Posts Tagged Promise

The Promise of Worth: An Open Letter to a 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.

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Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing

This call to worship is based upon the hymn # 126 “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing”

In our gathering this hour,

may we tune our hearts to gladness,

lift our eyes to what may come,

being open once more to the promise of this day.

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Prayer for A New Year (150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation)

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,

Its demands,

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.

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The Promise of Justice, Equity and Compassion

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on August 9th, 2009. It explores the practicalness of compassion.

Who needs compassion anyway? Its a virtue that asks us to make our lives a little bit more difficult, a little more complicated without any obvious tangible benefit. It rarely seems to ask it of us either when times are easy. Why should we share in the suffering of others? Give a little more of yourself even when it seems you have less to give. Why should we even feel the compunction to do so? Our second principle isn’t just asking us to do something, it’s asking us to feel like we ought to be doing it.

Our words for all ages this morning explores that very question. A rewriting of traditional Hindu texts, we learn of a king who has it all. “There once was a king who thought that everyone should always do exactly what he said and that he didn’t have to care about anyone else. Even the people of his kingdom. What did he care? They existed only to serve his needs – or so he thought.”

Hoarding all the wealth of the people, he closes the coin away and along with it, the prosperity of his kingdom. With its lack of use, schools, hospitals, home and hearth all suffer. The king certainly has all material goods he wishes, the largest army and the most grandiose palaces, but even he can’t use it all. It lays fallow, and so does his kingdom; so does the hope for something more.

Like last week, our story revolves around the actions of a trickster figure; this time Lord Krishna. The wider stories of Krishna appear across a broad range of Hindu theological and philosophical traditions. He appears in these stories in various guises: as prankster, model lover, god-child, divine hero or the Supreme Being. In our story this morning he may be divine, but he is also hero of a sort and certainly a prankster.

In a brilliant play, he feeds the voracious king yet another gift; this time the largest hunting dog the king has ever seen. Only the dog has the propensity for food as the king does for wealth. When asked to take the gift back, Krishna refuses. “I can’t. He’s not my dog…. Besides, I’ve been sent here by those who are greater and far more powerful than you. You’re stuck with it.”

Essentially, this is your situation, your problem and you need to live in it. There’s no one else who’s going to live it for you. This hunting dog is a giant sized emblem of anything we turn into a problem in our minds. There are actual issues going on around him, like hungry people, poor schools, and raging wars, but the king is focused on the “problem” he’s created for himself – one giant, loud, hungry dog. How often are we that king in our own lives? Instead of acting to resolve the pain in and around us, we fixate on thinking about issues that we’ve generated for ourselves. In that way, we might all be able to relate to the character of the king in the story. His actions are very normal human things to do; and probably a little insane.

I feel that the giant hunting dog in this story though, is the practical answer to the questions I posed earlier that asked why we should share in the suffering of others. I say “practical” while promising to get to the spiritual and moral answers shortly. If we understand compassion to mean “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” then showing compassion is simply outwardly recognizing the inward truth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we suffer along with the suffering of people around us. The king had all he could ask for, but he also had that dog – which the story tells us he at first also coveted. Along with his appetite for more, the king picked up the symbol for that appetite as well. A hunting dog that could not be satiated so long as the king continued to need more.

The king’s opulence, although seemingly pleasant, left him closed off from genuine human contact, and did nothing to cease his craving. Like his people subjected to his rule, he was ultimately trapped by his needs. And ironically, left with no one to be compassionate toward him either. He created and perpetuated a reality for his kingdom that matched his own psychological disfunction. Practically speaking, living without compassion for others obscured the king from realizing his own addictions. In his case, the practical solution was to rectify his voracious and hoarding habits. Likewise, his hunting dog would do the same.

But that solution was difficult to come to. “He called in all of his advisors and councilors and asked them what could be done. They tried to think of something but because of the racket from the dog’s barking they couldn’t think.”

Although it’s a bit of an unkind barb in the story, I can’t help but think it’s so true of our worldly leaders who cut funding for schools, health care and affordable housing while raising spending for military and offer support for big bonuses divorced of actual productivity or competency. Their hunger for power and wealth makes it so that they can’t think straight. In these cases, compassion helps us to think straight. Practically, it helps us to see the world more clearly so that our actions reflect what is actually going.

That’s a practical or utilitarian argument. Compassion bends us toward facing reality.

To better see the moral arguments we can take a look at the other aspects of our second principle. We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations (and some of us would say ‘all our relations.’) Our reading for this morning speaks of the singularity of these three. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face. And the name of that Spirit is Life. Justice, equity and compassion. Different names for the same thing.”

Different names for the same thing… From our past examples, we already see how compassion reflects the reality of life. In our story this morning, equity is easily the outcome of compassion. The solution to the problem of lack of compassion is equity – allowing folks their fair share. All may not have the same, and we’re all born with differing talents, but this story suggests that severely limiting access to basic human and social needs harms all – not just those so limited.

This notion of affecting all relates morally to notions of justice or what is often religiously understood as moral righteousness. That term, righteousness, comes up often in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures. However, how we understand the term differs today than it did in biblical days. Another word, solidarity, would be more helpful to our modern sensibilities. Biblical “righteousness”, particularly in texts that refer to right living, really refers to religious teachings that call for a deeper living into community. These scriptures are a series of stories that, among many other lessons and messages, also teach us to be a people. Solidarity, righteousness or justice, are words that call us to consider ourselves in light of others. They fashion us into more than a singular consciousness, but help us to recognize that we are part of something more. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face…. May my senses awaken to the touch of that Spirit.”

There’s also a moral sense of responsibility in both our story and our second principle. Practically speaking, only the king could resolve the problem of the hunting dog. But the story tells us that Krishna was sent by those far more powerful than the king to deliver that dog. Whatever we see those forces as, the story tells us that something beyond the king has put this responsibility squarely on his shoulders to bare. Whether this be the demands of the gods, or the implicit expectation of that breath of Life that blows across us, the onus is on the king – the onus is on us.

Our second principle calls for the same thing. We have “covenanted to affirm and promote…”. In other words, we have committed ourselves as a religious people to live into justice, equity and compassion. Will our actions match our words and our promises? We may not all see the same things as the right solution to a given situation, but we are freely covenanting to accept responsibility to live in solidarity; to seek right behavior in response to our human relations. When the giant, loud, hungry dog — which is what we have coveted all along — comes our way, we covenant to take on our fair share of the clean up. It makes sense to do so as it relates to how the world works, and it matches are agreed upon commitments – even though it is often so very tough to do.

Krishna’s reference to those far greater and more powerful than the king hints at a spiritual component. The gods or the Supreme Being is likely what Krishna is referring to within Hindu tradition. It’s also a marker for the reality that the world is not about only us. That’s the fulcrum point to spiritual action. Even when it seems like what’s happening in the world is all about us; it’s not. We may be involved, but we’re never in the spotlight – accept only in our own mind. And when our mind tells us that, it’s a lie.

So if opening up to the “beyond-me” is the spiritual trajectory what’s the spiritual course of action or next step. Our reading this morning offers a spiritual argument as well. The resolution to the story of “The Dog and the Heartless King” is, “…when that day came, the dog stopped barking and lay down quietly at the king’s feet. Everyone was happy and at peace with themselves and with their neighbors.” I love it that the story tells us that everyone was happy and at peace with themselves first… then with their neighbors. So often we seek to remedy internal disquiet by projecting it out onto the world around us. In those fantasies we need to fix others first. Knowing that we can’t really fix anyone else – we don’t have the power to ever do so; aren’t we just delaying real change? We’ll never get to changing our actions if we forever wait for others to do so first.

So maybe a little bit of showing compassion starts with showing compassion to ourselves first. It’s a progression from last week’s sermon on our first principle; particularly in how it relates to self-worth. Compassion can be a remedy for lack of self-worth. Again, if we ought to show it to others, we ought to show it to ourselves. In fact, our story suggests that all world solutions originate from self-transformation. Our weekly e-news that goes out on Thursdays ended aptly with a quote from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

For me, justice, equity and compassion are expressions of love. My personal theology is love-centered; that is to say God-centered. I find the Sacred in expressions of love; and those expressions lead me toward the divine. They help me to be more present. Christian theologian Carter Heyward writes that, “Love is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life…” She’s got it right. Love, that which I would call the promise of justice, equity and compassion, return us to being human. They situate us as a people. We’re not widgets or cogs to further production; we’re not inherently flawed or evil and thereby destined to worsen the quality of life of those around us; and most importantly – we’re not alone.

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The Promise of Voice

This sermon was first preached at the First UU congregation of Brooklyn, on October 4th, 2009.

“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I’m really glad for these words from our offertory song this morning. They were written by Charles A. Tindley, an African-American Methodist minister and gospel music composer from a century ago. Like me, before he was a minister, he was a church custodian. My mom thought it was really funny that I chose that line of work while I was first in college, since I never wanted to do anything like it growing up at home. Mops, like broccoli, were undiscovered country until I was 19. I’m a vegetarian now too, so it’s really funny how much I hated broccoli. (Guess what my favorite vegetable is now…)

I have a special place in my heart for folks who have also swept the floors. Custodians make the world a better place, by showing that we care about the places where we live. I feel we have a special wisdom to share with the world too! The first bit is that “custodian” is a big word for someone who gets paid to clean up after other people’s messes. Sometimes those messes are the extra glitter and stars used in craft projects, like last Sunday where our Kindergartners and first graders (you all out there? wave your hands!) met with our Senior High Youth group. They learned about giving gifts to one another as they got to know each other. It was a good thing to tidy up after. Little bits marking the sacredness of joy and community and friendships forming.

Sometimes the cleaning projects are less than joyous. Like when Michael, our custodian, repainted the space in our fellowship hall where rested the evidence of the hate crime of a few weeks ago. His sacramental work reminds us of the holiness of this space. We care about the places where we live; and will not long abide hateful actions. The glitter of fun projects past, even though cleaned up, still carries with them memories of family, community and good times. Just like that, repainting a wall doesn’t remove the memory of the crime, although the cleaning is a necessary first step. Each of us are responsible to be custodians of the spirit here.

Living our lives with respect for difference, making sure the space is kept for voices to be shared, and a smile on our faces even if only to show how grateful we are for one another. I am not glad for the crime, but I am glad that we are known so well for our good works. I am glad that we continue to move forward with our eight year collaboration with Muslim communities in our neighborhoods and Brooklyn at large. I am glad that our respective youth groups will have opportunities this year to do service work together. I was humbled at our 9th annual Iftar to learn that Nadji Almontaser, a Muslim lay leader and friend of our congregation, chose to join his hands with all of ours at our 175th celebration when I was ordained. More than one religious heart commissioned my ministry, and I will remember that.

For those of you who may have missed our Summer services, this Sunday is the fifth in a preaching series of mine where I explore our seven principles. I feel that we have much to gain by looking at our principles as action statements and as religious promises we make to and with one another. How we respond to last month’s hate crime can only inform this for me. Our actions and our promises made and kept with one another will lift this congregation up.

We sometimes talk about our fifth principle as how we we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Our children learn about this principle more as a reminder that all people have a voice and a right to be heard. We as a religious faith lift up our voices as sacred. Each time we do so with integrity and respect, we pick up the mops and brooms of the spirit, and make shine the floors and windows of our sacred home – this community and our earth.

“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I said earlier that I was really glad for these words of Rev. Dr. Tindley. I pray that few of us feel far from home sitting in these pews, but there are times when we all feel this way. … With a smile trying to break free despite it all, Coyote from our Words for All Ages felt this way too. As he journeyed on trying to get away from all those ridiculous creatures, rabbit, moose, and so many twittering birds, he came to the dark of night, and lost the memory of how to be himself; to play his flute, and drum, to sing his song, and maybe someday to lose his fire. In traditional Native American stories, sometimes Coyote taught humans how to make fire – not all the stories, but some of them. For even him – the teacher of lighting our sacred flames – to forget how to do it – is pretty serious indeed. Moving away from his community, he was losing himself. Seeing others as ridiculous and useless, made him feel empty and a little useless too.

That’s democracy right? Realizing that we can’t do it alone, and that other people’s views are important. If we stop talking and learning from one another, if we stop being able to even hear the content of another’s message, we’re a little less human than we were the day before. And Coyote’s a little less Coyote than once he was.

So let’s do something a little different than usual here. Let’s learn from one another during the sermon. This is something I’ve learned from many of the past youth groups I’ve worked with. Let’s do what Coyote did in the story – toward the end, not the walking away bit. Let’s get to know one another a bit better – and realize how much of each other is within ourselves.

I’m going to ask Coyote, Rabbit and one of our Birds to come up to the lectern to ask some questions of the congregation. If it’s true for you, stand up – or raise your hand if that’s better for you. Then, look around. Take notice. Have you been coming here for five or more years? …Look around. Take notice. Is this your first month here? …Look around. Take notice. Are you part of our Religious Education program; a teacher, a child, a youth, a parent, or part of it’s leadership? …Look around. Take notice. Do you serve on a committee of this congregation? …Look around. Take notice. Is this congregation the primary or only place where you get the chance to socialize (and not just work) with people more than five years older or younger than you? …Look around. Take notice. Do you like Play Doh? …Look around. Take notice. Are you living away from most of your family? …Look around. Take notice. Are you a life-long UU? Have you been attending RE since childhood? …Look around. Take notice. Do you take part in our Small Groups Ministry program? …Look around. Take notice.

Are you willing to take on the challenge of this hate crime of a few weeks ago? To live a life with respect for the integrity of others – whether they be Muslim, or Gay, or Black? …Look around. Take notice.

Thank you, everyone, for trying that out with us today. And thank you Coyote and Bird and Rabbit for leading those questions. (I had a pretty good idea with what I thought the results for Play Doh would be, but I wasn’t so sure about some of the other bits.) “Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.”

Sometimes being custodians of the spirit will require small local action like repainting our walls. Sometimes it will require a kind heart and presence in the face of a world forgetting who it is. Sometimes it will be letting ourselves have fun, and hear one another like we just did – ever open and ever learning. Sometimes, living our fifth principle will require more sustained and concerted action. We’ll have to exercise the power we have, with respect to the people around us, so that those without that power are kept in mind.

Thinking of the story about Coyote traveling away from his home, making himself left out in the cold fearful of even losing his fire, reminded me of how many people face this problem here in our own city; only their own actions are necessarily the reason they have no home to goto. About six years ago, when I was still in my second profession as a non-profit consultant, advocate and researcher, I accepted a one year long project working with the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development otherwise known as ANHD. They are an excellent not-for-profit that serves as the umbrella organization for over 100 NYC community development groups. In essence, they do the higher end research and advocacy work for the body of non-profits, so that the member groups can continue to focus on their services. Like Coyote and the other animals taught us, we each have a role to play, and have talents to share and be heard. None of us can do it all, and fortunately none of us have to. They exercise the power they have, their voices in concert, to live out their conscience with effect.

My talent there was in research and presentations. Even before the recession, NYC was undergoing a housing crisis tied to a long list of issues, including national level budget cuts for affordable housing, and the scheduled termination of housing contracts first written in the 70’s when many New Yorkers were rapidly moving out of the city. Where Coyote in our story was choosing to be as far from his friends as possible, NYC residents often weren’t given a choice to remain in homes they could afford.

Wielding my mop once more, I felt like I was cleaning up other people’s messes again. I wasn’t even here in the 70’s, the 80’s or even the 90’s. And yet, I was collating and analyzing data consisting of literally hundreds of thousands of low income or affordable housing agreements. I was able to definitively project where and when, and most importantly, in what district, those homes would be lost. Could you imagine knowing when a home was no longer going to be affordable enough for someone to live there, and doing nothing about it? That’s often what we do though.

So, when I was done, we presented my findings to New York’s City Council. ANHD succeeded in convincing enough council members that they had too many people in their districts that would be displaced from their homes. The work ever and always needs to be continued. But I’m glad to have seen some of the new laws put into place in how we generate affordable housing in major projects like the Far West Side in Manhattan, or some of the Brooklyn waterfront developments, or Williamsburg north of us. It took a lot of people to get those passed. It may not be enough, but it’s more than it could have been. And it’s often, and possibly only, ever accomplished when we work in collaboration; each relying and learning from the gifts of one another. The advocates working with the researchers working with those directly affecteds – and the list goes on and on. The cheerleaders from the pulpit reminding the rest of us, that a way can be found so long as we have the courage to take it.

Transformation, whether it be in city policy or our own spirits, occurs primarily in the light of one another. My ministry grows in light of what you all here have to share. And I pray your ministry does the same in light of what I have to share. I mourned yesterday at my home congregation of All Souls in Manhattan for a mentor of mine in my ministerial discernment and my minister, the Rev. Forrest Church. During the service, one of his son’s mentioned a time when he was watching a sports game with his dad. During one gatorade commercial, Forrest dozed off and woke up suddenly as if from a dream. His son said that he blurted out, “Life is a team sport.” I want to thank you one more time Forrest for inspiring me to make sense of the things that I continue to wrestle with. Life is a team sport, and we can only truly do it when we don’t make ourselves falsely feel alone; or attempt to shoulder the burdens of the world ourselves. It won’t work anyway, even if we try. And it’s not true; we’re not alone.

We are always given this religious choice – do we head off on the road alone – thinking everything and everyone along the way are ridiculous? (Coyote, you’re crazy! Moose – those antlers are so silly.) Or do we recognize that we realize more of who we are, and whom we can be when we enter into covenant with one another. When we use our voices to lift up each other, rather than to tear us down. This is the religious promise of our fifth principle. Playing our flutes, and our drums, and our Coyote yelps in concert makes the world a much more fabulous and human place to dwell.

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All Our Relations

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on January 24th, 2010. It looks at our 7th Principle in light of our covenantal promises. It engages UU, Islam and Native Spiritualities. And takes a mythic look at the movie Avatar.

I recently saw the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Some friends really wanted to see it. All I needed to hear were the keywords “blue,” “alien,” and “fey landscape” and I was on my way. One aspect of the movie focused on the alien world’s capacity to relate and communicate with it’s ecosystem. Imagine a world where the trees held our memories and their own. A place where living beings had enough a synthesis with one another that emotions, needs, and intentions were known by all the natural world. The sentient alien race similarly had the capacity to “upload” their thoughts, memories and feelings into this living matrix.

It completely felt fantastical down to the state of the art utilization of new filming techniques to transform human actors into alien CGI with remarkably emotive facial range. Stunning landscape visuals elicited an alternating sense of realism and other-worldliness. Ultimately, we went away feeling like we saw something completely other that was none-the-less readily relatable.

Upon reflection, I’m no longer sure that magical setting is all that different than our world. I grant you that on the whole, our world is less so vividly colorful, it’s no longer as pristine as this alien landscape’s forests and jungles were, and most notably, none of us have “upload” plugs coming out of our hair – please correct me if I’m wrong – particularly on this last point. What I believe is similar is the sense of memory and awareness. Maybe we do sense in the air the needs of one another. Call it mindfulness, synchronicity or actions of the Holy Spirit; I continue to be amazed at how fluidly needs, pains, joys and other “stuff of the heart and spirit” get communicated in human communities without words, and sometimes with barely a glance.

I frequently hear congregants and newcomers comment how a particular sermon or small group ministry topic hit home. Words and phrases like “right on the mark” or “timely” often come up. Or I watch the ebb and flow of conversation and recognize how despite our often seemingly endless capacity to feel “uniquely indisposed,” so many of us are going through the very same sorts of life experiences and challenges. Originating from radically different places, we all end up in this religious home at a time and a place where we have similar needs and common intention.

We could explore the how’s and why’s ad nauseam to identify the cause and effect of this very human phenomenon. I’ve had similar discussions with a close staunchly and avowedly non-religious and non-spiritual friend of mine who leans clearly on the side of the brains’ capacity to make intuitive connections from seemingly disparate information. I tend to lean more toward the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious. Millennia of humanity has endowed us with a substantial and subtle awareness of the world and psyches around us that’s not straight-forward. We’ve been doing this “human-thing” for a long time, and our connections run deep. Simply put, sometimes we just know.

However it is, I’m more concerned with “that it is.” I’m more interested in reflecting on our very human experience of that alien fey landscape’s magical intuitiveness. In the movie Avatar, I saw a glimpse of a powerful world of relation that I wished were here on this earth as well. I’m coming to realize that – it is. We see the fantasy as other and fey because we close ourselves off to the reality of it in the present. If it remains fantasy, we get to hold onto our sense of isolation, of loneliness, of the ego as an island amidst a crazy world.

There’s a Native North American word that doesn’t have an easy English spelling pronounced (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen.) It translates as “all our relations.” It’s a sacred word that points to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that we are part of something more expansive than our lonely selves. It understands humanity in terms of relation. I find our 7th principle to echo this; where we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

Where our 1st principle begins the archetypal journey with the self — “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (and I would add every being) the 7th principle integrates this valuing of the self in light of the truth of the world around us. If each person or being has inherent worth and dignity, and it is our religious promise with one another to strive toward making that expression a lived reality, then the 7th principle brings the saga of our principles back home. The world is full of meaning and value. We find a mirror of ourselves in the faces and lives of one another. We only truly live out our 1st principle by living into our 7th. We reflect the dignity of all around us by recognizing our places of connection. The relations matter.

Something is lost when we isolate ourselves. In the cinema of Avatar something was lost when the trees and stones were seen as commodities or obstacles. Even if you haven’t seen the movie – imagine any human story where we devalue the world around us while elevating money and power. The same is true for us living in this world. We replicate this in a million ways in our daily lives with less violence or extreme. It happens when the annoying co-worker is seen as simply the barrier between you and an otherwise good day. It happens when you hate your classmate because you believe them to be smarter, or prettier, or more athletic. It happens when we relate to our family or congregation as having obligations rather than having commitments.

The crux of the fantasy dilemma was the rare ore hidden beneath a rich world of interlaying connections. The rare metal worth millions an ounce was called “unobtanium.” A bit cliché a descriptor for that which we forever covet; but it’s aptness makes the sledge-hammer like title forgivable. If we’ve stopped wincing from the naming by now, I’d ask how that relates to our interdependent web of life? In your own lives, what is the thing or dream that lies out of reach? What is the object of discontent that keeps you from recognizing satisfaction? If you think back over your life, what were past things that fit this bill? Did they last?

I remember back when I was 2 years old, I left my stuffed animal lamb – who was aptly named Lamby, at the mall. (I know, I missed my calling as a Hollywood screen-writer) My mom and I scoured the department store for what felt like forever. He was never found. I was a wreck. It mattered acutely. My mom could do no right since Lamby was gone. The world didn’t care about me. I couldn’t see my family as “good” any longer. Feel free to heap on any other great tragedy and my two year old mind probably thought it up. My mom made her best effort by eventually finding another Lamby that was blue instead of beige. It sort of worked. Over 30 years later, it doesn’t even matter to me; except to recall that it was my oldest memory.

I’d guess that we all have our unobtanium’s and our Lamby’s of various stripes and sizes. They ever distract us from the beautifully woven networks of human and natural mutuality that are deeply rooted in our lived experience. We uproot our homes in search of what is not. We give up the most precious stuff we have – our realization of our place in this living world – in the hopes of grabbing the precious rock of the hour; whatever it might be this time.

I sometimes find our beliefs or thoughts about things to be similarly divisive; certainly when they’re centered on us. Our Muslim story of Nasrudden is like this. His belief that the pumpkin ought to grow from the strong branched tree and the walnut ought to grow from the weak thinly vines, makes a certain sense to the human eye. For a time, Nasrudden denigrated these plants for making less sense than they should. As if the world centered around our sensibilities or predilections; and yet we so often act in exactly this fashion. Even the humorous resolution to the story, of the walnut landing on his head and Nasrudden now being very glad that pumpkins didn’t grow on trees, is very human centered.

We see a glimpse in the tale that the world is not about our singular perceptions or preference; while it’s humor makes light of that very assumption. The “way things are” has a pattern that’s not always obvious and reminds us that we may not always notice. The connections and meanings we make or find rely in part upon our awareness; but the connections are there, regardless of our acceptance. When we metaphorically place ourselves under the walnut tree with a commitment to wonder and humor; when we remind ourselves that we are part of the tale and have a role to play, we come closer to the Ah-Ha! moment that hits us on the head because we’re finally paying attention to our own real story; then we rejoin our sacred covenant. The promise we made to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

Although I’ve spoken a bit about trees, nature and the natural world, I’ve skirted around the environmental aspects of our 7th principle for a reason. The 7th principle, I believe, does call us to act for the well-being of our earth. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever learn to treat this world with a life-saving and life-affirming spirit until we learn to apply those teachings to our world of human relations. The Native North American precept of (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen) or All Our Relations is as environmental as it is sociological. We replicate in the natural world how we interact in human society. The two are intrinsically connected. I believe that transforming our environmental stewardship, something implicit to the call of our 7th principle, can only be done by first living with this intention in mind when interacting with all our relations; beginning with our classmates, and siblings, and co-workers and parents. Why would we live more perfectly with the natural world than with our own human world? Why would we be able to get it right there, if we can’t get it right here?

We minimize and objectify the human world around us. How many of us living and studying in NYC have heard, “You should really go to that benefit, or that talk; you’ll get to meet the movers and shakers. It might get you a job, or help you into that school!” I remember so many times in studying at the graduate school for public service (of all schools) this very statement regarding why a function was worth attending. Even, or especially, in the not-for-profit world — who you know matters more than what you do. Human connections serve the utility of personal advancement. …But it’s for a good cause…

Even in the more classically noble professions, it’s the mode of doing things. How do we transform our human relations to reflect our higher aspirations? Yesterday, I was up in Boston for a executive staff planning meeting for Star Island’s annual Religious Education retreat week. I was asked to implement a Small Group Ministries that integrates people of all ages. The theme talks for the lifespan faith development retreat are centered around “Ministries across the generations.” One person on the team mentioned in passing how it’s sometimes best to go to Star to learn how to be in an intentional religious community. You see, at a retreat week like this, you spend about 6 days in a cloistered community of about 200 people of all ages that seeks to live out our principles and purposes every step of the way. We don’t always succeed, like all things in life, but there’s an accuracy to the aim there that I don’t always notice elsewhere. I mention this because everyone around the table easily nodded to the assessment of the intentional religious community on an island 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire for 1 week a year. My own head was nodding too.

As I was reflecting upon it on my train ride back to NYC last night, I realized that I readily believed that it’s easier to do this sort of thing far away from our normal day to day. Being intentionally religious in community – building that “sense of here” – is easier when we’re not distracted by the creep of normalcy. It’s why fantasy and sci-fi writing like Avatar are so successful in transforming human perception. We go away (either to a retreat in the woods or a retreat into our imagination) to remind ourselves of how to be human, and to be closer to the natural world. It’s telling that these two things are connected and seen often as far from home — being human in community and being back in the living world. In fact, our respect for the living world does improve. So many of these retreat centers are on the cutting edge of water treatment and recycling, composting, waste management, energy efficiency and the list goes on. You see it at so many summer camps too – places where kids finally get to be kids in what’s often viewed as safer environments than where they otherwise might live.

Earlier, I suggested that healing the earth must begin with our own human ties. I do believe this to be the core challenge. I should give space that in all likelihood, it will take a little bit of both, to move either forward. Environmental stewardship mirrors stewardship of our own humanity. All are related. And we need both to heal either.

Our second reading this morning ended with the words, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The promise of our 7th principle is fulfilled when we make space for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. When we clear away the fumbling perceptions and projections of our maddened discontent with whatever human relation seems to be ailing us this hour. When we stop turning our connections solely into advancements that are “worth our time.” When we carve out room for substance rather than merely stuff to do; we may come to see the breathing world as worthy of encounter. The “nothing that is” is an openness to experiencing this living world as receptive members with intention rather than competitors acting from reaction. We are connected; we are reliant; we are dependent through and with. The religious promise reminds us that this is so; and calls us to seek to make it a realized presence in our lives and of those lives around us. And it begins at home.

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