Posts Tagged compassion
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.
As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.
Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:”
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population) we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.
Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.
This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.
As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.
Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.
When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.
By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.
As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/14/16 and looks at the intersecting roles that desire and connection have in building a world centered in justice, equity and compassion.
When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!
We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.
At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures out here. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and is immediately convinced that means them too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. …Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.
Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, has a notable quote that speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. …Vroom, vroom – I can make it through.
Traffic can be a smaller version of a bigger problem, that we in the world all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks, or our traffic lights, for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Rush hour commutes probably warn us all the same thing.
There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war we were waging at the time (I believe it was Iraq at the time), and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…”
We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From a silly story, to my best efforts at singing a hymn. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Long Island. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – something.
That’s what our Wisdom Story was about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Are we running through our lives chasing the biggest desires, or is their an art to the connections in our communities and in our households? Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts. It reminds me about building this religious community too.
It wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.
This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle promises us that we are not alone, and we don’t have to bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders alone; whether the world is the Middle East, or dealing with that bully at work or in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, and go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.
There’s a saying that’s repeated from time to time in our Fellowship, and it’s said at many UU congregations across our denomination:“Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. “Our humanity” has the chance to be of first priority at something – if only we allow ourselves.
In the season of political primaries, which seems to get longer and longer every year, we hear so many competing views and solutions to the crush of worldly challenge. I’m often amazed at how any candidate for national, or local office, on either side of the aisle, acts when they are finally elected. For example, looking at our own Long Island, even progressive politicians will vote against local issues like affordable housing, or allowing for more rental apartments. It’s gotten to the comical-if-it-weren’t-tragic place where our own adult kids can’t afford to live in Long Island. Something happens when we live in community, where we can forget how our actions impact another, when we can’t see it directly. As UU’s we often talk about justice and how minorities, or the oppressed, can be unfairly treated. And that’s so true. But I look at our own nominally affluent communities where we live, and remember that our own adult kids can’t afford to live here, and wonder how we’ve made it so impossible for so many. Everyone experiences hardship, yet we too often make communal choices that take away the humanity of our neighbor – or at least make it harder for our neighbor to live to their fullest.
I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children; though I know the complexities of economics and public policy go far beyond that; there’s something still worth taking from the lessons from our childhood. With a show of hands, how many of us were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? (Look around – that’s exactly what I thought.) Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. (Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten.) If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” I wonder how different our world would be if when we made policy decisions that so drastically impacted the community around us, that the least among us would get to pick the slice after it was cut; if we let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affected them. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And anyone who has ever worked with or raised kindergarteners knows, that kindergartners know fair. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.
So our sixth principle, and the art of connection….Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which of the slices you cut they’ll take. And remember, the call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
In this month, where our nation celebrates the lives and the struggles of
Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people,
help us to find a path forward,
where each of us may live our lives,
honest to who we are,
with grace and empathy for one another.
May the difficult lessons, and the times of strife,
nurture compassion in our hearts,
for others who struggle,
especially for those whose hardships are different than our own.
May the strength we learn in our tough hours,
help us to carry another forward when their time of need is at hand.
Mother of dignity,
when the world is telling us we have no worth,
help us to not believe the lie,
and so too, steer us away from words,
that may diminish our neighbor.
We each fall down,
moments of short tempers,
prejudices we hold,
or old injuries of the spirit that surface in hard ways;
may we be gracious with ourselves,
as we learn and grow,
with patience and care.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
We pause this hour, coming upon the 2 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which so devastated this region.
May we remember the difficulties and the loss so many suffered,
for those who lost their homes, those who were displaced for seasons, and for those who are still hoping to rebuild, we pray.
We remember the 100 lives that were lost from the Caribbean to here in the Mid-Atlantic, the neighborhoods that disappeared, at the homeless shelters that were destroyed.
We honor the relief workers, the first responders, who were caring for us in our time of need – even though their own need was great.
We are grateful for those of us who remained physically untouched by the storm despite being in its midst.
As climate change continues to worsen, may these stories of loss
kindle in our hearts a desire and a commitment to affect change in a world that is often too focused on wealth and convenience.
Mother of Hope, embolden our leaders to lead. May they be inspired by stewardship rather than consumerism. May our nation find ways to value sacrifice over profit, so that our planet may heal from our indulgences.
As we reflect this hour on our religious purpose, and the plight of local affordable housing for families, may the loss and struggle many of us wrestled with two years ago, open our hearts to compassion so that we may strive to build a more equitable world where no one lives without shelter.
This updated sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/26/14. It reflects on our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations. There is a focus on Huntington area affordable rental housing advocacy work as the Huntington Township Housing Coalition begins its latest campaign.
When Brian and I were planning to move to Huntington over a year ago, we initially looked at securing rental housing. We were used to living in Manhattan, didn’t have much stuff that would need storage, had no kids or even pets at the time, and were a little concerned about buying a home in an area before we had even lived there for a year. Totally new to Long Island, many folks recommended renting until we knew the area and would have a better idea of where made the most sense to live.
In NYC, the realtors usually tell you not to start looking for a rental until 2 weeks prior to when you need to move. They go so fast, and there’s such a demand, and such a supply, that it all moves that quickly. (The downside of course, is that if you like a place you better have a check in hand because it won’t be there in an hour.) Out here was a little different. We were surprised to find that our choices largely fell into two categories. Either the rental units were lovely and in nice areas but were as expensive as a Manhattan apartment (or what the rest of us would call “the price of a mortgage”) or they were on a highway, or very small, or surrounded by asphalt.
Ultimately, we decided to buy after all. We could stretch and rely on loans against our retirements to get the downpayment needed to purchase, and the home we bought had a mortgage that was comparable to the rental units that were nice. It reminded me of the old adage, “you need capital to get capital.” In other words, if you want to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility, you need to begin by already being upwardly mobile.
Having rented for the 10 years I lived in Northern NJ before I moved to NYC, I can say from experience that this is very different from suburban areas outside of Long Island. As a single guy, just out of college, I could afford a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice area just 12 miles west of NYC – or a 30 minute commute for those that worked in Manhattan. Now with 17 years professional experience, engaged to be married with two good incomes to our household, renting didn’t seem possible or sensible.
When we were looking for places to live, we did so by driving around a lot. It’s hard to tell who’s living where from inside your car, but within 15 minutes of our Fellowship, there’s a huge diversity of people living here. It wasn’t till we finally put down roots, that we realized that the diversity on the road and in the stores, doesn’t translate into diversity in our neighborhoods. Everyone is visibly segregated by neighborhood.
A month or so after we realized that, we saw an add in a nearby paper that was showing the realtors for a prominent realty company that is maybe 15 minutes from here. Over the two page spread of photo after photo (that looked like an excerpt from one’s High School year book), we noticed there were 2 Asian American women. All the rest were White realtors.
Within the past year, our Huntington Township Board finally reviewed a long standing legal case brought against it for housing segregation as it pertains to affordable housing. Remember that affordable housing is usually defined as 80% of the area median income. In other words, it’s mostly used to protect the middle class from being priced out of an area – the middle class. Despite overwhelming support of the proposal for moving ahead with building affordable housing, and despite the town having lost a ten year battle where the courts said affordable housing had to come in, the Town Board voted it down. The plan they’re apparently moving ahead with is creating affordable housing 1 bedroom apartments for purchase; not for rent. You have to have capital to move here. You also can’t have kids if you want to move here, or someone in the family is sleeping on the couch. We have schools closing down for lack of students, but we won’t easily allow new children to move in, unless they come from wealth. And our adult children move away because, as they start their careers, there’s no place to move into aside from staying at home with their parent or parents. It’s not a long term plan for our communities, it’s not moral to build up barriers to entry for people who may look different, and like our wisdom story from this morning – there’s a certain amount of killing the kingdom to feed the hunger of the affluent few – it’s a fundamental lack of compassion….
So why compassion? Who needs it? Compassion is a virtue that asks us to make our lives a little bit more difficult, a little more complicated, without any obvious tangible benefit. It rarely seems to ask it of us when times are easy. Why should we share in the suffering of others? Give a little more of yourself even when it seems you have less to give. Why should we even feel the compunction to do so? Our second principle (We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations) isn’t just asking us to do something, it’s asking us to feel like we ought to be doing it.
Our wisdom story this morning explores that very question. A rewriting of traditional Hindu folk tales, we learn of a king who has it all. “There once was a king who thought that everyone should always do exactly what he said and that he didn’t have to care about anyone else. Even the people of his kingdom. What did he care? They existed only to serve his needs – or so he thought.”
Hoarding all the wealth of the people, he closes the coin away and along with it, the prosperity of his kingdom. With its lack of use, schools, hospitals, home and hearth all suffer. The king certainly has all material goods he wishes, the largest army and the most grandiose palaces, but even he can’t use it all. It lays fallow, and so does his kingdom; so does the hope for something more.
Our story revolves around the actions of a trickster figure; Lord Krishna. The wider stories of Krishna appear across a broad range of Hindu theological and philosophical traditions. He appears in these stories in various guises: as prankster, model lover, god-child, divine hero or the Supreme Being. In our story this morning he may be divine, but he is also hero of a sort and certainly a prankster.
In a brilliant play, he feeds the voracious king yet another gift; this time the largest hunting dog the king has ever seen. Only the dog has the propensity for food as the king does for wealth. When asked to take the gift back, Krishna refuses. “I can’t. He’s not my dog…. Besides, I’ve been sent here by those who are greater and far more powerful than you. You’re stuck with it.”
Essentially, this is your situation, your problem and you need to live in it. There’s no one else who’s going to live it for you. This hunting dog is a giant sized emblem of anything we turn into a problem in our minds. There are actual issues going on around him, like hungry people, poor schools, and raging wars, but the king is focused on the “problem” he’s created for himself – one giant, loud, hungry dog. How often are we that king in our own lives? Instead of acting to resolve the pain in and around us, we fixate on thinking about issues that we’ve generated for ourselves. In that way, we might all be able to relate to the character of the king in the story. His actions are very normal human things to do; and probably a little insane.
I feel that the giant hunting dog in this story though, is the practical answer to the questions I posed earlier that asked why we should share in the suffering of others. I say “practical” while promising to get to the spiritual and moral answers shortly. If we understand compassion to mean “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” then showing compassion is simply outwardly recognizing the inward truth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we suffer along with the suffering of people around us. The king had all he could ask for, but he also had that dog – which the story tells us he at first also coveted. Along with his appetite for more, the king picked up the symbol for that appetite as well. A hunting dog that could not be satiated so long as the king continued to need more.
The king’s opulence, although seemingly pleasant, left him closed off from genuine human contact, and did nothing to cease his craving. Like his people subjected to his rule, he was ultimately trapped by his needs. And ironically, left with no one to be compassionate toward him either. He created and perpetuated a reality for his kingdom that matched his own psychological disfunction. Practically speaking, living without compassion for others blocked the king from realizing his own addictions. In his case, the practical solution was to rectify his voracious and hoarding habits. Likewise, his hunting dog would do the same.
But that solution was difficult to come to. “He called in all of his advisors and councilors and asked them what could be done. They tried to think of something but because of the racket from the dog’s barking they couldn’t think.”
Although it’s a bit of an unkind barb in the story, I can’t help but think it’s so true of our worldly leaders who cut funding for schools, health care and affordable housing while raising spending for military and offer support for big bonuses divorced of actual productivity or competency while refusing to raise the minimum wage. Their hunger for power and wealth makes it so that they can’t think straight. In these cases, compassion helps us to think straight. Practically, it helps us to see the world more clearly so that our actions reflect what is actually going.
That’s a practical or utilitarian argument. Compassion bends us toward facing reality.
To better see the moral arguments we can take a look at the other aspects of our second principle. We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations (and some of us would say ‘all our relations.’) Our chalice lighting this morning speaks of the singularity of these three. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face. And the name of that Spirit is Life. Justice, equity and compassion. Different names for the same thing.”
Different names for the same thing… From our past examples, we already see how compassion reflects the reality of life. In our story this morning, equity is easily the outcome of compassion. The solution to the problem of lack of compassion is equity – allowing folks their fair share. All may not have the same, and we’re all born with differing talents, but this story suggests that severely limiting access to basic human and social needs harms all – not just those so limited.
This notion of affecting all relates morally to ideas of justice or what is often religiously understood as moral righteousness. That term, righteousness, comes up often in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures. However, how we understand the term differs today than it did in biblical days. Another word, solidarity, would be more helpful to our modern sensibilities. Biblical “righteousness”, particularly in texts that refer to right living, really refers to religious teachings that call for a deeper living into community. These scriptures are a series of stories that, among many other lessons and messages, also teach us to be a people. Solidarity, righteousness or justice, are words that call us to consider ourselves in light of others. They fashion us into more than a singular consciousness, but help us to recognize that we are part of something more. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face…. May my senses awaken to the touch of that Spirit.”
There’s also a moral sense of responsibility in both our story and our second principle. Practically speaking, only the king could resolve the problem of the hunting dog. But the story tells us that Krishna was sent by those far more powerful than the king to deliver that dog. Whatever we see those forces as, the story tells us that something beyond the king has put this responsibility squarely on his shoulders to bare. Whether this be the demands of the gods, or the implicit expectation of that breath of Life that blows across us, the onus is on the king – the onus is on us.
Our second principle calls for the same thing. We have “covenanted to affirm and promote…”. In other words, we have committed ourselves as a religious people to live into justice, equity and compassion. Will our actions match our words and our promises? We may not all see the same things as the right solution to a given situation, but we are freely covenanting to accept responsibility to live in solidarity; to seek right behavior in response to our human relations. When the giant, loud, hungry dog — which is what we have coveted all along — comes our way, we covenant to take on our fair share of the clean up. It makes sense to do so as it relates to how the world works, and it matches are agreed upon commitments – even though it is often so very tough to do.
Krishna’s reference to those far greater and more powerful than the king hints at a spiritual component. The gods or the Supreme Being is likely what Krishna is referring to within Hindu tradition. It’s also a marker for the reality that the world is not about only us. That’s the fulcrum point to spiritual action. Even when it seems like what’s happening in the world is all about us; it’s not. We may be involved, but we’re never in the spotlight – accept only in our own mind. And when our mind tells us that, it’s a lie.
So if opening up to the “beyond-me” is the spiritual trajectory what’s the spiritual course of action or next step. Our reading this morning offers a spiritual argument as well. The resolution to the story of “The Dog and the Heartless King” is, “…when that day came, the dog stopped barking and lay down quietly at the king’s feet. Everyone was happy and at peace with themselves and with their neighbors.” I love it that the story tells us that everyone was happy and at peace with themselves first… then with their neighbors. So often we seek to remedy internal disquiet by projecting it out onto the world around us. In those fantasies we need to fix others first. Knowing that we can’t really fix anyone else – we don’t have the power to ever do so; aren’t we just delaying real change? We’ll never get to changing our actions if we forever wait for others to do so first.
So maybe a little bit of showing compassion starts with showing compassion to ourselves first. Compassion can be a remedy for lack of self-worth. If we ought to show it to others, we ought to show it to ourselves. In fact, our story suggests that all world solutions originate from self-transformation. With a helpful reminder from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
For me, justice, equity and compassion are expressions of love. My personal theology is love-centered; that is to say God-centered. I find the Sacred in expressions of love; and those expressions lead me toward the divine. They help me to be more present. Christian theologian Carter Heyward writes that, “Love is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life…” She’s got it right. Love, that which I would call the promise of justice, equity and compassion, return us to being human. They situate us as a people. We’re not widgets or cogs to further production; we’re not inherently flawed or evil and thereby destined to worsen the quality of life of those around us; and most importantly – we’re not alone.