Posts Tagged New Year
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/8/17. It looks at our first principle in terms of self-worth in light of our trying times.
Every New Year, many of us feel the pressure to make resolutions; to give up this, or to strive for that. Eat better, exercise more, and maybe drink less and probably hide from the holiday sugar crush. Some of the more detail oriented of us write them up as if we were in a work-based performance review – smart goals that are quantifiable, actionable, timely and measured. “I will lose x pounds a week for the following y number of months.” Others keep it simpler, “Maybe I’ll go to church or Temple this week.” If that’s you; I’m glad you made that resolution – welcome to our Fellowship!
Looking back at the year just over, I know that many of us felt like it was a long slog through hardship, turmoil and disappointment or loss. It became so culturally endemic as “the worst year ever” that we realized we needed to create spaces at our Fellowship for folks to come together through small groups, vigils, social action and we even updated our website to clearly ask, “Are you looking for a safe place during these uncertain times? A place to find people who share your values and concerns? We welcome you here.”
In some ways, for many of us, 2016 felt like an unwelcome guest who came knocking at our door. Now that 2017 is here, we’re wondering what kind of stranger it will turn out to be. Do we still walk with hunched shoulders waiting for the other shoe to drop, or do we plan for something new and more positive? Do we even feel we have a choice? As the year came to a close, many of my messages each week were dealing with harder and harder topics. Taking a deep breath, I wonder if we can begin our new year on a lighter note, clear the fog, and begin again to do the hard work that won’t magically go away – to build the beloved community – maybe with our backs a little straighter and taller than they’ve felt in awhile.
Imagining years as guests at our door got me thinking about the folk tale I told earlier in our service today –The Soup Stone. I think it can be really helpful in looking at a new year in a new light. It began by saying that “A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”
What a curious challenge this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town…. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.
I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Or as our image on the screen today shows rose-colored glasses covering a bleak landscape – we can sometimes choose the meaning of the story – creating beauty along the way. We can choose sometimes to feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, or sometimes we can choose to be the villager who feels they have nothing left to give. We don’t always have a choice, but I think in our times of strength we have much more of a choice than we allow ourselves to think we have.
The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers (and maybe to New Years too.) There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes. Remember that as we go boldly into a new year. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like the entire world is more a mess than they.
Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. And the guest at our table – in the form of 2016 – may have gavin us many reasons to doubt ourselves. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.
So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.
For those who are new to Unitarian Universalism, we have 7 principles that are central to our ethics. You can read them all in your order of service but today I want to focus on our first principle – what I think of as the promise of worth – our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In practice, it means several things: First, that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.
The second is about spiritual calling: just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this way, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
There’s at least a third aspect that’s important – especially when years grow long and wear on our shoulders. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. Some years may tell us we have nothing left to give, and we can’t listen to that message. Just the other day, Starr Austin and I were talking about a cartoon we saw make its way through social media. It had two people talking on a piece of ground that read “2017” and it showed one person asking a gardener how did they know the year would bring up something new – and the gardener replied “because I’m planting the seeds.” I think the world can be a harsh place at times, and this cute cartoon doesn’t speak to that, but it does remind us not to still the work of our own hands because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are powerless. We still have agency ourselves despite all the sound and noise of the wider world.
We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others – within us as well?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we too often speak of our seven principles as beliefs. The wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…”.
How can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief – which they’re not supposed to be – while still speaking to the questions of the spirit and the heart? How differently would we engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs? As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, and so too can our core principles. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a value that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe (– at least till our teenage years, then all bets are off.) The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically based on belief.
So, what changes? Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning, or how brutal a year was for you. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found – although we may all be all of that at different moments in any given day. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.
So, in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” We have the theological basis for a religious discipline. As we begin again this New Year, whether excited, or worn down, how do we choose to begin it? We’re writing our collective open letters to the New Year; do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.
The promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”
We too often give up our self-worth to the judgments of others, or the ardor of years now gone by. We too often sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe we ourselves have something to contribute. The promise of our faith teaches us another path.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/3/16. It explores the role of resolutions in our lives during times of resistance.
I remember when I was about 8 years old. My mom used to regularly warn me about the dangers of electric sockets. I recall those little plastic inserts that filled unused power outlets throughout the house. She apparently believed 1 inch of plastic could hold back the rampant imagination of my third grade mind. Or possibly, it just served to ease her mind – she could at least say did the best she could. It was a rather good hearted, yet ultimately fruitless.
One Saturday afternoon, with a few friends in tow, I travelled into the bathroom and closed the door. Armed with curiosity, companionship and a set of metal tweezers, I had the brilliant notion that I wanted to see exactly what would happen. Why was it safe for the plastic to go inside, but not the metal? If these sockets really were so dangerous, they clearly wouldn’t be left all around the house with such a flimsy guard. Besides that other great electrical threat, the tongue-on-battery experiment, was in fact unpleasant, but hardly as bad as it was made out to be. I’d be fine.
Well, standing here now does kind of ruin the suspense of whether or not I lived through that pseudo-scientific experiment. In case it’s not clear; I made it. The tweezers gave me the biggest shock I’d ever felt; still to this day that’s true. (Don’t do it folks!) With triumph and pain, and gritted teeth, I knew for myself what my mom was trying to tell me all along. It is plain stupid to stick bare metal into electrical outlets.
For me, that’s the clearest example of doing half of what our fourth principle asks us to do. Our fourth principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth in meaning. The tweezer and socket search was meaningful and it was certainly free, but I can’t say that it was very responsible at all.
In what ways do we do this in our own religious lives? Do we ever search for something new while making sure to close the door behind us? Not seen, we think we’re safer. Or maybe it just shows how closed off we might make ourselves to something else as we search for the new. “I don’t need that Christianity or Judaism… that religion I grew up with….” The only thing I had going for me in that bathroom, was that I didn’t go in it alone. I brought my friends with me.
In this season of new resolutions, made and unmade, I’m reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Hobbes (the tiger) asks Calvin (the young boy), “Are you making any resolutions for the new year?” To which Calvin responds, “Yeah, I’m resolving to just wing it and see what happens.” Hobbes replies, “So you’re staying the course?” And Calvin affirms, “I stick to my strengths.”
In the spiritual quests we often return to again and again, there’s a certain commonality between the resolutions we make at the start of a new year, and the way we handle some spiritual endeavors. Do we close those doors behind us, throwing away what was once valuable for something new – maybe commit to the new with the same lack of dedication? Do we set unreasonable expectations on ourselves, or our past and live out that disappointment in the new year? Or do we stay the course, sticking to our strengths, as we wing it and see what happens? We’re free to search, but do we do it responsibly – unburdened by all the things we carry that make it so much harder?
I recall a long time atheist friend of mine from my college days. He did this sort of thing with his spiritual life. Frustrated with many difficulties after college, he managed a 180 degree turn leaving what was for him a healthy sense of atheism, to join a cult. Moving across the country, he shut the door; only his friends weren’t nearby making sure he didn’t get hurt. He needed answers and a change on his own terms, and he was certainly free to do that, but without the balance of responsibility, that way lies little promise. It certainly left little room for long time and close friends. Almost 20 years later, his loss still pains me.
I imagine some of us may have felt this way if we find ourselves now in a religious community that isn’t the same as the one we grew up in. There’s a time when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is safe, or sane, or saving. We’ve been told one thing. And now, for whatever reason, we need to see the world for ourselves, and the only way we can do it, is to challenge what we’ve been told. Are we going to get shocked, or are we going to be OK?
When I left Catholicism about 24 years ago over my Universalist heart – not able to believe that an all-loving God could condemn anyone to ever lasting pain and misery – I didn’t really know if I was right. I just had my reading of the bible that told me that God’s love is unconditional. Hell seemed to me to be one rather large condition. Am I going to get shocked later? Hard to tell really, but it doesn’t seem reasonable.
I’ve come to rely on this fourth principle here. I also have this covenant now to help me sort that out. It calls for a responsible search; and it reminds me that I need to be free to make it. How does a thing make sense? It needs to match what we encounter in the world; and we need to make sure we’re leaving space for a spiritual openness in our hearts. And most importantly, as is all of our principles, it is written as an action statement for the community. We covenant to affirm and promote… we don’t do this alone; even if it says it’s a free search.
I find that the search has to be a useful one. I don’t mean that all our searches have to be materially productive, or come out at the other end with a new way of looking at the world though.
There’s a poem in our hymnal by Marge Piercy that’s helpful here. I’ll just quote a part from it. She wrote, “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”
Not all our searches, and some might argue none of them, will return permanent results or outcomes; but the ones that are really important or truly relevant, have a way of sustaining that is untied to the thing itself. Our mud worker’s dirty hands are clean at the end of her line, despite the dirt obvious to the eye.
That is the promise of this fourth principle. The quest, despite it’s rigors, leaves us clean at the end of the thing worth doing. When we submerge ourselves in the task at hand, or the quest for meaning in a world that too often we find it so difficult to find any meaning whatsoever, a transformation occurs. Mud becomes pottery, becomes empty vessel ready for content.
That’s the story of the Ox Cart Man we heard this morning as well. A year of meaningful work on the farm that fills up a cart pulled by an Ox. Not holding onto all the things that allow him to bring his wares to market beyond their use, the Ox and the Cart are sold along with the potatoes and goose feathers. When he returns home, he stitches a new harness for the next Ox, and cuts planks for the next cart. The focus for our farmer is the work at hand. His quest for sustenance involves travel, but always a return home year to year.
Things, like beliefs and opinions, are held onto so long as they serve the role they need to for the time at hand. There is no fear in his heart when he let’s go of a thing; even if his plan is to pick it up again later or craft a replacement in its stead. This lack of fear is an act of responsibility. It is true to life. When we’re making our resolutions for a new year, do we make them with purpose and intention, or do we make them with fear and guilt?
A thousand arguments could fly through the mind warning us of all the calamities that might befall our Ox Cart Man should he continue his long practice of selling all of his goods at the harvest market; but none of them would be real. They would be in our mind, and likely we might feel some investment in getting them inside his mind. But he remains true to his experience. All that he needs is available from the land before him, and the work of his hands. Why hold on tightly? Do our resolutions help us live into the next day, or do work more toward beating us down?
We do this with beliefs and religious views too. We often hold on tightly, beyond their use, or sometimes despite their use. Some of us might rail against something we’ve been taught. Because of the hurtful, or nagging, or patronizing things that have been said or taught. We run to our respective bathrooms; shut the door to the message and stick a piece of metal into the Spirit. Sometimes we’ll find those sockets are dead things, not to be feared. Sometimes we won’t. The fact of the free search is life saving. How we go about it though, might not always be.
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of resistance. Today, I’m thinking a lot about how looking at what we resist, teaches us what still holds power over us. For example, I’m not sure that when we rail against a belief we have actually let go of it. It might still hold dominion over us as we run through our lives doing most things as an act of defiance. We’ve not really gained freedom; we’ve just learned a new way to stay trapped. My once good friend who traded atheism for cult-hood may subscribe to a new set of beliefs; but I find it hard to imagine that the dis-ease he wrestled with before, doesn’t continue to manifest itself in new ways. I hope I’m wrong though in his case.
It’s a big part of why I advise our parents to tell their kids what they believe or don’t believe. I’m sometimes asked by UU parents, “My 8 year old came asking me what I believed, and I told them, that some people believe X and others believe Y. What else can I say? I don’t want to tell them what to believe.” I typically advise, to go back and tell them straight up what you believe. They’ll come to their own conclusions eventually, but if they’re asking you, there’s a reason they want to know what you think. Don’t leave the big questions unanswered. Our kids will grow into understanding deeper nuances later, but when they’re 8, they need a foundation to start from.
Maybe the role model for the responsible search, to look up to, is the Ox from our poem. He’s able to carry large burdens without complaint. The Ox has slow, plodding, deliberate steps that are just the right speed to plant seeds for the future; possibly to a time beyond the span of the Ox. How is knowledge like the seed planted by the helpful efforts of our Ox? As they relate to the living world, seeds grow for a purpose, not for themselves. They are planted, take time to grow, have a lifespan, transform and someday repeat the cycle. How responsible would the farmer be who wrestled with his seedlings? A very humorous image comes to mind for the farmer and seed that chose to role-play out my own history with my Christian heritage. (Insert imaginative hand gestures.) But the growing would have to happen after the weeds, hands and plants let themselves untangle.
In our search for truth and meaning, is knowledge about building structures or outcomes, or is it about connections of support we form in community? How do we have fun along the way? What do we carry with us, and where is our focus?
As we’re coming to the date of Epiphany in the Christian tradition this Wednesday, I think about that star the wise kings saw in the sky. Sometimes the responsible search is just about seeing that star for the first time. Coming close to the mystery and awe that is this ever-expanding universe. It’s where our fourth principle and our first source connect. Our living tradition we share draws from many sources, and the first among them is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces that create and uphold life. In some ways the free and responsible search for truth and meaning helps us to encounter this sense of wonder in new ways. I see this as the promise of the Questing Spirit. Unsettled with where we are, we set off to some distant stars to better learn our place in the universe. It is my prayer and my hope then when we see the beauty and awesomeness of some far away universe, that it touch something deep in all of us, and help us to see the same thing here, on this planet; right now. For we truly are of the same stuff. Every quest has the possibility to help us to find our way home. And as we make and unmake our resolutions another year older, may we do so in a such a way that we help find our way home.
Spirit of Renewal, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
Remind this hour of all the places and people in our lives that give us reasons for gratitude;
for the spaces of quiet awe,
that teach us grace and beauty exist in this world without striving or doing,
that simply being is a gift to be valued,
and we are all valued.
We are grateful for the touchstones in our lives that help us to feel whole,
when we feel lost or empty.
Teach us to remember the joyous when we are lost in the painful,
and remind us of the times we have felt lost,
when it’s hard to be compassionate to another’s difficulty.
As a new school year begins,
we reflect on another year past,
another summer slipping away.
May the warmth and the rest,
wherever it was found,
stay with us,
along with the memories.
Help us to take a breath,
keep their fondness near to our hearts,
and begin the work and the study of another year,
with gratitude and purpose.
As a community coming together in strength,
after a summer of work, of travels, of hobbies and projects,
we recommit to our mission of nurturing our spirits in community,
in caring for one another and ourselves,
and helping to heal the corners of the world in which we dwell.
Spirit of Endurance, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We gather this hour, as a community of hope,
dedicated to the work of building a world centered in peace,
grounded in compassion for one another,
and seeking new ways to nurture justice in the many corners of our lives.
At the turning of a new year,
we pause to reflect on all the many challenges of the year past.
The violence in a world that we all too often can’t seem to stem or make sense of,
the bickering of our nation’s leaders – which always seems to leave the poorest of us worse for it,
and the challenges in our personal lives:
work where it may be hard to find,
a home that may be hard to afford,
sicknesses and loss in our families and among our friends.
May we find strength to witness what we must,
and love to make the world better for our presence.
At the turning of this wheel,
we pause to remember the places and moments of joy in our lives.
Reconnecting with that old friend we haven’t seen in years,
our successes in our classes, or on the field,
That one sunset.
The slow movement forward for civil rights in our nation for all people.
The job interview that finally came.
A community that loves you.
We each challenge, there is a place within us, and around us,
where we can find the strength we need to do the work at hand.
In hope. In prayer. In silence – may we find it when we need.
Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We turn toward a new year,
A week into our resolutions – made or unmade,
Reflective of a year of commitments past,
And a year to come,
With its dreams,
And its promises of change.
May we come to know a lifetime of possibility.
Open our eyes to every opportunity,
To make amends,
To grow out of our ruts,
To remember to appreciate what is before us,
To grieve where we must,
And to let go when it is time to let go.
In building the Beloved Community on earth,
May we be moved in spirit, and in heart,
To do the work at hand.
Ever knowing that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,
That justice and peace are possible in our communities,
In our lifetime,
Only through the strivings of each and every one of us.
We pause now in honor of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation – where slaves were freed in our nation’s history.
When we find ourselves at our most cynical,
Giving up hope that the world can bend toward justice,
May we remember how far we’ve come.
Knowing what we’ve accomplished so far,
As impossible as it once seemed to the people of another era,
So too may we be so inspired to act with conviction,
That our deeds will be remembered by a generation to come.
#26 Small Group Ministry Session on “Mother Wove” from New Year’s Day
Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian,Brooklyn
Based on a Sermon by Rev. Jude preached at First UU on 1/1/12 found here: https://revwho.com/2012/01/01/mother-wove/
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) by Rev. Jude
Enter this year with a sense of new life. Enter this hour with the sense of possibility. May our days come to know gladness, May our dreams expand beyond our own vision, May our hearts open to those in need of our love, Even if they may simply be ourselves.
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: A Prayer for a New Year by Rev. Jude
Spirit of New Beginnings, God of Endings, and Mother of Transforming and Abundant Love,
Gift us with a broader view. Grant us the courage to learn from the mistakes of the year past, To honor our travails, and love ourselves despite what we could not let go of. Help us to find a new sense of possibility in the coming year.
May we come to understand our journey as the series of changes that they are, and not as a cascade of doors banging closed. Not as limit and barrier, but as impermanence, openings, and hope. Remind us to take the time, in these longer nights, and shorter days to reflect on matters of the heart.
Stir in us intuitions of the spirit, and quiet our busy minds, So that we find more room, to live into our lives, and not our thoughts. Let us not dwell overlong in the musings of fear and worry, May we not fixate in the hells of “what if” and “if only.”
Mother of Hope, help us to focus on the Heaven in this world, that is within our power to create.
May we give gifts of service and care, compassion and forgiveness, and material things are needed, clothing and food when it is in our power to help.
May we make of this year a new year, not a return to the repetitions of the old. And may it be for gladness.
Where have you encountered the Holy in the past month? What images of the feminine divine do you find in your own life? Which are absent? What can you do, yourself, to reclaim them?
Closing: “Jewish Prayer” #507 from Singing the Living Tradition
Grant us the ability to find joy and strength, not in the strident call to arms, but in stretching out our arms to grasp our fellow creatures in the striving for justice and truth.