant these seeds, without labeling them as our own. We’ll care for them in their little spaces for a little while. They’ll grow for the Spring and maybe even part of the Summer. We grow it for others who are in need, and we grow those veggies also to teach the next generation that generosity matters. In this faith community, we raise our children and our youth to be adults who care in a world that too often seems not to care.
But there’s also another significance. We don’t always know what good thing will come of our actions. In life, we sometimes do a small thing – a small good act – one inch at a time. We might come to know immediately that it helped someone and it was appreciated. Or we might pay for the next person’s toll and never know if they were thankful or if they even needed it. The gardening of the spirit can be like that. Some seeds may not take root. Others will grow strong for a time. In life, sometimes our actions will have a bigger effect on the world around us than we can easily imagine.
In our reading from Robert Fulghum, he also said, “Play fair. Don’t hit people…. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” I see all of these things as sort of the opposite of sharing. It’s all about thinking that what little you have, is more important than the people around you. If you cheat, or take what’s not yours, you’re saying those things are a bigger deal than the person next to you. This can be a really dangerous thing when countries are fighting over resources like oil or consumer markets. But in the everyday, it can feel like a big deal too.
Has anyone ever had to deal with a bully before? (I have.) I think most of us had to face a bully at one time in our life or another. Sometimes they’re on the playground; sometimes they’re in the office next door; sometimes they’re a spouse or someone you’re dating; sometimes they’re a country. Some of these things we might feel like we can’t handle ourselves, but the lesson on how to deal with it, we learned in Kindergarten.
We just don’t always remember. And the Kindergarten language can be really helpful for our parents. If – or maybe sadly I should when – your kids have to deal with these sorts of peer pressure – this kind of language can help our kids be better people. The simple language may even help some of us adults check ourselves.
For some of us, dealing with a bully is learning to not be one ourselves. If you find yourself planning on not playing fair, or hurting someone physically or emotionally – the kindergarten rules remind us – just don’t. But often the bully is someone else – it’s still good to check in with friends (or fellow committee members) every so often and ask them – was I just a bully? This might seem silly – but we all know bullies in our lives. We’ve all sat through painful lunches (whether in school or in the office.) And there are a lot of people that try to get their way at the expense of another person. Sometimes they’re not bullying us – they’re bullying another person.
This is where the Kindergarten rules are just too simple. Sometimes it’s not enough to just follow them. It’s not enough to just share, or to just not be hurtful. Sometimes we have to take a stand. Sometimes we have to not let something just go by us. It’s being a good person. Sometimes we call it challenging or changing the system. When one person breaks from the norm – when one person calls out what’s not right, others may follow – and then the system changes.
I know this is sort of the atypical way of talking about stewardship and an annual canvass – to talk about bullying. But as we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of desire, one side of that discussion is unlearning how to be people who are ruled by desire. Generosity is a sort of antidote to bullying, or greed or desire. The world can teach us to believe in scarcity – that there’s only so much to go around. When we live too deeply into that, we sometimes see people start to clutch and grab and use their power for their own singular gain.
That false message also too often forces our true selves into hiding. Our second reading by Hafiz is about that. “There is a Beautiful Creature
Living in a hole you have dug. So at night I set fruit and grains And little pots of wine and milk Beside your soft earthen mounds, And I often sing. But still, my dear, You do not come out.” Where have we allowed the world to teach us to bury ourselves out of sight or out of mind? When have our neighbors tried to help dig us out of the holes of our own making, and we simply refuse to climb out? When have we turned to our more aggressive sides in order to have the better part of us stay hidden in the earth?
Personally, I find that the bigger part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to unbury ourselves. We should talk about this problem, as the poem’s title goes. Religion asks us to talk about this problem. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.
As many of you who are on Facebook may already know, a colleague of mine, who was a former co-worker, Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, died a few nights ago. She was one of the first clergy I worked with as an ordained minister. She had a ton of advice that I never asked for, and too often didn’t appreciate, but she was going to help me despite myself – because that’s the kind of person she was. I think I remember her most fondly for her tenacious ability to know in her bones that things mattered – that life and relationships mattered – and to be able to make people around her remember that too. When I say life calling to life, that’s what I mean. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.
One of our hymns – Though I Speak with Bravest Fire – adapts 1st Corinthians to music. We often hear that scriptural verse read at weddings, but it actually refers to a time when the apostle Paul was trying to get a few house churches back in accord with one another. The churches and the people in the churches were squabbling over petty things, the story goes, and he was calling them to task. Though I speak with bravest fire… if I have not love…. It’s a message we all can do well to remember. When we steward our faith tradition for ourselves and for the next generation, we can always trip up over the small things; confusing the small contemporary trappings of by-laws, or procedures, or committee meetings with the eternal truths of our spiritual values. But our mission, our calling as a community, is not to the temporal workings of our opinions or preferences but to a sovereign love that stands forever at our center. Can we place our little pots of wine and milk before the love that is hidden deep in our hearth and sing it out – sing it back into our lives and our communities and our schools and our offices and our country? That is the purpose to which we, at our bests, are given. May we live into that fully, and truly.
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