This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/9/16 for Rosh Hashanah. During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after times of hardship?
There’s a notion – I’m not sure where I first encountered it – that makes a distinction about the evolution of science and the evolution of ethics. It suggests that they differ in one notable way. As science unfolds, it progresses on what came before. Each generation is faced with new learnings that are rooted in old learnings, and the body of scientific knowing gets passed on to the next generation to pick up from where prior scientists left off. Barring catastrophes like the Dark Ages, science isn’t lost, it perennially moves forward.
Ethics is a different creature. Although our scholars in the field may function in the same way, building off what came before – as a people – each generation needs to learn and relearn the same lessons. Why is war the worst solution? Why are basic civil rights a thing each generation needs to fight for over and over? Why do we enter and return financial crises that we knew would occur – the proverbial market bubbles that we force upon ourselves again and again? It’s because as human creatures, our communal intellect may be willing to build off the lego blocks of past advancements, but our hearts have to start from the beginning with each new generation. For communities, ethics is learned from the ground up, and science starts from the shoulders of past giants.
Now that statement has a way about it that’s painted in broad strokes. Even if science can give a clear answer – like on the question (or non-question) of climate change – ethics deeply influences our ability to accept it as answer. Likewise, we seem to be able to make the processing power of computers multiple by 1.5 times annually, but ethics seems to stall our improvement of fuel efficiency and our choices to even research renewable resources. But the basic notion is still accurate – we have all the resources to transform the world, but we don’t always choose to do so.
Spiritually, there’s a way in which that feels exhausting. We have all the capacity to affect the changes we need, but we often don’t have the moral courage, or maybe the moral willpower, to pass on the lessons in ways that seem to match. But we can choose to flip that script. A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Today, I want to focus on the 5th stone in Adams’ theology (after today we’ve got two more stones to visit.) That fifth precept paraphrased is: “We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.”
Despair sets in when we think we can’t affect change. That’s either rooted in cynicism, or that’s rooted in facts that paint a bleak picture. Let’s look at both. Staying with the science road, history tells us that the facts of science seem to indicate we have all the capacity we need to affect change in the world. From polio, to penicillin, to the moon landing, to the ozone layer – give us a challenge that we can unite behind, and give us generations to accomplish it, and we can do it. That’s the fact. Cynicism looks at perfect outcomes and pretends that those perfect outcomes are the new benchmark to follow. If we don’t meet the benchmark of perfect, then the solution is flawed and what’s the point. There’s some interesting blogs out there wrestling with our political situations and the impact of cynicism that I won’t go into here, but there’s a lot of thought out there on this topic of cynicism that you might want to look into on your own.
Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world. History presents both an onerous and a hopeful record. Each generation must imprint humanity’s moral progress upon the tablets of our hearts anew. We can choose to look at that with despair for the effort, or we can choose to look upon that with awe. We have the capacity to impress humanity’s moral progress anew!!! It’s a matter of will; it’s a matter of personal and communal choice. That’s our spiritual charge as a religious community.
During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after seasons of hardship? As we are coming to the end of these days of awe, can we take their lessons and apply them to the choice for hope? Do we look upon past choices with despair, or do we choose to look upon them with awe? In this month of imagining what it means to be a people of healing, how do our choices impact that imagination?
I was hosting our annual Fall Chapter meeting of the UU clergy group for the Metro NY area on Wednesday. Our regional lead for the Central East Region, the Rev. Megan Foley, was leading worship for 40+ clergy and she had a metaphor that’s really helpful here. She spoke of earlobes and nostrils. I’m going from memory, so I’ll get the gist, rather than quote – but I thank her for getting me to think in this direction. In the body of life, we all have a role. If you’re an earlobe, your role is to be the best earlobe you can be. It’s not to create more earlobes; it’s not to make the nostril over there act more like an earlobe. You may want to put in some effort to help the nostril be the best nostril it can be, but that’s as far as you should go from your role as earlobe – because the world still needs someone to be an earlobe.
That metaphor got me thinking a lot about our mission as a religious community in the face of hardship and hope. We function as a group of individuals; but we also function as a group of groups. There are bodies (committees) that help move forward our social justice work; who help to maintain our grounds; who run our cold weather men’s shelter; who teach our children and who care for our ill. We don’t need our membership team to take over our memorial garden, but maybe our membership team can help identify folks who are well suited for caring for the grounds that are the final resting place for our loved ones. Our Board of Trustees doesn’t need to figure out the solutions to a better office system, but maybe it can help our volunteers who do that with our staff, to better set policies around responsibility and authority that we all learn to follow and honor. In a community as large as ours, the minutia matters if we want to achieve our common purpose. The earlobes and nostrils of fellowship work lead to a common purpose.
Our mission: In religious community, we nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Those are the words, but the impact is larger. We care for our members in times of crisis as best we can, when we know of the challenge; we offer a shelter in the cold weather months and grow vegetables for the pantry in the warm weather months. We partner with non-profits the world over to offer funds in times of need, and we send our people abroad to help communities that we’ve partnered with – and those communities send their members here – speaking from our pulpit – to deepen our connections. We collaborate with the NAACP for their work in the community, and they collaborate with us in our work in the community for justice and anti-racism. We maintain safe space for members of AA, and Al-Anon, as well as a rehearsal space for Long Island’s LGBT Choir. And the list goes on and on – and that list takes a ton of minutia to happen. We need earlobes and nostrils – as unexciting as that work sometimes sounds – makes the life-saving and life-affirming ministries happen. In these days of awe, it’s not just the sublime sunset, or the quiet of the garden that affirm our spirits, it’s the mundane everyday task that takes 25 years to build or rebuild our grounds – that also affirms our spirits and blesses our hands to do the work ahead.
If our mission statement were three words what would they be? Community, Individual and World? If that were it, it would mean community draws the individual into the world. That’s true – and that’s one of our goals. Maybe, Nurture, Caring and Healing. In a too often broken-feeling world, healing can only come when people choose the path of compassion and support. That’s true too. What I see as central to our mission is the reality that we need to be drawn out of our individual concerns into an accountable community that chooses to heal these corners of the world through care and justice. Sometimes that will be hard; sometimes that will be uncomfortable; sometimes that means that our individual opinions will be in conflict with another’s views, but we do so together.
I’ll close with a matched theological demand to James Luther Adam’s 5th stone. I see the matching demand of progressive faith to be this questions: Does it remind me to live with hope? When we are faced with a belief that challenges us, or leads us to despair, our faith tells us that it’s misleading. If our faith truly teaches us that – Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world -(and it does) – then any theology that seeks to cause us to forget hope is a theology that is misleading. Hope doesn’t mean easy; it doesn’t mean perfect; it doesn’t protect us from having to endure through periods of exhaustion or boredom or minutia – but it does make sure we face the world with a healthy sense of awe and possibility. Awe and possibility.