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A People of Calling

This sermon was preached on 9/9/18 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as part of our annual multigenerational water communion service, where this year, Rosh Hashanah was also celebrated.

(Tell the story of the Waterbearer🙂

All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of vocation. It’s a big word that can mean work, or our job, or a profession. Religiously speaking, it also means “calling” – what are we called to do or be. In the water-bearer story, the leaky bucket felt pain because it wasn’t doing what it thought it was sent out to do; but it was actually fulfilling its purpose – flowers were growing from the broken places. Our calling in life, is where our total humanity fits the worlds deepest needs. But we don’t always recognize it.

 

Instead, sometimes we can get really focused on the cracks in our buckets, that we don’t see where they can be of value – or how they may help us or the people around us – or how they play into the bigger world around us. By a show of hands, who here often feels like they have to be perfect – to have to hide the cracks – to never let any water spill. Ok, look around (that’s a lot of hands.) Ok, put your hands down. Who here expects the people aroundthem to be perfect all the time, to never show their cracks, to never let any water spill? We all know some people who seem harder on others than themselves, but that seems to be less common, plus we never know what’s really going on inside their heads, maybe they’re really quietly rough on themselves.

Why are we normally so much harder on ourselves than we are on others? We can beat ourselves up real well. Why? Some of it is about our ego. We hold up our sense of self-worth so high, that any mistake we make that makes that picture of greatness less than perfect, is something we focus on again and again until we can erase it so our ego looks shiny again. I doubt many of us think or feel this way on purpose, it just happens. That’s kind of a faith in our ego, or our false sense of perfection. And that’s something that our principles teach us against.

What does our first principle say? (Inherent worth and dignity of every person, and some may say every being. In our classrooms we often just say, “everyone is important.”) Do we all agree with our first principle (can I get some nods, hands, amen’s, or even hear-hears!) Well, I’m going to ask us all to have a little faith in that first principle. Sometimes, that’s what religion is about – trusting in a teaching or a value even when you might be having a hard time seeing it or feeling it. Just because you’ve lost faith in your worth despite our imperfections, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because the kid at the next table during lunch hour is being mean to you, doesn’t mean they’re right. When people are mean to you for little reason, it’s normally much more about them than it is about you. And this religion teaches us that we have value, we have worth, despite our little cracks, or our mistakes, and especially regardless of what the mean bully (of any age) may tell us. People are always going to share their opinions, but they’re not always going to be right.

(People are always going to share their opinions, but they’re not always going to be right.)

 

And for those of us who are always the stable ones, the ones helping others, the ones who are the problem solvers never with any problems of our own (on the outside), I remind us that sometimes even the caregiver needs help. Sometimes, we’re not perfect (usually in fact), and sometimes our cracks help something else grow like in the case of the water bearer. When we feel rough, or bruised, or tired – where are those places that feed our inner wells? Where’s the water come from that the water bearer is carrying? Many of us brought water forward earlier symbolizing the places in our lives that nourish us. How do we build those wells in our lives? How do we make sure they’re close to home?

Think about those places in your lives that feed you. What is it about them? Is it the community or friends? Is it the scenery? Is it a sense of peace, or ease, or just a place where you have no responsibilities? Maybe it’s the sense of history? If you can’t think of a place or a source that feeds you, please, come up and talk with me later and we can sort out how this Fellowship may give that nourishment.

 

Some of us may have brought water from our local summer camp, Fahs. (A lot of us have the camp’s t-shirts on today.) It’s a place where people are acting their best selves; it feels safe; there are chances for fun, for challenging yourself, for growing up, a chance to rest, it’s been a beautiful spot too.

All these things nourish ourselves. Rest, good people acting well, safety, fun, challenge, growth and beauty. Getting away, traveling to places like this, are definitely important and worth doing. Sometimes we just need to get out of the routine of the every-day to get back to ourselves; to see the world anew. But the truth is, those wells that nourish our spirits, are in our backyards too. The garden at my house that feeds (mostly the birds, squirrels and resident rabbits these), and encourages our puppy “Lola” to play, leap and get muddy, is a well too. And not just for her. Sometimes allowing the silly into our lives may not be efficient, or clean, but it can remind us to have fun. That it’s not all about being serious, or diligent, or working hard. The muddy dog, wet from the garden hose foolery, is the very image of turning that-which-is-a chore into something rejuvenating – something nourishing – even if it means that maybe the puppy can’t come inside anytime soon. My husband will call out; “Lola is not allowed on the couch!”

The trick, or the challenge is to allow those places like Fahs Summer Camp to be allowed into our lives the rest of the year in small ways. To look at the routine in new ways and turn it into something different. I recall as a kid hating Sundays in the Winter. All that was on TV was golf (ugh) and it was too cold to play outside, and we didn’t have computers when I was young (gasp), and I was an only child. The very image of boredom!  Now a-days, with job, school, and volunteer efforts taking us in so many directions, I wish for boring days at home! It’s how you look at it. Boring isn’t always such a bad thing, and sometimes it’s good for us to learn how to be a little bored and comfortable with it.

There’s often the drive to pretend all those places of nourishment are far away, or only available at another time. In the Winter we hate the cold and in the Summer we hate the heat and humidity. In September comes the great debate between those who love the pumpkin spice, and those who love to mock it. We wait all year for a great vacation (if we can afford the travel) pining for the warm beach, and finally when it comes, by the end of the week or two we’re sometimes pining for home. (Sleeping in my own bed, is a phrase we often say when travel becomes a chore, rather than a dream.) They’re all normal reactions, but they’re all a little crazy-making too, right? Building those wells that nourish us, wherever or whenever we are, is the religious practice. Universalism teaches us that wherever else Heaven may be, Heaven is also on Earth, here and now. We only need to be open to seeing or feeling it. To not saying that Heaven is some place else that I have to wait to get to. The summer camps of the world are awesome places, with a community we love to spend time with. And that community, in large part, is literally here too – all year long. For the lovers of Fahs (we have something like 60-80 from our community there every year),  for the Fahs lovers, I challenge you to bring Fahs here as much as you can. What was the theme for Fahs this year (it’s not a place, it’s the people – here’s a clue, read the back of someone’s Fahs’ t-shirt in front of you.) To be your best self in this community, as this community has been its best self at Fahs. To make this Home a bit of the places of paradise you’ve found elsewhere. It’s already here; even if we can’t always see it.

As we come to a close, I’ll remind us of the wise imagery we heard earlier in the service from Rev. Amanda Poppei: “Life has often felt to me like a jigsaw puzzle… or really, like the mess of pieces when you first dump out the box. When I’ve been faced with multiple decisions at the same time, it’s felt as though I’m not sure which piece to fit in first. Little by little, I try piece after piece until one clicks. Then I can recognize the pieces that might fit around it, and eventually the pattern emerges — not just in the picture I’m creating, but in the mess of pieces I have still to pick up.”

Being a people of calling can mean taking up the challenge of the jigsaw puzzle; our lives are not always straight forward stories about progress by progress. Sometimes our lives are about making sense and meaning out of the mess of the pieces dumped out of the box. Sometimes, what’s left behind, the pieces that are still remaining, are more about our calling than all the neat places we’ve fitted before.

 

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Mattering

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/19/18 and looks at the importance of spiritual practices.

 

I just came across a favorite fake quote of mine as Facebook likes to pop up memories from past years from time to time; it’s attributed to the Buddha, but the Buddha never said it. “The trouble is, you think you have time.” Even though the Buddha never actually said it, it’s the kind of contemporary language that points to a spiritual teaching that’s pretty close to what Buddha taught. In all the passing of our days and years, we tend to parcel out our lives as if time were a central truth to our spirit. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to pain and suffering. Living by the clock, thinking by the clock, and waiting by the clock. And waiting by the clock is one of the most painful ways to live.

We all have that happen to us so often in our lives. We’re waiting for the job offer that never seems to come. Or college acceptance letters seem to travel at the speed of snails. Or we’re grappling with the possibility of having to accept that a serious illness may have just entered our family. Everything else seems to go out of focus and we fixate on the thing that will validate us, or show us the way forward, or redefine all our future days. We’re waiting for the map to unfold and make clear where our path will take us. Who we are, while we’re waiting, doesn’t seem to matter to us any longer – only ‘come what may’, seems to matter to us.

But sometimes, it’s much less serious. Sometimes we get distracted by triviality, or get sucked into another person’s opinion of us, or define our day by a thousand small things. In a very real way, a million magical things happen every moment we are here to see them – whether we take note or not. So long as we are breathing, the seemingly fantastical is right before us. Our kid’s laughter. The love of a partner. The life that teems all around us. Breath itself – a completely miraculous gift we only notice when it’s hard to find. When you hear me speak of “reverence” in my sermons – it’s all of these things that I point to. It’s the feeling of another sun rising – through no fault of our own, and it’s the feeling many of us experience toward God. It’s one aim of religion to help us to come to a place where we can appreciate that subtle awareness – without getting too caught up in defining it.

There will always be a thousand distractions, some small, some very serious – but how we connect with a sense of reverence in our daily living will determine the depth of our life. It’s not just a witticism for the spiritually enlightened. It’s practical advice for daily living. For remembering what actually matters, and what makes us think we don’t matter – as we are – right now.

And sometimes, we don’t live in the future, we live in the past. As a congregation, we’ve endured a lot of loss and struggle over the past 10 years or so. We’ve gone through so many transitions…. Your previous called minister ended his time with you dealing with health concerns. We grieve the loss of our last religious educator, who left over medical concerns – though she’s thankfully getting the care she needs. And our previous religious educator before her, ended her time with you caring for her husband during his terminal illness. Many members had to step up to respond in loving and supportive ways. Some of you may have felt like you were all of sudden employees of the Fellowship to ensure that things continued to work. I know it felt that way again this last time around as well. Thank you for that. Thank you for doing what you felt needed to be done. Thank you for caring for your staff as best as you were able. And some of you are likely still completely wiped from the effort. For some of us, we may feel soul weary. And we’ve had a tremendous amount of death in our membership these past five years; we can neither wish that away, or pretend it’s simply in our past, lest we run ramshackle over our hearts. And yet still, today is where we are.

The practical advice for daily living is that in times of change, or stress, or extra effort, we must be extra diligent to find room in our hearts for reverence. Or we will burn out and what we sought to nurture, or protect, will become a burden we begin to wish we could just drop. And soon we may just drop it. We can avoid this by developing spiritual practices that draw us to experience a sense of gratitude in our lives. What might feel like a daily dose of triage at first, can transform into a healthy regimen.

In the months to come, we will focus on growing more opportunities for the discipline of spiritual practices. I know that we already have groups that meet for meditation and yoga throughout the week. We will continue to offer small group ministry (what we call Journey Groups). We will be growing more such circles after September where a group of 6-10 people can come together monthly to reflect on the content of our services – to share, to go deeper, to be nurtured in community. I think we’ve averaged about 30-50 congregants attending them each year, and I would honestly prefer if twice that number were in those groups. I will be taking over preparing those sessions and facilitators this year, with our full time DRE cut back to a half time coordinator. Each of the monthly sessions will be in response to the sermons in the month. Starting at the end of this month, we’ll be sending out a newsletter again, this time focused on the theme of the month, rather than the events of the week, and it will include a short teaser for the Journey Groups for all to see. Please check it out, and consider making this commitment to these spiritual practices.  More information will come out later this month. If you’re interested and have experience facilitating such reflection groups, please do call or email me soon. We will need several folks to help make this a reality. And this Fall, we’ll be doing a deep dive into our theology, and our principles during worship, as I plan to prepare another preaching series on our principles and our religious philosophy. If you’re new to UU, this will be a great primer. And if you’ve been around a long time, I’m sure it’ll help you finally memorize the principles.

I just attended a 15 hour workshop on faith formation this past week, and after this service today, I’ll be heading out to our Summer Camp called Fahs, to co-lead the 9thand 10thgrade youth group programming for the week with Patrick M. Fahs started yesterday for the staff, and this afternoon for the campers, and I’ll be dashing out right after service to get there in time. It’s the main reason why we have so few kids today. About 100 Long Island children, and youth attend this camp each year, along with about 50 adults. The workshop helped me come away with a renewed appreciation for ritual, for the discipline of spiritual practices, and for repetition. Faith formation is a lifelong practice, and religious communities thrive over the long haul best when it’s member focus on those things. A shared practice and a shared sense of self, are key to our health and success. Anyone who has attended Fahs or has sent their kids to Fahs, knows how vital and transformative shared practices, traditions, and values are for building lasting, meaningful communities that matter in our lives. I invite you to seriously consider making such a commitment in the months and seasons to come. Building community is the most vital spiritual practice we can commit to, and our broader world needs it even more than ever.

Before I began my ministry here 5 years ago, we didn’t have this practice of communal silent candle lighting as we do now. The ritual of prayer and meditation is the second largest part of the service (after the sermon) and I think it’s become key to our communal practice of worship. Seeing our kids each week, bring their parents forward, is a practice that is informing this generation, and will be remembered, probably for their entire lives. As a religious community, centered in shared spiritual practices, it is vital that we raise our children to appreciate these practices as well. Or they will not be here when they are too old for children’s religious education. Our youth may not even stay through High School. It’s also crucial, that we share our sacred practices with all ages. Because as a community – we are Fellowship of all ages – our practices should reflect our identity and our values. For most of us this is probably a given, but I’m realizing over time, that sometimes it’s important for me to say obvious things, to remind us all that we’re intentional in what we do. And if this is your first time here today, please know that we try our best to center the needs of our children and youth. Kids are welcome in all our chairs, not just the wiggle room in the back. (And much like Junior High School classroom rules, there’s always a safe bet, that the front row will be free.)

You will often note that with all of our spiritual practices, I will often use different ways of talking about the same things. This morning alone, I’ve already said prayer, meditation, reverence, and gratitude. For some of us, this is a given. For others it can be a challenge. Openness in times of change can be a discipline all in itself. I am forever less concerned in the details of creed as I am in the experience of a meaningful practice. There are many truths. I hope that we can each be renewed by our Sunday services – each in our own way. That times of silence can give us the breather we need, while times of movement and ritual can energize. Where one thing may not speak to us, may we learn to appreciate how it very well may be speaking to the person who is sitting right next to us. Each of us matter, and we strive to make room for all of us to be fed. If this week’s sermon doesn’t speak to you, next week’s probably will, and know that someone here today needed this message.

Robert Latham[1], an author and a UU minister, talks about this in a slightly different way. He suggests that the old trinity of Unitarian thought – that we’re grounded in Freedom, Reason and Tolerance – is probably not the best matrix to be relying on. To put it briefly — saying we’re “free” implies anyone who hasn’t joined our faith isn’t themselves free. It’s not a statement that’s very generous of spirit to other traditions. Where reason will always be important to us, it only touches upon one half of our mind (or maybe less depending on how important you rate virtues such as compassion and empathy.) And tolerance — try to think of the last time you said out loud — “!I am so grateful that you tolerate me!” and meant it! No one likes being tolerated. At best it’s the baby step toward living with respect for the world around us.

Rev. Latham asks us to measure our faith by another standard. He suggests: Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. We put those three words on our letterhead after I was called here, and they are central to each sermon I write, even if I don’t always use those words. I’ve talked at length about the first and the third already. Mindfulness is a general awareness of what is going on before us blended with our more intuitive core. This triad is a spiritual practice in itself. It can directly help us in times of stress and change – whether the matter is frivolous or life-altering.

A practice of openness can save us from some arguments with friends, fellow congregants or (maybe on a good day) our families. It’s hard to assume good intentions with all the world. It’s hard to accept that there might be another way of seeing something when our feelings have been hurt, or we’ve been asked to change some long-standing practice. But in religious community – at least in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – we are called to be open. We don’t necessarily need to change our minds, but our faith demands of us that we don’t come to the table with our minds made up. And that we do so knowing that we’re in there in relation to the people around us.

The practice of mindfulness asks us not to do a thousand things at once. For some of us – not doing a thousand things at once – is a really hard thing… not to do. It also involves allowing our reason to dance with our heart. When we get lost in our emotions to the point where we can’t see the road before us; or we endlessly fidget with all the options ahead of us, mindfulness calls us back to a place of centeredness. We can appreciate the feelings and the challenges without losing our place in this world. We already have a place in this world. The struggles and the challenges before us do not define our value. We are already of value.

A practice of reverence may be the most counter-cultural act we can ever make in our consumer-driven world. Messages, media, public pressure and finances all urge us to gain the next thing; to desire what we can’t have over the gifts before us; to be consumers in our world rather than be citizens. Reverence informs us that all this is fleeting, that the quest for the shiny new toy is the least way to experience our lives. Or in the words of my mentor, Rev. Forrest Church we ought to “want what we have.” Reverence teaches us to value what is always before us.

We can stay centered through our lives (well mostly centered) because of our spiritual disciplines. I try to stay open to the ebb and flow of crazy in my day knowing that there’s always a story hidden behind every challenge. I seek to remain mindful that this and that will sometime pass. And I seek ways to appreciate the beauty in our world. For the past 21 years I’ve honored a daily commitment to a walking meditation. It is the absolute rarest day where I don’t walk for at least 3 miles. The practice calms and centers me along with reminding me that my soul is not defined by the work that I do. I am not a machine here to accomplish things, but a spirit that is here to encounter other spirits. Often I feel like I don’t have the time to walk, but I follow the old Rabbinical saying: “I pray every day for an hour, except for those days when I’m too busy. On those days, I pray for two hours.” As it happens, I also pray every evening – though I promise you not for 2 hours.

I would like to remind you of the words we began with this service by Maxx Kapp to light our chalice. “Carry the Sacred Flame to make light the windows of the world. It is we who must be keepers of the flame. It is we who must carry the imperishable fire. It is our watch now! It is our watch now!” Keeping the flame of progressive faith alive it not solely about social justice, or being a voice for the oppressed, or healing the pains of the world. It is all of these things for sure. But it is also keeping our own inner flame alive, loved, and vibrant. May we seek ways to practice a discipline of spirituality, and may we do so with gladness in our hearts and kindness on our lips. For to care for the world we live in, we must first care for  our sagging shoulders, and our weary grins, knowing that we never do so alone.

 

 

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Forgiving Our Way Home

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/12/18. This family friendly homily looks at grudges and forgiveness.

Grudges. Our story this morning packed them all up, and stored them heavily in the backpacks we all carry. Weighing us down, we can never forget their presence, and often have a hard time letting them go — even though we know we don’t want the added poundage on our shoulders. Or do we?

I remember one crazy week when I was serving the UU congregation of Shelter Rock. I was still living up at Riverside Church in Manhattan, which is right next to Grant’s Tomb – the civil-war General for the North. It was a day or so after New Year’s. I had been borrowing a small car from a congregant who was gracious enough to help ease my commute from the border of Harlem all the way out to Manhasset, Long Island. It was the choice between a 40 minute car ride or close to a 2 hour mass transit trip. It was a really great gift she gave me.

Well, one morning, I went out to that car. It was parked right outside my apartment window. In fact, my bed was right at the window, so I was literally sleeping 10 feet from the car. And I’m living beneath Riverside Church – the great Protestant “Cathedral” (as some call it) of NYC. The window was all smashed in, and someone had stolen the $10 radio inside. But instead of carefully extracting the cheap radio, they simply ripped it loose from the dashboard. Well, the dashboard decided it would go along with the radio. So the ten dollars the robber would get for selling it on the street, was going to cost me $800 in repairs for someone else’s car which wasn’t even worth $800 itself. On my 60 hour a week internship salary – that was almost 3 weeks of work.

So I have this unusual personality trait. The more absurd a thing gets, the calmer I become. Let me tell you, I was very … calm. This high level of calmness lasted all the way till the police finally showed… 4 hours later; when one detective asked, “Did you lock the car?” I innocently responded, “Yes.” The police officers laughed and shook their heads while jotting down notes. “You really shouldn’t lock your car. It’ll only cost you more in the end.” …. That wasn’t the thing to say, to me. Even though they’re right. “Oh, now it’s my fault.” Fortunately, in a rare moment of editing brilliance, I managed not to say that out loud.

So for the next two weeks, I didn’t overly fret over the cost of the repairs, or the sense of violation by some stranger, or dwell on any sense that my neighborhood was somehow less safe. I took the longer commute in stride, and had the difficult chat with the congregant who was loaning me the car. All of these chores were unpleasant, but I handled them well enough considering. But that cop, who told me I shouldn’t have locked my door – Oh Em Gee. Strap that backpack on, write me some grudges, and fill it up please sir. I will gladly increase my burden, to stay angry at you.

Anyone else ever do that before? Or is it just me? Find someone to be angry at, and hold on tight to that anger? There’s a certain sense of rightness … maybe righteousness… that we gain when we do this? “The way I see the world is correct; I’ve been wronged somehow, and as long as I maintain that strict position, I get to stay right. Yay!” Sound familiar? That’s the fundamental story for most world literature, movies, after TV specials (they still have those right?) and our daily living. It’s the central thing that religion strives to undo. Well, pluralistic religion – in any of its many forms. Because it’s pretty clear every religion out there has some form that says it’s got the right answer and everyone else is wrong. But there’s a challenging tenet at the core of religion that values the virtue of forgiveness.

The Jewish teacher and the Christian Saviour, Jesus, made this a central focus of his ministry. When someone “wrongs” you, “turn the other cheek.” We could leave it just at that. Forgiveness is tough to do, but we should do it. But why? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. Different translations will call it the Kingdom of God, others will say that it’s “among us” or “within us.” Whether it’s in our midst, or among us, or within us – it implies it’s here right now. Not some other worldly location that’ll happen at the end of time. Right here, right now. It’s the difference between living in Grudgeville and renaming it Joytown.

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It’s more than being “nice.” Forgiveness is a religious discipline. It’s practice not only makes our individual weight less burdensome; it not only reconnects us with our “wrong-doer” whoever or whatever they might be this time; it also rebuilds community. Without it, we are condemned to a life where we fixate on that past moment. As this morning’s story goes, we carry the burden of the grudge of our grandfather who was called a horse-thief some decades past when he was running for mayor; rather than enjoy our life in it’s renewing newness. It’s the choice between remaining unhappy with a work-place slight, and being free to enjoy the next day as you otherwise make or accomplish something. It’s remaining unhappy by the thing you were told you were not able to do by a parent or teacher, and forgetting that there’s so many other things you can still do. It’s not letting go of the way things were 30 years ago, in your family or in this Fellowship — if we don’t let go of how things were, we can’t really see the people around us for who they are now. Look around you right now — these are some pretty awesome people that are harder to meet with our backpacks stooping our shoulders since it fixates our eyes on the ground.

With a show of hands — how many people have ever felt wronged? How many people thought at some point in their life that the thing that wronged them was the biggest thing in the world at the time – that it was the end of the world? How many of those of us who have felt that way are still here right now? Forgiveness is about this perspective. It helps us to recognize this truth in life. Life will go on beyond that thing, whatever it was. We just get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. But it will go on.

Now, this doesn’t mean we need to stay in abusive situations. It doesn’t mean we can’t identify when we’re being taken advantage of, or being mistreated. It doesn’t mean that we can’t look for healthier or more balanced relationships or life situations. Forgiveness means that when we realize we need to move on or through something, that we do just that. We don’t hold onto a sense of guilt, or shame, or condemnation for ourselves or others. While we work to remedy whatever is genuinely ailing us, forgiveness means that we commit our focus to that end; not using most of it to remain in anger.

I said before that we get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. What is staying back mean though? It’s losing our way. Jesus spoke a lot about his school being “the followers of the way.” It’s a way into right relationship. It’s a way into living into community with love. It’s a way home. Whether you believe Jesus was a teacher, or the Son of God, the core message in his prophetic teaches, I believe, is the same. It’s not just about ethics and morals, though they are certainly there as well. It’s about showing up. It’s about recognizing that whatever you name or see or feel about the details of the sacredness of life, it’s only going to be found in our midst, within, between all of us. It‘s recognizing that we realize the world’s sacredness when we allow ourselves to be open to the people around us. Without learning to forgive all the things we think we can’t, we’re lost. Without forgiveness, we only cut ourselves off from the connectedness with being, with living, with our classmates, with each other. Forgiving is a way home to our birthright.

I just said a very odd thing. Forgiveness is about showing up. Usually people say that forgiveness is about letting go; and that’s definitely part of it as well. I don’t feel we’re the same when we hold grudges. I believe that part of us that really matters isn’t present. I believe that although we might be standing in the room, when we hold onto something we think wronged us, we’re just holding onto a vision of how things might have been rather than how things are. Not only do we not accept the world as it is, but we keep ourselves back in that moment we didn’t particularly like. Frankly, grudges are kind of pointless. They don’t change anything. And that’s key — they don’t change anything. They keep us right back in the moment of pain, or disappointment, or frustration. “I didn’t get to stay up that extra hour to play,” or “your salary just got cut,” or “that shelf hasn’t been dusted in weeks.” Some of these are serious and some of them are not. But holding onto all of them keeps us from coming home. They each, in their own ways, keeps us from showing up to the world that is. They keep us from engaging our community in healthy, loving, full ways.

At the beginning of this homily I asked whether we really wanted the grudges we hold onto or not. We know they don’t do anything to make us feel any better or solve anything, and yet, every one of us – including myself – holds onto them from time to time. Some of us, even have our specialties. We excel at identifying certain types of offenses. And look!…we find them everywhere we turn! I think the problem is simply that we forget ourselves. We forget that birthright I spoke of. We forget that community and fellowship is more important than being right, as if being right ever changed anything – if you’re unsure about this last bit, take a look at politics or any dinner table conversation at home to know that being right is of little importance. So, next time we find ourselves being seduced by being right, let’s commit to letting that go and maybe we’ll find more forgiveness coming our way home.

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Mosaic Makers

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/5/18. It looks at conversation as a core religious practice, at diversity as a social value, and at the increasingly fragmented extremes of contemporary political life.

 

 

Happy August everyone. It’s good to be back in the pulpit after my July break. We just heard a story from Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister serving our congregation in Austin. She’s talking about raising her sons with questions, and conversations, rather than them learning to talk atfolks, and to avoid talking at length without hearing the other. There’s a little bit of a jab at how so many boys are raised to become men who talk at, and talk at length. But it’s more about raising the next generation to learn to strive to be in conversation with those around them. Conversation – the bedrock of community. It’s essential to meaning, to connection, to understanding our neighbor. If loving our neighbor is a core religious principle, then conversation is a core religious practice.

Our nation, and our communities, seem to be drifting away from free dialogue, from conversations toward talking at one another. I don’t mean to suggest that every extreme notion, every hateful ideal seemingly plaguing us daily, should be normalized and respected. There are apologists aplenty for every hateful thing these days, and they deserve censure. Separating children from their parents on the border has no rationale based in merit or ethic; white supremacy is alive and well on our streets, and on the internet, and should be instantly and loudly rebuked. The media is clearly not the enemy of the people, and anyone espousing such reveals themselves as a fan of tyranny – that is a long-established fact if we make even a cursory look at the history books.

But I’m increasingly seeing otherwise normal views and opinions from traditional conservatives, everyday centrists, and progressives on the left, being blown out as radical ideas or extremist in perspective. Or ideas that once were a given, are now put into question. Talking points become wielded ateach other, much like our story where one kid speaks at length without making room for conversation. (Some of my liberal friends can’t seem to find common ground with some of my progressive friends, over the slightest difference of perspectives.)

And worse, views that are in the range of “normal” get framed as crazy. Just this week I’ve seen or heard TV, News, or social media decry the idea that ‘should someone working full time be paid enough to afford their rent’ as a radical left notion…. radically Leftist, to be able to work for a living. We now have the ability to 3D print plastic guns and there is a sizeable contingent that fervently believe blocking that, is a threatto their first and second amendment rights; as if not being able to trace killers were suddenly a social good, or not being able to screen known criminals were in our best interest. And apparently now, funding election security has become a partisan issue – as if the sanctity of our democratic process is suddenly a debatable point. This is not normal, and it should remain abnormal. But for all the rest, I think we have some work on our hands in reknitting the social fabric, for the common good. Conversation is a core religious practice.

I was talking with a Canadian colleague back in June while working on one of our UUA continental committees, and I casually made the old melting pot metaphor that most of us grew up hearing as normal. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I knew it was going to be problematic. The old goal of everyone coming to America and melting into one common identity, as if we were some primordial soup, was progressive in its day, but it’s regressive for us now. It doesn’t leave room for folks who were here before the US; it doesn’t leave room for folks who were brought here against their will. And especially saying that to a Canadian who has a different sense of national identity, it wasn’t a helpful phrase. She suggested what they prefer in Canada, when they are talking about people coming together – they say making a mosaic together.

         Now for the more cynical of us – I grew up in New Jersey, and I lived in New York for 15 years now – I know cynical. The cute phrases can make our eyes roll. But in our current climate where the absurd and hateful is given free press, and the normal and kind is called radical, I’m going to make room for any cute phrase that gives us a chance for imagining a new way. Mosaics are a better metaphor for both a national and a community roadmap.

The theme for this month, is Unity and Diversity. Each week this month we’ll reflect on what it means to be a people of Unity and a people of Diversity. How do we do both? When we build mosaics in arts, or on our bathroom tiles, we take a range of shapes and colors and blend them together to create a broader picture. What came before is still there, and its uniqueness is used to craft something new – unity and diversity. The melting pot ideology that informed my grandparents generation left my family speaking only English. My mother grew up hearing her grandparents speaking Italian, and her step-father speaking Spanish, but none of it stuck by adulthood, because her mother wanted to ‘help her become American’ – which meant then, onlyspeaking English. …I’m lesser for it. My grandmother had the best of intentions, but the melting pot metaphor hurt my family, and stole from me part of my heritage and culture. That shouldn’t be normal.

The image in the news of white people screaming at people to speak English in America, is the logical conclusion of a weaponized form of the melting pot. It’s also not normal – it’s a form of social sickness – it’s the inversion of loving our neighbor, that all religions teach us. It’s also an extreme form of talking atone another, rather than seeking conversation.

In many ways, it comes down to this: We have a quote at the top of our order of service from Audre Lorde that reads, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” At the founding of our nation, we valued freedom, liberty, and justice for all – but the for all part meant mostly white male landowners – and of course heterosexual. That for all part would expand bit by bit over the decades – slowly. But we didn’t yet have in our national identity a sense that diversitywas a value we ascribed to – or celebrated. Diversity wouldn’t really become a national value until the 1960s (at best.) I never grew up in a world where that word wasn’t seen as a positive – in the broadest sense. But that’s comparatively new to our national identity. Valuing diversity seems normal to us now, but it wasn’t always so, and it appears that part of our nation wants to go back to a time when it wasn’t valued. As hate speech, and hate politics, become normalized at the highest level of our government, it’s increasingly coming under fire. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

If conversation is a core religious practice, we come now to our second core religious practice – developing the muscles that help us to recognize, accept and celebrate diversity, to celebrate our differences. The kneejerk toward sameness is more than unhealthy; it is dangerous for our neighbors. And as our world becomes smaller and smaller in this era of globalization, straining for sameness is dangerous for our nation and our planet. We’re all human, but we’re not all the same; and seeking to force everyone to melt into yoursense of identity, has never been the answer. We shouldn’t be treated less for our cultural background, and we shouldn’t ignore our cultural differences either, they are who we are.

Our central values change over time. Justice for all has become wider and more mature as we have developed as a people. Diversityhas become a moraland an ethic, and we are better for it. Audre Lorde reminds us to not only accept, and value, but to celebrateour differences, for they are praiseworthy. The art of mosaics only come about through those differences placed together. We as a people change and grow over time, and how we see and understand the world is circumscribed by the tenor of our philosophy, our education, and our religious wisdom. Do we hear in the news about a government sponsored “Religious Liberty Task Force” and know it to mean a body that will protect the rights of marginalized religious groups like Muslims, Sikhs and Jews (who still suffer under anti-Semitism in broad daylight,) or will it become religious and political code for ensconcing the religious bigotry of an already overly empowered and privileged extremely conservative and regressive form of fundamentalism that borders on religious law – the very opposite of what our nation was founded on? Doublespeak, and political grandstanding should not be wedded with true religious life, and as spiritual people, we need to remain stalwart against such travesties as the anathema they are. We must celebrate our differencesand not seek to replace spiritual righteousness with an empty monopoly of privilege. (Remember in the original Hebrew, “biblical righteousness” implied community, it meant solidarity with all the people, not the stridency of those already with power.) The stridency of poweris a cult form of Christianity, and holds no spiritual depth, or meaning.

We change and grow over time, as individuals and as a people. To stay with the general art metaphor that comes about from thinking of mosaics, art history reflects this growth. Classical art was often an expression of things as they were, studies in light and dark, studies in form, studies in contrasts and dualities. Impressionism would come along and rock the art world, as a study in how things appearedto the artist. Perspective and location all of sudden mattered. Modernism would argue that there was still one central truth, but we all saw it from our own understanding. Post-modernism (now 30 years old at least – wow), would radically say there were multiple truths simultaneously. Radical for Western philosophy, but plain as day when looking at our global world.

Balancing on the theological cusp between modernism and post-modernism, the Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church would describe theology, spirit, and God as a Cathedral of All Souls. Each window in the cathedral was different, from clear, to mosaics that reflected all the world religions. He would suggest that God’s Light would emanate the same through each window, but each window would reflect it in accordance with it’s particular flavor. There is still one truth, but we each understand it according to our perspective and location in the cathedral. It’s a little like the story of the elephant and the blind men, each describing the part of the elephant they touch, as if it were the whole or essential elephant. They all have a piece of the puzzle, but arguing over which was right, as if all the rest were wrong, is a clear example of what Audre Lorde cautioned us against. Learning to celebrate our differences brings us closer to an intimation of what we can not see ourselves alone.

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Sermon: The Art of Blessing

This homily on blessings, begins with a celebration of our music director retiring after 21 years, and ends with a hard look at our government’s practice of separating children from their parents on our border.

         This morning’s story is one of my favorite folk tales. You’ll likely to hear it from me annually at some point, and I think you have. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.

         Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.”They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.

         I’ll begin this message with celebration, and the local matter of our own Fellowship, and we’ll find our way toward the broader matters of our world, along the way. Richard – you’ve been with us for 21 years. It speaks to your talent, your temperament, and your ability to teach us in ways that we are open to. I picked our wondering this morning, the story of Stone Soup, thinking of you. It’s the story I told on my last worship service with my former congregation, and I know it applies even more so here.

         The stranger in the story with the magic stone, is the parable for the best kind of teacher. Blessing their students with an awareness to their own talents. There’s an art to teaching, and there’s an art to such blessing. Some of our singers are pros, and some want your help in bringing out the talents they don’t always know they have. It’s the ego-less way of teaching. I know we’ll joke from time to time about how just a look from you can terrify the choir into action. But as true as that may be, your ministry with us is mostly from that place of ego-lessness. You remind us that we have that spare parcel of food in the kitchen, and we have it within ourselves to share it with the wider community – so that together we can make a meal for all that come to our table hungry on Sunday mornings.  Thank you for that precious gift.

         And, eventually, the stranger in the story leaves; and leaves the magic stone behind. The town learned the secret of building community. Other meals would be  made together, again and again. All of the work any of us do in life, is always interim, always in-between. Sometimes it’s far shorter than we would like, and sometimes we are blessed with a long tenure, as we have been these 21 years. The mark of success for any of us, is how well we honor what came before, and bring it forward, true to who we are always becoming. I’m confident our choir will continue to show your success.

         A strong choir is a good metaphor for a strong congregation. The person conducting has to manage their own sense of ego, while helping people to bring forth their talents. Although the choir director often can sing, themselves, they can’t do 15 part harmony alone. So too, that’s true for our congregation. It takes all of us to live that 300 person harmony in the world.

         As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, I’ll ask each of us to use this time as a chance for reflection. I asked this question of us five years ago when I first arrived here, and with this major transition in our ministry team, it feels right to ask it again. We should reflect on this as a community from time to time. Our committee on ministry will be leading some of this reflection work in the new Fellowship year. But for right now…

         What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation?

         Sometimes, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call? This is the art in blessing – fitting the world’s needs with the grace we have been given – and letting ourselves admit that we may have that grace stashed away in the kitchen cabinets of our soul.

What stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it?

         How does that connect with the everyday, and how you engage in this community? … Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 50 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you letyourself find it?

         We sometimes need to own for ourselves – what we commit to or haven’t really committed to – in our community. Sometimes it’s the world, or the congregation, and sometimes it’s us.

         If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? Sunday school continues all Summer long. Just as will our services. If you’re in town, and not on vacation, we hope to see you here. [possibly insert flyer for July preaching.] (and I’ll be back in the pulpit all of August.)

If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged? (Who are our social justice team folks – can you raise your hand? Consider talking with them over coffee hour, the world still needs us in July.)

There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars.

And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise.It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.

Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.

         Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals.

         I’ll close this sermon by talking about the other meaning of the story of Stone Soup. Sometimes people coming into town with magic rocks, aren’t bringing out our best selves; sometimes they are charlatans, and they are taking advantage of our worst selves, for their own profit. Not all stones are magical, and not all teachers are true.

         The implicit lectionary for this week, was given to us by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. He blasphemously quoted Romans 13 to argue that God approves of pulling children from their parents at the border, because we should follow the law of the nation. The tragic sentiment was echoed later in the day by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by using the racist dog whistle of saying we are a nation of law and order to echo that the Bible supports following the law.

         Now, I could spend our precious time this morning arguing that proof-texting scripture to fit your personal and individual moral code is bad exegesis. Romans 13 was largely telling Christians – basically – yes, still pay your taxes. But that the core of the message is that “loving your neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.” Essentially, the Attorney General, like a Pharisee of old, relied upon the letter and not the spirit.

         For those that want more of those details, follow me on facebook, and much of my posts of the last few days have been about that. But there’s a much deeper concern with this take on scripture…. It’s been done before…. When the US government tried to qualify the atrocity known as the Fugitive Slave law – proponents of “law and order” strategically quoted Romans 13 to demand northern states return escaped slaves. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant.

         Nazi Germany, would use Romans 13 to argue that Jews should be rounded up. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant. Now, the sitting Attorney General of the United States, is putting himself in the hateful company of Nazi and Slave apologists by falsely using scripture to argue we should separate immigrant children from their parents on our border – with one of the rationales being stated as “a deterrent for other immigrant mothers.” As if children should be used as a leverage to win some political game. This is sin. This is exactly sin. If that word makes you uncomfortable, this is the right moment to use that word – sin. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – here are the people that separated children from their parents – Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate.  We have crossed a line – we have become biblically speaking – empire at its worst. It’s the exact moment in Hebrew and Christian, and Muslim scriptures that teaches us loudly – turn away, and back to that righteous path. And the leaders we should follow, are the ones that are being targeted by Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. Not the ones hiding behind empty and hypocritical claims of law and order.

         I thank Greta, and our many members who gave public witness on Thursday night for the atrocities at our border. We will continue to keep all of us as informed as we can as a community. This week, our denomination gathers in Kansas City for our annual General Assembly. I fully expect we will be making formal statements of condemnation for this practice, with further calls to action. Expect to hear more soon. And remember, when charlatans try to dance around and make mockery of basic ethics and morals, remember, loving our neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.

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Sermon: Beatitudes

This sermon reflects on the intersection of the Beatitudes and Liberation Theology.

         All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of blessing. Last week we celebrated the blessing of our youth, as they discerned their own sense of faith through their year of coming of age, and where we recognized our oldest youth joining our ranks as adults. We very much are blessed by their presence and their insights.

         Blessing, or being blessed, is a word that means different things to different people. From the most mundane greeting after a sneeze, to the curt “bless your heart” after someone is less than their best selves – we casually use it in every day language. Sometimes, it’s a prayer for another in times of hardship, and it’s the  spiritual response or emotion in the face of Grace realized in our lives.  In the common American Christian sense, it’s all of these things. Jesus leaned toward a meaning closer to a sense of Grace than the others, but he did so in a way that our modern ear doesn’t always register. Blessing wasn’t a cutesy thing for Jesus. And his sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, were a series of very serious teachings about blessing.

         We’ve heard two contemporary versions of the Beatitudes today – one a poem by a UU clergy colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, an active leader in the Moral Mondays movement, following the national leadership of Rev. William Barber. And one a video clip of Rev. Nadia Booz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints. Both women having a calling in the ministry that seeks to serve those who are not always well served, who are judged, who are held back and held down. Our quartet sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional words just now as well.

         Let’s hear them again as they were written in scripture:

“The Beatitudes (NSRV)

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

         The last line is the one that many of us hear that gets us to think all this is about heavenly rewards. Jesus does preach salvation; and he also preaches that the “Kingdom of Heaven will be known in [our] midst.” He’s talking both about a spiritual reality and he’s talking about salvation while we’re alive – building a community that is heaven on earth – in our midst.

         Jesus’ sermon on the mount, is a sermon on blessing, and a teaching on how we might understand the spiritual message more deeply. Blessing is a gift of sorts, and it is also a teaching for all of us. Jesus is telling us where God resides. God blesses the poor in spirit (the downtrodden, the exhausted, the oppressed) and God is with them; God blesses those who mourn, they are not alone in spirit. God blesses the meek and tells us the earth is their true inheritance. Mercy, peacemakers, and those who are wrongly persecuted, all find God’s blessing. Blessing isn’t about a feel-good feeling in the Beautitudes.

         Like most of Jesus’ teachings, some of this doesn’t seem to logically follow. Most of those blessed, are choosing the harder path – or have the harder path chosen for them. Little of the Beatitudes point to anyone going through anything we would easily call a gift; but Jesus says they are blessed. We shouldn’t understand it as a reward, but a natural outcome of being in right relations with our neighbor. Grace, peace, and mercy are the outcomes of living a path of grace, peace and mercy.

         This is core to the Christian message. Power, and privilege, are not the way of Jesus. God is with the least of us, the exhausted, the meek. Dr. James Cone, the most influential Christian theologian of the past 50 years, and whose life was recently celebrated and mourned at his funeral at Riverside Church in NYC, would change Christian theology – or rather I believe, course correct it – by teaching that God was on the side of oppressed. His theology was a large part of what helped save Christianity for me.  He was the founder of Black Liberation theology in the US, and Liberation theology globally. Dr. Cone would famously state, like Jesus ending on the Cross, God was on the lynching tree. Each generation is guilty of crying “crucify him” or “them” again and again. And those guilty are certainly not the heroes of the parable or the heroes in the news today. In seminary, Professor Cone would ask us where we kept ourselves, where we positioned ourselves, amidst all the horrors of the world. It would be no stretch to say today, as we hear the horrors of children being stripped from their parents at border detention centers, that God is lying in those cages today with those children. And we can hear the echos of the crowds crying crucify them in our tragic politics of xenophobia and isolationism…. Where are we? And Jesus teaches, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek.

         There’s a tendency to try to strip Jesus’ teachings of their punch. To think the Beatitudes and blessings are sugary coated truisms. Jesus was never sugar-coated. Jesus was teaching what right living was about, and where we should find ourselves. If we are full of judgement more than mercy, if we are building up cages and walls more than we are making peace and aiding the poor and hungry, we are assuredly not blessed. Where we give room for no mercy, we will know no mercy ourselves. You can hear that as a message about the afterlife; you can also hear that as a warning for the state of our own humanity as we live into our days.

         To tie the earlier Navajo (or Dine) teaching into Jesus’ message of flipping the story of power – beauty is all around us.When we walk in such a way as to honor the beauty around us, move with meekness in the face of reverence, rather than with power over all before us, we flip the story of power, and the blessing in return is our inheritance. For those that lord over the earth, who rule over things, and treat people as things, are themselves living as things. In the clutch and grab of greed and avarice, in the callousness of mercilessness …we have things… but we have no spiritual inheritance. We fail to know the beauty of creation, to appreciate the gift of life, and we abandon the deeper comfort of the spirit, the true value of this earth, and we know no mercy in the relentless hunger of the ego. And create hell on earth for those around us.

         That’s the core of the Christian message. We should not live as kings over things, but as equal citizens of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. That’s what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven would be known in our midst. We build it, and God’s blessings point us on the right path. That is the inheritance Jesus speaks of when he teaches the meek will inherit the earth. It’s the early meaning of righteousness that gets lost to our contemporary ear. I’ve said this recently, but I’ll say it again, because misunderstanding this word causes so much harm in our world – righteousness. Misunderstanding it pushes so many people away from religion. The early Hebrew meaning of righteousness implies a sense of solidarity with the wider community. It’s justice with the implication of community. We all come ahead together, or there is no righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That sounds very different when you think righteousness is about right belief, than when you know it means justlycaring for all the people as one community.

         I’ll end with some actions in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, now led by the Rev. William Barber, is deeply theologically rooted in Jesus’ teaching of blessings. It may intersect with our political world, but it is a purely theologically grounded prayerful action. I know some of our members are taking part in public witness with this work up in Albany (check with Social Justice, or Susan K to learn more about how you can take part.) This coming Thursday, Greta will be taking part in public witness with an event our Fellowship is cosponsoring in Huntington Village-  a prayer vigil drawing attention to the 1500 children who are missing after our government separated children from their parents at the Border. I don’t mean the kids that are kept in cages at the border, I mean the 1500 children we took from parents and lost track of. And this practice predates our current administration – going back from some news reports as early as 2014. Parents and kids are separted when both parents are taken into custody for criminal action. Typically, they are fostered out for the duration of the criminal custody of the parents. Associated Press reported recently that with this practice, our Government typically doesn’t get more than an 85% response rate from the households where kids are fostered – when they try to check up on them. This whole crisis is exaberated now, as our current administration chooses to prosecute parents as criminals for trying to seek saftey within our borders. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

         I know so much of what we hear feels like a daily firehouse of horror. We each can’t attend to everything. And it’s still important to pause and remember all the things that we should not think are normal – and make sure they remain understood as the horrors they are in the public mind. If we mindfully keep that truth in our awareness, we can continue to act where we need to act. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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Finding Our Spark

This sermon was preached on 5/20/18 and reflects on learning to be creative, when your verve feels gone.

All of this month we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of creativity. From the creativity of our choir and our Music Director-led service at the start of the month, to last Sunday’s celebration of our almost one hundred year old Flower Communion service, which sought to imagine new ways to include and honor the diversity of humanity. This week we’ll look at the inverse of creativity, when we’ve lost our verve, and need to find our spark again.

There are some ways where this is a pretty constant challenge for many of us. In our current exacerbated political climate, which fosters serious risks to historically marginalized communities, many of us feel fatigued by the barrage. It’s always been there, but it seems right out in the open now, plain as day, and the wounds are very sore. I found myself numb on Friday when I learned of yet one more school shooting. Of course many of us are emotionally and spiritual worn to our core. We should be in the face of all that is broken in the world….

How do we keep our spirits up, how do we imagine new ways, how as good religious citizens, do we do our part as our hearts break again and again – sometimes to the point of numbness? And for some of us, home- and work-life is enough to keep us feeling like we’re just threading water. Keeping a family fed, or keeping a family together, or maybe leaving an unhealthy relationship, is all that we have the heart and will to manage right now. That might be enough to feel like our sparks have been blown out. And when they have been blown out, we feel the void in the center of our chest. How do we keep our spirits up?

There’s the practical side – not any one of us by ourselves can fix all the crises around us, or have control over all that happens in our family and work life. But we all, from our places of strength, need to do our part to help where we can. And still, the barrage leaves many of us feeling helpless and uninspired. And losing our verve, impacts all aspects of our life. We sleep more poorly, we’re less creative, we forget to feel joy, we become less effective.

I’m going to talk about how we can find our spark when we feel we lost it today in two main ways: 1) following our intentions and 2) following our distractions. Both are important in their own way – we all need a balance of intention and distraction. We’ll start with intentions, and I’ll close the sermon with talking about distractions.

[Tell story of the stonecutter]

I remember an old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Finding our spark, is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using that as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.

As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hardand forgetting to focus on our core intentions. The bad, or the not perfect, becomes our focus, and we exhaust ourselves to the point we stop seeing the good.

On Friday, as part of our Services Auction, I hosted a gathering for about 25 of us here, where we watched an episode of Doctor Who (a popular British kids show that’s been around for over 70 years.) I followed the showing with a reflection on the spirituality found in the episode. There’s a closing line in this one episode we watched where a character tells another, “There’s good in the world, and bad in the world. The good doesn’t always erase the bad, but the bad doesn’t override the good.” When our gaze forever and only falls on the bad, we let it erase the good for ourselves. And that’s exhausting, and usually heartbreaking. (Not that we should ever ignore the bad.)

I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. As the presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal church preaced at the Royal Wedding on Saturday morning, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” That’s at the core of what I’m talking about. Recognizing the worth around us, coming from a place of love. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And to be moved to actwith reverence for the people and life around us.

And what we bring to our everyday connections, is sometimes what we get in return. (Tell story of the dog that got lost in the funhouse mirror room.) And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.

The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic.

Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”

“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.

Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.”

 

Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts. It’s going into the mirror room at the funhouse and recognizing that how we related to the world around us, will be the scope of what we encounter in return.

We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it.

Fortunately, there’s nothing needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would do.

Take the night sky. Sometimes it’s hard to see many stars since we’re so close to NYC, but other nights it’s not so hard, and as Summer comes, I look forward to our youth camp out on the east end of Long Island where it’s very easy to see many stars. But assuming a clear night, the sky and stars are  there every night, but not every night do we see it in all its glory. Often we just pass it by, with casual indifference, as if it were not some tremendous, amazing wonder, we are lucky enough to live beneath. It’s a modern retake on one of our oldest stories, of Moses and the Burning Bush. We can treat that story literally, or we can think it’s silly because bushes don’t burn and speak, or we can look a little more closely to what the story is teaching us. God speaks in a moment of vividness when the bush before God is alight. In a rare moment of grace and awareness, Moses sees a bush alive with fire and life – shining before all else, commanding his full attention. It’s a reworking of the story from the Torah, that later Rabbi and theologian Martin Buber would use to explain his theology of I-Thou. Buber would use the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive to your sight, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.

To take it down a notch, when a kid is seeing some awesome thing by the seaside that is so entrancing, or a cool rock that commands their attention, and their parent casually dismisses it, maybe the kid is onto something, and the adult may be missing out on a little bit of wonder. For most of our days, we pass by a thousand burning bushes, leaving thoughts of them to madmen and artists.

Where we place our intention, and maybe our attention, leads to cycles of joy and despair, we all have our spiritual swings as human beings. Whether it’s prayer, or meditation, a belief in God, Gods, or the oneness of all nature and being – we can go from deeply reverential moments knowing briefly the sanctity and splendor of creation, and in the next moment we can think we are alone and empty because a friendship ended, or a loved one broke up with us. The night is still starry with the wonder of creation, there continue to be burning bushes all around us, and yet we’ll still find ourselves distraught in our beds.

And we close with the opposite message. Creativity, and finding our verve again, is not always about what we do, what we intend, or what we attend to. Sometimes it’s about distraction. Looking at my own writing practice, folks will sometimes ask how long it takes to write a sermon. Most clergy who have been doing this for ten or more years, will say, it takes about 8 hours plus whatever reading you had to do to prepare for it. Some may say, it’s about half the job for a full time minister. Both are right and both are wrong. The weeks where I hammer out a 20 minute sermon in 4 hours of writing, happen because I spent most of the week with the idea in my head, and constantly stepped away from it, and back again. All the creative work was done up front, and the productive work came when the hard part was done.

When I get writer’s block – no amount of staring at my screen will add one more single word to the text. My best recourse is to get distracted. I’ll walk the dog for an hour and when I get back to my desk, I’m writing again. An important caveat – any distraction will not work – email is notoriously horrible at inspiring any creativity.

There’s a part of our human psyche that wants to believe everything we accomplish is fully due to our efforts, our intentions, our attentions and our strivings. They do matter, but when we’ve lost our verve, working harder won’t relight our spirit’s spark. But turning our gaze toward burning bushes aflame with the light of life, may turn us back on our right course.

 

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