TRANSFORMING OURSELVES, TRANSFORMING OUR WORLD

CUF Admin
July 12, 2015

TRANSFORMING OURSELVES, TRANSFORMING OUR WORLD

by Rev. Paul Oakley
Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship
Carbondale, Illinois

Sunday, July 12, 2015

CHALICE LIGHTING

May the light we now kindle
Inspire us to use our power
To heal and not to harm,
To help and not to hinder,
To bless and not to curse,
To serve you,

READING “Unending Love” by Rami Shapiro

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.
We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.
We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled…
Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.

SERMON

A couple of months ago, after the scheduled events of the Saturday of my candidating week were complete, Walter and I took a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, which begin just outside Waynesboro, Virginia where my new congregation is. We stopped at several overlooks, taking in the beauty of the vistas across the Shenandoah Valley. We oriented ourselves to nearby natural beauty that we hadn’t taken the time for through the week. And at a certain moment at McCormick Gap Overlook, from where there is a grand view over the Shenandoah Valley, over the city of Waynesboro, and off to the Alleghenies on the other side of the valley, I reflected for a bit on legendary moments when some important figure was up high looking out on a vista. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and many other leaders paused for dramatic effect in the telling of their story on a mountain top. Sometimes the story places God there with them. Other times the leader is alone. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the story of Moses to cast the struggle for civil rights in a way that would connect to stories laden with meaning. So there I was thinking of those great leaders. And even though we were not sitting in the woods or walking a trail, I was recharging. The views were like drinking deeply from a pure mountain spring.

It had been a very busy week in a very busy year. We were up on the Blue Ridge the same day that the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a healthy baby. The announcement told us that the baby is a girl – even though it is some years before the child might announce their actual or developing gender to a curious world. That week the world scrambled to respond to the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal that has left 7,000 dead, 14,000 injured, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes – as well as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Only about three hours up the road in Baltimore, Maryland, people who reasonably concluded that justice was not going to happen for their community – such people responded. And so much more attention in the media seemed to be spent on critiquing the protests that did, at points, include destruction of property, than on the loss of life in the custody and as a result of the actions of the police. Meanwhile, down in the valley in Waynesboro, Staunton, and Augusta County, Unitarian Universalists were preparing to make a decision that would affect my life and Walter’s and the lives of a congregation and a community.

It’s been that kind of year. It is not yet a year since a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown. One more death in a history of deaths of African Americans at the hands of enforcers of various kinds. The year in which I got the imprimatur of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston. A year in which, it seemed, hardly a week went by without major news of racial injustice of the lethal kind. A year in which I joined with clergy colleagues to offer spiritual care to people waiting for assistance in the Ferguson area. The year in which I was ordained. And called to a congregation. A year in which nine African Americans were gunned down in their church by a white supremacist who had just spent an hour of prayer with them. The year in which the Confederate battle flag began coming down in parts of the South. A year in which some white people were tone deaf to the meaning conveyed when they insisted ALL LIVES MATTER! as a counter to the Black Lives Matter movement, which never said that others did not matter but which insisted that people see the worth and dignity of those at greatest risk of death because of systemic racism and sometimes race hatred as well. It’s been a year with a lot of pain and turmoil, a lot of stretching of ourselves to try to understand some part of what others feel. It’s been the year that saw Marriage Equality as the law of the land even as it is still resisted by some. We live in interesting and challenging times. Times of great possibility.

I’ve titled this sermon “Transforming Ourselves, Transforming Our World, Or Why Church?” because this captures for me the overarching theme of this past year as well as the theme of my candidating week. Development of personal spiritual lives, the strength of this community, and ways to reach out beyond these walls are recurring topics of discussion and concern in Unitarian Universalist congregations. And this is appropriate. This intertwining of the personal and the political, the individual and the group, the human soul and all of nature is captured in the first and seventh principles of the covenant of the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association with each other. “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” And “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” As Unitarian Universalists, I believe we are called to nurture ourselves but always in the context of being part of a reality that is larger than us. In Thornton Wilder’s much loved play Our Town, Rebecca tells George about the address on a letter sent to Jane Crofut in Grover’s Corners that expanded from that place to the nation, the hemisphere, the earth, reaching farther and farther out to ultimately to see the individual as part of the Mind of God. Do you remember that moment? The minister had drawn ever expanding circles. Even while she was sick Jane was still connected to the Totality, to God.¹

One of the leaders of the past that I’ve had in my thoughts a lot this year is Rabbi Hillel the Elder. Hillel was a member of the third generation before the historical Jesus and who died in the first decade of the Common Era. Several ideas often attributed to Jesus had already been taught decades before by Hillel. But here is his expression that rose in my heart for you this week: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”² This seems to me a wonderful mantra for focusing the fellowship on what is valued in the present and needed as the future comes roaring toward us. The truth of the world requires both a focus on our own needs and the needs we see in the world. It requires both a local focus and attention to the whole world. And it requires a certain urgency. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

1 Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1
2 Mishna: Avot 1:14

It begins modestly. It often begins with an unexpected connection. Do you remember what brought you in the door? If we go around the room, each one here who did not grow up Unitarian Universalist will have a story about some type of personal need that made this fellowship or some prior congregation a place where you could be for yourself, where your needs could be met. Those who did grow up Unitarian Universalist have stories of why they stayed or came back. Some of us have told these stories this week. For me, after 20 adult years without religion in my life, I figured out where I might fit in theory. With a few nudges by my partner Walter, what actually got me through the door was a sense of isolation. I had people with whom I was in synch politically, but I needed a community that would allow me to be me without apology or silence. I needed a congregation that would honor my inherent worth and dignity. And I needed the structure of worship, joining with others in bringing into awareness shared hope and shared values. Many came because their need was around providing their children a spiritual format for making meaning. Sometimes that initial need already has an outward focus. We need to be needed. We need to do something worthwhile and meaningful. We need the world to become better through our efforts. So some of you might have come through the door because you learned about a social action that you could participate in. Some of us come through the doors because we find a community that will stand with us when society is less accepting. For me, the fact that my congregation would stand in protest with me for the legal and social equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons meant that I was no longer alone. I didn’t need to live in a closet or a ghetto.

Especially newcomers, but really all of us, keep coming to our fellowship in significant part because we have needs that are met here. And that is good. In a real way, fulfillment will only come when we realize we have to reach for what we need. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But we also come together because our individual efforts can have greater effect in community with each other. This hymn is in our gray hymnal:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won. Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none. And by union, what we will can be accomplished still; drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

It is the lesson we learned in school. It takes a team of people working together to have that large impact we want for our projects. It is the lesson we learn in business. The actions of individuals working together have greater impact than the same effort made alone. Synergy we call it. In our congregations, Social Action Committees help coordinate individual efforts in team strength for greater impact. And as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, this fellowship is linked into the global action network of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Each of the needs and challenges I breezed through earlier deserve the attention of a whole service, and more. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel asks across the ages. We know from experience that the physical needs of others turn out to be our own spiritual needs. To be fully ourselves, we need to serve the needs of others. This is why we do church.

Just a few hours away in Ferguson, across the country in Charleston and in Baltimore, this year gave us another example of why we need church. Why church? Because we need to be in the struggle together. So much that has happened this past year has scared a lot of people who, after we made a national holiday out of Martin Luther King Day, after we elected an African American president, would prefer to think that racism is dead and the only thing holding back minorities is their own culture and individual choices. But we who have lived with racial blinders on can no longer ignore what has always been true. Yes progress has happened, but Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, and the lives of African Americans are not yet valued equally with those of white Americans. The system perpetuates itself even when we have the best intentions. And so we need church.

In church communities – when we are not only for ourselves as individuals and as a fellowship – we can educate ourselves about the things we’ve hidden from and can act together for change.

In 1951, the poet Langston Hughes poem Harlem ³ asked the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” “Does it dry up?” he asked, “or fester? Or sag? Or explode.” The explosions of deferred dreams in Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston have called us to do more than we are capable of alone. Our ministers and fellow UUs in those places have joined their voices with the demands for justice and change. “If not now, when?” Hillel asks. The challenges of our world do not allow us to be complacent. You cannot just wait for justice. And lest we feel overwhelmed by the tasks we are called to do, remember the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”4

3 Langston Hughes, “Harlem” (1951) from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

4 Mishna: Avot 2:21

Why church? Because the world needs us. Why church? Because we need each other. In words from George E. Odell in the back of our hymnal: “We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone.”

In her memoir, Lessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe, Erin S. Lane explores what it means to belong. “Belonging happens when we choose to give ourselves away, saying, ‘Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.’…I’d had it wrong all along,” she says. “Belonging didn’t chiefly depend on whether a community accepted me but whether I was able to offer myself to them.” By joining ourselves with others to meet our needs and the needs of our world, we are transformed and the world is transformed. We become a rushing mighty torrent capable of watering the desert in our souls and surrounding us.

May we accept the challenges of our time as a church. Together.

BENEDICTION

Guided by love, supported by this community and by the larger community of Unitarian Universalists, may we meet our own needs and the needs of the world. May we be transformed and may we transform the world of humanity. May we go forth in peace, bringing peace to the world. Together.

Amen and Blessed Be.