Posts Tagged God
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather this evening, in peace, in sorrow;
in grief, and in pain.
We bear witness once more to such a deep,
human loss for all our communities.
We mourn the death of 49 lesbian, and gay, bisexual and transgender people;
Bright souls with parents, and siblings;
some in the vibrant youth of their lives,
others who lived for decades, getting to see our nation,
too slowly turn toward equality for all,
and at least one – who was in great personal pain – who brought that tragic pain to bear upon so many others.
We bear witness to the parents who will no longer see their children come home; parents who will not get the chance to celebrate their sons’ or daughter’s plans for marriage or for children of their own, for a long life denied them.
We have no words in the face of such loss….
Mother of Grace, we pray you write this grief into the tablets of our hearts,
so that we may no longer go into this world complicit with the quiet hates that embed our streets, and schools, offices and houses of worship.
As we have seen so much loss, teach us to hold tight to one another,
while we can, and live into this world with Your sacred trust; with respect and compassion; especially when it’s hard to find.
Move us out of inaction and complacency,
and use us to build the Beloved Community on this earth.
And turn us away from fear, and easy blame.
May our people not look to the actions of one man,
and blame the whole of his religion.
Ever teach us to question any lesson that ends in fear, or hatred;
that lifts up the differences over our common humanity,
that divides us and makes us forget we are all children of God.
We pray for a healing of the toxic masculinity that puts all of us at risk;
may we raise our boys into men whose hearts are stirred by justice and forbearance;
men who find strength in solidarity rather than in power,
who find self-acceptance in compassion rather than insecurity from fear.
Where we feel helpless before the enormity of it all,
remind us that our work in raising families and communities grounded in Spirit and centered in love,
is the very work that each of our faith’s call us to do.
We are the hands of the Holy on earth,
and may we ever reach those hands out to one another,
in times of loss and in times of celebration,
building and rebuilding our world.
Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather in this bright mid-winter,
grateful for the blessings we have been graced with.
Help us to center ourselves this hour with our whole soul;
May the spirit of this time bring us to a place of rest,
where rest is hard to find;
and help us to find a place of action,
where inspiration has dwindled.
We come together as a community,
to inspire one another for the ministry of hope,
Mother of Peace, take us by the hand,
and lead us as we travel through our days and years.
May we be a beacon of compassion in a world that is so full of struggle.
As another year comes to a close,
may we reflect on the lessons that have come our way,
change the things we must,
and appreciate all that is good in our lives.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on March 1st, 2015. It looks at the role of “doubt” in our life of faith.
Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?
The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?
I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 55 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.
Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)
Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.
So starting about 55 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.
Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.
I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.
One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …
When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 21 years ago, I was a former Catholic who in some ways was still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.
Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still lose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.
All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.
These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm? For the fundamentalism of the mind-made-up, a healthy reverence for doubt in our lives can be life saving – or maybe just character-saving.
A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.
Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview. Our faith tradition teaches us not to do this; fundamentalisms of the mind, and hearts-shut-tight, are against our religious values. Or they are at least challenges Unitarian Universalism hopes to help us grow through, or for some of us, to heal from.
Let me explain this a different way. Just this week, some of you may have seen the social media controversy surrounding “the dress.” (queue slide.) What colors do you see? Who here sees White and Gold? Who here sees some shade of Blue and Black (or purple and brown?) In my own household, I clearly see White and Gold, and Brian staunchly sees Blue and Black. There is a bit of an optical illusion going on, in that the lighting in the picture plays off different genetic adaptions humans have going on in their eyes. In a later sermon in April, I’ll go into more detail about optical illusions, but this viral image was too timely to not include this week. Apparently, some of us see daylight colors slightly differently. I’ve heard this explained in a few ways, but apparently, how we biologically have adapted to day vision and night vision influences how the white light in the picture affects our interpretation of the image. Yes, two humans can see the exact same thing and see it completely differently. Households across the nation have been arguing for days over what color it actually is. (Apparently, the answer is Blue and Black when the dress is not shown with this background lighting.) But in this image, here, right now, half of us see one thing and about half see the other. And there are many people out there this week that are very worked about it; some taking one side or the other, others equally worked up about not caring about it. This quirk of human sight reveals so much about how invested we get in our opinions and beliefs.
I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.
Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.
And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.
Following this service will be a special Stewardship luncheon where we talk about our community. Money is certainly part of the discussion, but stewardship is also another word for community. Many of us get incredibly awkward when we speak about money. We can feel stressed about how to manage it, earn it, save it, spend it. We can feel guilty or grateful, generous or strapped. We’re all in different places, and our Fellowship respects that. But at the core of this community stewardship ministry, is the desire to get a sense of what’s on our hearts and minds; what stirs us; moves us; sustains us. How does our purpose, and our dreams, fit here and in the larger world?
Our Fellowship is really entering a time of reflection; a time of community building. Everyone should expect to be contacted by a Steward who will schedule a face-to-face visit with you. This conversation is an essential part of our community building efforts. It’s an opportunity to hear from one another and practice community. When you get that call, please be nice; be open. Remember, our Stewards are fellow members. They will be asking for your financial commitment to this Fellowship that you chose to join and support. But just as importantly, they have questions to ask you about how we are doing as a congregation – what we are good at; what we have to improve. Everyone’s input matters. All of it will be collected, analyzed, and heard for future planning. And we want you to be part of that feedback and visioning work. Your time, your skills and your financial donations are important, necessary and appreciated.
And be open. This is not about a zero sum game. We are not competing with other worthy charities to balance a line item. We’re exploring what meaning our community has to us, and asking each other – how do we support the place that we value so that it is here for each other and future generations. We’re making commitments so that our small, quirky, vital, progressive faith movement continues to keep its doors open to our children and their children, as well as future seekers who are coming for a message that allows room for our hearts and minds to be connected with integrity and purpose. We all know the injury and trauma in the world caused by a lack of a healthy reverence for doubt. Strident calls to arms – emotionally or physically – pervade our world where ideologies are allowed to rule for the sake of certitude of belief. We may not have the only answer to this, but we are fooling ourselves if we make ourselves mistakingly believe that our message is anything but life saving and life affirming in light of the world’s crises. We need to be here. The world needs our message, our muscle and our hopes. How will you be part of that hope?
Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather at the end of a long week,
hearts heavy with grief for our neighbors in Paris,
all cities victimized by terrorists this week.
We pray for the victims, for the families,
for the communities marred by chaos and hatred.
May they have the resources they need to heal the wounded,
to care for the distraught,
to move forward in rebuilding places of peace.
And as we grieve, may those who mourn have the space and the time to allow their hearts to be full;
for the world has lost too many this week.
We hold in our hearts the Syrian refugees,
our siblings in the world who are escaping from these same terrorists.
May we not be swayed by false or confusing media reports that seek to make “all of them” out to be not like “all of us.”
May we be in solidarity with these peaceful neighbors.
Mother of Grace,
teach our leaders to lead,
not from a place of reaction,
or from arrogance,
or from fear or hatred;
help our leaders to lead from a place of hope,
a place of compassion;
the only sources of true strength in a world torn by factionalism and strife.
Where war has beget war,
and refugees have become homeless,
may we find new ways
to house the homeless,
to feed the hungry,
to welcome the stranger;
and not fall prey to a gospel of indifference and distance.
In our global world,
may we learn to be a global neighbor,
rooted in the hope of a world where peace is at the center.
Spirit of Devotion, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause this hour to reflect on our commitments, our obligations, and our burdens,
help us to gain insight into where we have laid down our devotions,
where we have placed our hearts,
who we have shared our lives and our dreams with.
For those of us struggling with persevering,
who are giving their all just to get by,
grant them strength in this time of difficulty,
lighten their hearts, even as their shoulders are weary.
For those who are seeking a right path, a new way,
may wisdom be known to help find a true purpose,
knowing that even when we are lost, we are not alone.
For those at ease, those of us who are complacent,
may a Spirit of Newness enter our minds,
and stir us to action.
Mother of Wisdom, remind us that each of us will know these challenges
throughout our lives.
Teach us to help those in need when we are strong,
to help even when we are weak,
and when we are afflicted,
to remember that all trials will some day pass,
We pause this hour to express gratitude to all the people of this congregation,
children, youth and adults,
who have helped to make this community thrive.
For the countless hours of support cleaning, and building, and stocking, and folding, and prepping, and teaching, and leading, and planning, and learning;
we give thanks.
We would not be a community were it not for all of our service to one another.
It is with this commitment to gather that we make scared this space.
Spirit of Presence, God of Many Names, and One Abundant and Transforming Love,
Welcome us back to our center.
Help us to find the quiet of the moment,
amidst all the bustle and conflict in our lives.
May we find your wellsprings in our time of plenty,
and our hours of dryness,
knowing that solace is always a breath away.
Some of us our grieving this week,
lost fathers, lost daughters, ongoing struggle with illness,
difficult news, the search for good work, the stress of tests and college applications.
Ground us when we are stressed,
lift us up when we are tired,
teach us to turn down the volume of over-thinking when we find ourselves trapped in all the possibilities.
Others of us are celebrating successes in school, on the field, in the Scouts; welcoming grand babies, coming home healthy from the hospital, making a new friend when we felt alone.
Mother of Life, center us in joy,
teach us to remember that life calls to life,
and we are ever so called.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The video of the sermon can be watched here.
One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.
We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.
But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.
Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.
When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off. That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there. Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain. This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death. It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …
And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.
From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.
The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.
Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.
Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.
Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.
This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.
Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.
We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.
Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.
We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.
God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.