Sermon: Putting Down Roots

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.

Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.

I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.

So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.

It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.

In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”

Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.

Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.

Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.

This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.

But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.

The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.

At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.

As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.

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