This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/23/18. It looks at the meaning of Sukkot in our times of long periods of change and adversity.
Happy Autumn All! Where I grew up, we didn’t have a lot of birds in my neighborhood, so I’m a bit slow on the uptake, with all the new-to-me flying critters we’re coming to know out here in Huntington (even after over 5 years and counting.) And since we’ve planted more trees back on Earth Day, Cyprus and Birch, even more of a variety have been showing up this year. I’m slowly starting to see the patterns of which birds nest in our little corner, of the earth, each part of the year. Robins and Blue Jays, then the mockingbirds, then the orioles and goldfinches. And as it cools down, the blue jays return and duke it out with the squirrels, and at some point there’s a starling swarm that sounds like an alien invasion to my ear – that honestly terrified me the first time I heard it a few years back. The woodpeckers seem to know how to pace themselves though. Nature’s littlest migrants, finding shelter along the way – some they build for themselves, some left by other birds who have moved on, and some- these strange humans – provide. Some instinct calls them on, to warmer weather, and better days, to return someday along with the spring’s fullness. It can’t be all that easy, picking up and moving all the time.
This year Sunday also falls on the start of the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot. It’s an ancient harvest festival, where Jewish Pilgrims, back in the days of the temple, would return to the temple. It also hearkens back to the 40 years of wandering in the desert after freedom from Egypt. For Sukkot, there’s a practice of building small makeshift, temporary shelters, called Sukkuhs.
Back in my seminary days, my school, Union Theological, would collaborate with Jewish Theological seminary, which was training people to be rabbis and cantors. JTS was across the street from us – on the other side of Broadway and 122nd. (As it happens, on the other corner is the Manhattan School of Music, where our Music Director, Jie, studies for his doctorate.) A lot of the Union and Jewish Theological students took classes together, and folks swapped back and forth to attend certain faculty classes. But Union had one of the only (and I think theonly) internal garden courtyard in the city – that was surrounded on four sides and open to the elements. It was a perfect place to honor Sukkot while in the midst of the city that never sleeps. Students and faculty from both schools would build a sukkah large enough for 50 or so of us to worship under for our daily mid-day services.
The services would honor the transitional time of year; they would recognize our places of fullness, and they would remember how we were all lost and wandering in the desert in our religious past, and probably at some point in our own personal pasts. The religious story, is all our stories.
The word sukkah, refers to both the temporary shelters workers in the fields would use during the harvest season to remain out in the fields rather than make any long travels back home, in between days of working the harvest. It also referred back to the temporary shelters used in the Exodus story; some protective cover always had to be built, as a whole nation was traveling to a new land. On the long road of life, we find hardship and shelter in unexpected places. And as hard as it was in this ultimate story of perseverance, there was always a way to find a shelter along the way; even if you had to build it – with your neighbor.
As I was working on this sermon out on my back porch, a flock of geese were flying overhead. As a kid, geese were the perennial reminder of change, of migration, of cycles and patterns to me; nature’s eternal migrants. Over the last 30 years, we’ve built up a lot of suburban parks with lakes, and many geese don’t leave for winter anymore, but when I was a child it was different.
Always moving, always migrating, can be a lot of work. Some years ago, I was co-leading a youth week long leadership development school out in Summit, NJ. It’s a town not that different from Huntington. We used the true story of how geese migrate to teach some important lessons in leadership development, but it also applies to thriving in life. After we taught this lesson, the youth would roleplay being geeze in flight out on the town square – honking away!
Here’s what we taught – and all credit goes to our Goldmine Youth Leadership Schools:
“Geese go south before winter comes, to avoid the extra cold weather, and when they fly long distances they make a V formation in the sky.
Now, geese are very smart about some things. They know that they have to travel hundreds of miles to arrive safely at their winter nesting place, and this cannot happen by accident. They know by instinct how to keep their flock intact, how to work together to reach their goals.
Those high flying geese are like a religious community in many ways. They do three things in particular which make for success. These three things work well for the geese and they work well for us in our groups: Sharing The Lead, Keeping Company With The Fallen, and Honking From Behind.
First, Sharing the Lead.
Geese fly in a V formation because the wind rolling off the tips of one bird’s wings helps to hold up the bird just behind it. It is a basic principal of flying called aerodynamic up rush.The bird out in front, at the point of the V, has to work the hardest, of course, but not all the time. It leads for a while, and then rotates back, and another bird comes forward to take the lead. They share the lead and the work.
Our Unitarian Universalist groups work much the same way at their best. People take turns as leaders and many share the work. When we work closely together, the energy from one person keeps the others involved and refreshed.
Second, Keeping Company with the Fallen.
If a goose gets sick or is shot down by a hunter, often a mate or friend will fly down to the ground and sit beside the fallen goose. The partner tries to protect its fallen comrade and find food, and it will sometimes wait for as long as a week until both birds can fly again. Sometimes a bird gets tired and cannot keep up with the big V formation. It will drop behind, but is never left alone to fend for itself. Two or three other birds will fall back and fly just ahead of the tired bird, helping to hold it up and encouraging it along in a smaller V formation. The next time you see geese overhead, look for a large V and the several smaller V formations likely to be coming along behind.
In our UU groups there are many kind people who look out for those who may be tired or sick or in need. They give both attention and time, bringing food, sending cards and letters, or doing whatever else is necessary. Keeping company with the fallen is one more thing that geese and good group members have in common.
Third, Honking From Behind.
In every flock of geese, there are birds who take turns flying way at the back. They honk loudly and often, partly to encourage the younger geese and partly to keep them going in the right direction.
In our UU groups we have loud voices that call to us from the past. Voices like Clara Barton, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson – (we heard at length about one of those voices this morning – John Murray.) These are the voices of Unitarians and Universalists who loved our religion and built it up in the past. Their lives, their deeds, and their writings call out to us and encourage us to stay on course.
Religious educators and youth group advisors are other groups that honk from behind. They work mostly in the back rooms of the church building, calling out the value of Religious Education, teaching about life and Unitarian Universalism, and encouraging new generations to reach for their goals.
In any setting, each of us can take a turn honking from behind, to affirm those with whom we’re flying, so that we might all get where we want to go together and in good shape.
When you think about the groups that are important to you, remember the high flying geese. Like these smart and effective birds, people contribute greatly when they Share the Lead, Keep Company with The Fallen, and Honk From Behind.”
Thus ends the parable of the migrating geese, in V formation.
Whether it’s evidence in the natural world, or the wisdom teachings of scripture, there’s a resounding message through it all, that calls us not to go it alone. Meanwhile, wider culture tries to teach us to lift up our singular achievements; as if, the bigger, better, and farthest we can achieve on our own, the more impressive we are. It can be impressive, but life isn’t about being impressive. It’s a communal act of bringing us all along. (Maybe Tell Buddhist story of the table being a marker of all that is – about how life is a reflection of community.)
Ok, one more migratory metaphor; I’ve told this story once before, but let’s look at it in this newer light. Some years ago, I began using a Fit Bit. It’s this device you wear around your wrist that tracks how much walking you do (I’ve since upgraded – show watch); it estimates calories burned, and tracks the food you eat so long so you enter the food on a matching phone app. Besides encouraging you to hit certain goals around “steps-taken” every day, and keeping the calories down a bit if you want to, it plays to the conventional wisdom that if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and eating, you’ll be more likely to make better choices.
Although it’s been pretty effective in the first few weeks, and my dog loved how much more she got walked, it’s also created some comic moments and an interesting lesson or two. A few days in, the weather was pretty bad and I didn’t quite hit my 10,000 step goal (which is about 5 miles a day.) I found myself walking in circles throughout the house until I hit it. At home, Brian was laughing at me. I know it probably didn’t really count for caloric burn, but I figured if you’re going to make a purposeful commitment to something, you might as well not break it three days in.
I also learned that I walk about 3/4 of a mile every time I do the laundry. Between the back and forth up two flights of steps, folding and putting away, it’s actually a fairly intensive home chore. So if I’m running short on steps, I’ve been more religiously doing laundry – which is better than having Brian continue to laugh at me for walking in circles. Three and a half years later, this is still true.
Hardship in life, is often experienced as a kind of endurance run, many of us have to hold onto, over the long haul during periods of difficulty. Whether it’s illness, or accomplishing a meaningful goal like school, we sometimes think of these in terms of seasons and years. The other side of this though – is this step – and the next.
There’s a reason tools like Fit Bit set daily goals rather than monthly. If that device asked me to walk 150 miles this month, I think I’d laugh. But it’s the same thing I’m doing, by going five miles a day. We can only take it day by day. Yet, from time to time, we all force ourselves to look at a difficult time in our lives as that 150 miles. Our community has faced a lot of loss in our lives over the past few years. Loved ones have died. We’re supporting friends through prolonged periods of illness. Even surgeries that have gone well, take their toll, sometimes for a long time. We can’t wish away the grief, and not all disease will be cured. But we can let ourselves take it five miles at a time. We’ll still have to face the whole long road ahead, one way or the other, but we can give ourselves the gift of facing just the part that’s before us today. It’s the only stretch of the road we can ever face after all.
So how do we face it though, day by day? The common wisdom has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. And none of that changes if we’re overwhelmed by it all. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with grief and loss.
Some of us know all too well the power of grief to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.
Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And as Jesus taught, worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.
The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.
When I’m at my worst, I’ve lost my sense of awe, and I yearn for a sense of reverence. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow – Life calls us on.
Goldmine Youth Leadership School, Metro NY District 2012