Posts Tagged Principle

Sermon: How Are You Called?

This sermon preached on 9/8/13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington looks at our religious foundations for our call in life and how that informs how we can live into the world. It also calls for peace in a time of war; exploring the horrors that continue in Syria.

This morning’s culinary story is one of my favorite folk tales[1]. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures – hence all the different pictures we used in the telling. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.

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

What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation? Sometimes it’s a thing that you can do to help. For those looking for small ways to contribute, Sue McGovern will be helping leaders connect with people looking to help with smaller projects. The things that need to be done, but don’t require huge commitments. Sometimes though, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves.

I want to focus more on that latter type of gift we all can share. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call?

I was reading an article the other day that was written with the intention of helping 20-somethings figure out what were the key things they should do before they turn 30. It had some bits of wisdom, and some bits of trite as well. One point that stuck out was more about life purpose. Basically – what stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it? The second half of that question is probably impossible to answer. If something brings us joy – why wouldn’t we be following it? And yet, we often don’t. But the initial question – what stirs our heart – is all too often all too difficult to answer in our contemporary age.

Folk under 45 were raised by Sesame Street. A true gift to society in many ways and yet it trained us to be engaged with something 30 seconds at a time. Folk over 50 were raised with role models who tended to take one job at an early age, and followed the career for most their lives. Stability is a wonderful thing, but it sets a pattern that encourages us not to roll the dice and follow our bliss. These are generalities for sure – and the people in between – in their late 40’s – may reflect either spectrum depending on a thousand different factors. But in both cases, the emphasis tends away from reflecting on our sustained purpose. The next best thing, or the eternal commitment,  distract us from our call; if we let them.

How do you know what your call is? For the bigger picture and how you live in the world outside of here, I’d suggest to find where your heart meets the world’s needs. The classic advice, right? But how does that connect with the everyday, or how you engage in this community? Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 30 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you let yourself find it?

A thousand questions, and no clear answer, right? But there can be some clear answers in between. Our leadership is working on improving how we integrate newcomers or welcome the stranger asking for a bowl of soup that we know we have even if we may sometimes forget how to give it. And on the flip side, we sometimes need to own for ourselves what we commit to or haven’t really committed to in community. If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged?

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

We commissioned our teachers this morning for the ministry they offer our community. It’s one type of call that many of us hear – either within these walls, or for our professional teachers outside in our schools systems. Each of these teachers will commit to learning along with our children twice a month for the entirety of the religious education year. They will help raise our children and youth with progressive values; with compassion, a love for equity, and a yearning for justice in our world. They will strive to show our children that we are indeed a Fellowship of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.

But each of us carries this burden in a way at times as well. Every word we share within earshot; how we engage with one another over coffee; how we prioritize and live out our values. We can raise our children to love mercy, but if we act in contrast to those values outside the classroom or congregation, we teach a confusing message. Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.

Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals. As a democratic nation ostensibly committed to world fellowship, I believe implicitly that we should strive relentlessly for peace. This congregation also dedicated itself as a peace site – building a permanent marker on our front viewed by all who enter. I fear that our nation is discarding its morals again this week in our likely response to Syria and Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Our likely actions value a Geneva Protocol around chemical weapons over the imminent risk inherent to a military strike for civilians.

A timeline might be helpful here to understand my thinking. In April 2011, we first heard that the Syrian army was firing upon civilian protestors. In September of 2012, cluster bombs were reported to be dropped on rebel-held towns causing incredible civilian causalities. In March of 2013 (six months ago), the UN concluded that fuel-air bombs were dropped on a town. By July of 2013 the death toll reached 100,000 people. This week in September we hear that chemical weapons were used. Now the White House is calling us to act, so that dictators know there will be repercussions for the use of chemical weapons.

I get it. I see that a world that ignores the use of chemical weapons is a world that will see massive civilian casualties in war time. That if we ignore this, the chance of chemical weapons getting in the hands of terrorists is a real threat. However, because of the advancement of military weapons, we already see that horror in our daily experience. 100,000 dead in Syria already. In our current and recent wars in the middle-east, we saw over another 100,000 civilians dead through our actions. That is the nature of modern warfare. Death is not reserved for the soldier, but the children and families. The old, the young, the unlucky.

The White House has indicated that these potential military strikes won’t change the direction of the civil war. That toppling Assad’s secular dictatorship would only cause more problems down the road knowing that with all the ethnic and religious subgroups vying for power in the rebellion, it’s impossible to know what will come next or how many decades it would take. This is just to send a message that chemical warfare is a horror.

I maintain that warfare is already that horrible. If 100,000 civilians have already died, we’re already in an age where we can’t walk into war without knowing it will bleed our humanity that much. I don’t see how violence – that expressly has no intent to stop violence, topple a regime, or bring people to safety – does anything more than beget further violence. We would not be committing to any of those goals. We would only be sending a short-term message that will have limited lasting effect – except of course for the permanent loss of life our military strikes would cause – both military deaths and if history is any indication – civilian deaths as well.

Some of the answers here are not fixes in the short-term – (not that a military strike, by the President’s own indication, would fix the situation anyway.) The longer term fixes involve applying pressure and diplomacy in many places. We can only build peace if our values are grounded in peace. Our national leadership does not appear to be grounded in the value of peace.

Our steps are many. The UN veto process for life-time members of the security council is as broken as our nation’s system of filibustering. Since that perpetuates inaction that allows murders to continue, we start by changing that.  Economic pressure can be more lasting than violence. Syria is heavily sanctioned already, but Assad’s assets have yet to be frozen. As a nation we can stop engaging in arms sales. We could track chemical sales of our allies and put pressure for those sales to stop. We need to change our perception of what acceptable violence is. We can’t even manage a reasonable national gun control policy when the overwhelming majority of citizens think we should restrict gun use more. Or as the noted public ethicist, Stephen Colbert, pithily says, “”The United States has no choice but to attack Syria because Dictator Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people with chemical weapons. Before he was just killing them with bullets. But, if America cared about shooting people, we’d be invading Chicago.” I fear we have allowed ourselves to be so desensitized that we’ve lost perspective; we’ve lost our grounding.

Problems of global crisis require broader solutions other than at the end of a missile. They also require us to root our changes in our convictions and to be honest with ourselves what our convictions are. We could begin funding less military and more development. Or as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “ A nation that year after year continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We could change our tax code that encourage the accumulation of wealth for the very few. In 2007, 1% of our US population controlled 35% of our wealth. These are individuals that earn over $950,000 per year. In 2013, CNBC reported that the top 1% of  the global population controls 40% of the global wealth. Extreme poverty encourages strife. If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. It is possible to draw these lines. Everything does connect. It is never only one thing. And lastly, we could prioritize peace-based education practices globally now so generational shift begins. I invite you to write your senators and representative like I have and ask them to vote against a military strike in Syria. We do not need to be a nation in a perpetual state of war. We do not need to be a nation that perpetually sees the military solution as our primary tool in the toolbox. We do not need to be a nation that fails to engage in long-term solutions, but perpetually chooses long-term military engagements.

All of these changes will take time and conviction. If we’re not grounded in our values, if we’re not called at our core to strive toward peace, we will not know peace. There is no quick fix. There is no magic missile that will nurture peace.

This is what religious community is about. There is no quick fix for the problems of our world and all too often there is no quick fix for the serious challenges in our own personal lives. When we err on the side of expediency, some movement may happen in the direction we hope, but often the underlying problems will remain. Religious community asks us to – Discern our values – Find our purpose – And then learn to live our lives from that call. In some ways it’s easy, and in some ways it’s the lesson of a lifetime. I invite you all to join together in that search, and that most spiritual practice.


I invite you now to rise in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn, #318, We Would Be One

[1] Stone Soup


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The Promise of World Community

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Nov 15th, 2009. This sermon is about not making an exception of oneself.

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 back in the suburbs. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many of us New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and are immediately convinced that means us 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.

Our quote at the top of the order of service today by Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, 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. Or for those folks, like me, that rely on sidewalks and mass transit – the depiction on the banner would have to be a green turn arrow paired up with that “do not walk” red pedestrian.

I feel this traffic issue, is a microcosm (or a smaller version of a bigger problem) regarding the world we 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 for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Not to mention remaining completely unaware, or uncaring, that someone might be trying to sleep in plain earshot.

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 in Iraq and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…” Then I compassionately told my inner New Yorker to shut-up, and I sorted the response away for later inspection.

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 our multi-generational skit to our best efforts at singing a round during worship. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Brooklyn. 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 – sometime.

That’s what our Words for All Ages were 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. 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.

But 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, that promise that our liberal faith ever reminds us of, is that we do not need to believe the lie that we are alone, or that we alone bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders; whether the world is the middle east, or dealing with that bully 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, come to Patrick, 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.

I want to share with you now something that I often feel like I’m going at alone. It’s a problem here at home. But like that left turn signal, jay-walker, honking noise problem of my old apartment, if we can’t solve this one I don’t how we’re going to be able to look beyond ourselves long enough to help bring peace and justice abroad. It’s not the same thing, but all things are connected. I want to read to you a blog post from “” by the Rev. Meg Riley who is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She wrote it the morning after our recent elections results in Maine where citizens voted to deny people the right to marry those of their same gender – those whom they love.

“It is the morning after election day. I went to sleep early last night, when results were still unclear in all kinds of races around the country, and learned about them as I learn about many things now—on facebook. The first posting I saw was from a ministerial colleague—I am heartbroken for Maine. My stomach twisted and my heart sank. We have faced so many of these ‘mornings after.’ The people who live in the states where their full humanity and their equality has been shouted about, argued about, snickered about, and ultimately voted upon, now have to get up and go about their business. Those I feel most for are the parents, preparing their children to go to school this morning. Kids who see elections pretty much as they see sporting events, who want to be on the winning team, must now go to school to face the gloating that losers always face. We who parent send our hearts out into the world each day, and those hearts are broken today. And yet, I know from parenting my own daughter, the strength and resilience and vision of the next generation is what pulls us through. In my daughter’s short lifetime already, we have moved quantum leaps towards marriage equality, towards valuing all families. Part of me is amazed that 47% of the people in Maine voted for the rights of less than 10%. The whole notion of putting the rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority is blatantly undemocratic, completely counter to the notion of the Constitution as I understand it. I am incredibly proud of the work that people of faith did in Maine to present families of all kinds with dignity and love. So, on this morning after the election, I am mostly grateful to know that I am in the company of other people of all ages, shapes and sizes whose still stand on the side of love, even with broken hearts.”

The Rev. Meg Riley’s words are powerful. As a gay man, I get hopeful every time one of these votes are held – and at the same time – to be quite honest – every one of these votes horrify me to my core. I am horrified that my fellow citizens think it is appropriate to vote whether I am fully human or not. What audacity it takes for anyone to determine which person anyone ought to love. If you think it’s not a question of humanity, consider this. Most world religions place love and compassion at the root of their theologies. We are putting to the popular vote what is considered central to human nature – love.

We often say at this congregation – “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. Humanity has the chance to be the first at something – if only we allow ourselves.

There was a discussion on the blog post about leaving room in a democracy for difference of opinion; that once the votes are cast we need to accept them since they were determined democratically. I was happy to see an excellent response by one of our own congregants, Sean Fischer. He wrote, “Taking away the rights of a specific group of people (including through a popular vote) solely based on their identity runs counter to our 1st, 2nd, and 6th principles. At its heart, our faith seeks justice and freedom for everyone. Putting the rights of minorities, including LGBT people, up to a popular vote is always wrong.” Sean also made the connections between putting up the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women to a vote. I would personally add, that all of these other identity groups have in fact had their humanity voted upon in similarly, and in my opinion, often more demoralizing ways.

If we were to take a poll of folks in the room right now who fall under the category of disempowered minority – it would without any doubt in my mind – be the majority of this room. Yet, vote our humanity away, we still do. I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children. With a show of hands, how many people as a kid or an adult 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. For all our kids in Kindergarten – listen up – you’re learning some very, very important things in your classes. 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.” So sure, if we need to vote about our humanity as people of color, or women, or gay and lesbian and transgender, then let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affect us. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.

The second half of our sixth principle determines the possibility of the first half. 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 slice you cut they’ll take. 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.

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