This sermon looks at what inspires us to act, and how stories matter over things. 12/9/18.
Last weekend, our Fellowship hosted a retreat for about 35 UU’s from across Long island. It was the beginning of the Beloved Conversations program some of us are taking part in this winter – learning how to have the difficult conversatons about race in a healthy way. At one point in the retreat, the leader of the retreat, Dr. Mark Hicks, asked us “what are some rules or assumptions that are held in your specific congregation.” He was trying to help us to the point of realizing how newcomers might see us by addressing the norms we hold that we may forget about. He was also, I think, trying to help us realize that what might be a norm for us, may not be a norm for even the very the next UU congregation over in Long Island. The answers were all over the map from talking about theology to talking about music. Although my small group talked about a bunch of things, when the mic came to me, I found myself answering, “Red is our color.” The room got quiet for a moment, and then folks began looking around at our Sanctuary, and there was loud laughter. There’s a story to that color – so hold onto the idea for a moment. I’ll circle right back around.
[recap story about describing an object in the room – from the other’s perspective about forms and lines, to mine about the story.]
So the form, and color, and texture can matter less than the story. So what’s the story about “red” here.
Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Rev. Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, (much like our story earlier about the magic vase) the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to move up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow. As in the reading earlier, let the artist win; or in this case, let the minister with a paint brush win.
Every few years, I throw caution and common sense to the wind, and point the irony here out for all to see – this is not for the minister who is feint of heart. I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them? As we celebrate 11 new members (and their kids), these are especially relevent questions to reflect on. How will we be, with each other?
Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building.
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering (as our 7thprinciple reminds us,) that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.
That feels like the underlying message in our reading earlier, “Let the Artists Win.” Beauty, in all these incarnations, is probably on the right side, and ultimately leads to peace. Life can seem – probably too often – as a tension between the quest for struggle and power, versus plain kindness and genuine community.
I want to come to a close with a return to our earlier choir anthem, “Imagine” by John Lennon. It’s a beautiful song, and probably one that many of us could sing with our eyes closed. It’s also an odd song to pick for a new member Sunday. “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too. Imagine all the people. Living life in peace…”. I know so much of strife in this world is done under the guise of religion. But this line has bothered me for a long time; I know what it means, but it always seemed to me to sort of let humanity off the hook. As if to say – ‘our problem isn’t people, it’s nationsor religions.’ But I see it differently. We’re only as good as the values we hold up. When we confuse patriotism with nationalism (lifting up national identityas more important than noble values) or we confuse spiritual devotion with fanaticism – then yes, we are better off without them. But when learn to live to our virtues rather than our egos, we also build a world of peace. The tradition of the red doors is only as important as the story it reveals, and winning as a nation is not being the mightiest, but aspiring to our nation’s higher angels. The song, Imagine, in a way, is saying the same thing as the poem, “Let the Artists Win.” In our collective lives, who do we let win?
For our new member today, that is partly what you have committed to by joining us, and why we celebrated your membership, because you also remind us of the promises we have made ourselves. It’s not a celebration of growing our membership, but of recognizing the spiritual depth we are all striving and committing to. And as we reflect this month on what it would mean to be a people of peace, living to our virtues is one way of being that people. Bringing in our magic vases, our collective talents, to inspire and re-inspire our neighbors over and over again, is another way of being that people of peace. And may we all learn our neighbor’s story – much like the art above my head I spoke of at the beginning of the service, people are more than form and function; the story there makes all the difference.