The Star of Justice

Welcome.  Welcome back.  Welcome for the first time.  Here we have indeed gathered side by side.  And today, today the ever-broadening circle of kinship that we seek has never been more needed nor in all honesty seemed more distant.  A true circle of kinship, where we embrace each other as human beings, without regard to race, gender, politics, nationality, spirituality: how on earth do we help people to get there?  In these times of such stress, how do we stay on course ourselves?

So much is happening, so much flying at us all at once from so many directions, it can be overwhelming.  Politics.  Racism.  Rampant hatred and fear.   Hurricanes one after another.  The western third of the U.S. on fire.  Southeast Asia suffering monster monsoons with thousands dead and millions, millions homeless.  So many need help. Too many.  What do we do?  What can we do?  What’s possible? A circle of kinship?  It seems so distant.

There is always the turtle approach, and right now I must admit it can be pretty tempting.  Just pull our heads in and try to wait it all out.  But if we want to stay engaged, if we believe in staying engaged … where do we turn?

We can search for answers, but frankly I don’t think there are any.  Certainly there is no one silver bullet that will solve everything.  For me then, our quest should be for guidance, not answers.  Guidance.  If we can’t solve this mess, this spiritually debilitating mess, then perhaps, with guidance, we can at least find a way to navigate this storm.  That’s what I’d like us to consider this morning.  A guiding star.  Not answers, but a guiding star.  Justice.

Certainly our varying spiritual paths have repeatedly pointed us toward justice.  Just a few examples:

From the Baha’i:  “Justice is not limited, it is a universal quality. Its operation must be carried out in all classes, from the highest to the lowest. Justice must be sacred, and the rights of all the people must be considered.”

From Islam: “Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin … and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do.”

And from the Judeo/Christian tradition: “Thus saith the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor he who has been robbed.  And do no wrong or violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood.”

So.  Is justice an end?  Should justice be our goal?  If so, in this much too human world, can we ever truly achieve it?

But what if we look at justice not a goal but as a guide?  What would life look like if we let justice guide us in our decisions as we live our lives?  I think this is what our varying spiritual paths have been trying to share with us over the centuries … indeed over the millennia.

Justice as a guiding star, a course heading.  What might that look like?  Let’s do some imagining.

While I haven’t seen this summer’s blockbuster “Dunkirk,” I remember well learning of it as a child.  In short, well over 300,000 Allied troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and about to be wiped out by Hitler’s advancing forces.  The British navy had no way to evacuate the soldiers.  And yet, they were evacuated because people in yachts, sailboats, tugboats, rowboats, anyone on anything that could float was sent across the English Channel to aid them.  And while many died on the beaches of Dunkirk, most of the over 300,000 soldiers were saved, brought back to England to fight another day.

Now imagine this.  Imagine a huge argument taking place on the English shores, not at Dunkirk, but in England, before the ships are ever launched into the channel.  Imagine the people in tugboats telling the people in rowboats, “You’re the wrong size.  You don’t even have a motor.  You’re worthless.  Go home.”  Then imagine the people in yachts telling those in tugboats, “Your boats are too ugly.  You can’t even serve cocktails to the people you rescue.  You’re worthless.  Go home.”  Then imagine people in motor boats telling the people in yachts, “You upper class snobs!  What do you know about saving anyone?  You’re worthless.  Go home.”  Imagine no one being rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk because everyone stayed in England arguing over who had the right boats?

I hope this sounds insane, but I mention it because much too often it seems to me this is precisely what we do when we discuss our spiritual paths, let alone our ideology – doctrine becomes our course heading instead of justice.  Thus, getting back to the question of “What can we do?” it seems to me that a huge part of our job as Interfaithers is to remind others, and ourselves, that it’s not the boat that counts.  It’s not the size of the boat, how attractive the boat is, or whether it moves by wind-power, paddle-power, or engine-power.  What counts is getting there, and to get “there” we have to set a course.

Wait a minute, you might ask, “where is ‘there?’”  Now this is just one sermon, and I want to admit we’ll be discussing merely one “there” out of many life-goal possibilities.  But the “there” I want to talk about is the one that so deeply concerns us as human beings: a meaningful life.

And so we are back to the question we began with: how do we get there?  For me, I believe our spiritual paths have from the beginning been trying to point us to a star that can guide us to a meaningful life; a star that can guide us even in the stormiest of times, times like those we face today.  No matter how black or bleak the night, seek the star of justice.

Now again, this isn’t the only star in the heavens.  Love is there.  Compassion.  Humility.  But today I would ask us to focus on justice as a guiding star.  Seek, if you will, a life of love, guided by the star of justice.

Ok.  Do justice.  Be just.  Sounds good.  So why isn’t justice our goal?  I see justice as a star because I look to justice to guide my actions.  I believe that as we pursue our varying goals in life, we are best guided by that star.  And if our goal, whatever it may be, takes us away from that guiding star of justice, I believe we are headed for the rocks – even if the goal seems beautiful and desired.  Without justice we are heading for the rocks.  I believe this to be every bit as true for a country, a people, a spiritual path as it is for each of us as individual human beings.

And if the star of justice cannot guide us to the goal we seek, perhaps we need to reconsider our goals.

And there is another important aspect to this metaphor of justice as our guiding star.  As you may have noticed, it’s hard to escape it, we’re all human.  All of us!  As human beings, the question is not will we make mistakes.  The question is never will we make mistakes.  The crucial question is, when we make a mistake: what then?

I believe that like the mariners of old who after a storm that has blown them way off course look to the stars to figure out how to get back on course, we can look to the star of justice.  For a meaningful life, seek the guiding star of justice.  That to me is the great life-lesson: to steer our lives by the star of justice as we search for the kinship we so desire.  And when, not if but when we are blown off course by circumstance or our own fallibility, to seek out the star of justice and let it guide us back.

Which brings us back to Dunkirk, if you will.  Ask not the size or the color of the boat.  Your boat may be that of the Baha’i, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Humanism, or Paganism, or Judaism, or Christianity; your boat may be that of Syria, or Yemen, of France, or Germany, or the United States, or Russia, or China, or Japan; your boat may be a yacht, or an ocean liner, or a kayak, or a creaky old raft.  What counts is that we stop staying on the shore, arguing over whose boat is best, but launch our boat, whatever boat we may have and then … and then brothers and sisters, steer by the star of justice.

I hope this makes sense.  I very much wanted to talk about it today because in these intensely stormy times, both metaphorically and literally, the stars of fear and hate and doctrine seem to be guiding far too many of us.

Again paraphrasing the words of the Rabbi we quoted earlier: On these three things the world stands.  On justice, truth and peace.

What then are we seeking to establish here at Living Interfaith?  A safe harbor in stormy times.  A circle of kinship that others might emulate if they wish.  How do we propose to stay on this course we have set?  By following the star of justice.  Let us continue to follow that star, even in the storm.  Let us be an example of calm in that storm.  Let us help each other.  Let us be there for each other, as we are there for others in our community.

This we can do.

Amen

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September 2017 Newsletter


September 2017

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Summer Newsletter 2017


Summer 2017

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Lessons and Hopes: Seven Years of Living Interfaith

This service marks the end of seven years together (actually eight, but that first year was pretty informal).  Come September, we will begin year eight (actually nine, but … whatever).  Still, I have to share with you that it doesn’t really seem like seven or eight years.  Sometimes it feels like it’s been seventy or eighty years.  And sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

Whichever, I’d like to spend some time this morning on who we are, what we’ve done, where we might be going, and why I believe this small congregation is so flaming important.

Some lessons.  I was reminded recently of how difficult it can be to process who we are.  A fine person, a good human being and tireless advocate for interfaith dialogue, someone I’ve known for several years and correspond with, sent me a challenging e-mail passionately rejecting Living Interfaith just a few weeks ago  He wrote that one thing the world does not need is a new religion.

He’s read both of my books, but still doesn’t get it.  Living Interfaith does not ask anyone to embrace a new religion.  We practice Interfaith as a faith, not as a religion. Faith is an unprovable spiritual belief.  All of our spiritual paths contain faith.  But none are solely faith.  Faith alone, without Scripture or ritual, will not tell us how to walk our spiritual path, let alone which path might be the most helpful for us to walk.  So a faith cannot replace a religion.  Nor can it replace a spiritual path that is not a religion, such as Humanism.  Our faith, here at Living Interfaith, is the unshakeable but admittedly unprovable spiritual belief that there are MANY, indeed innumerable good and righteous paths.  We establish no hierarchy of spiritual paths and indeed we celebrate each other’s spiritual traditions.  This is new.  Seven years later this is still new, and that can be a problem.

It came up again just last week, at the burrito roll, when I sat opposite a person who was very open to interfaith dialogue but became increasingly uncomfortable as he asked me about Living Interfaith and I explained.  At last he told me, “I need one path.  One right way.”  The subtext was that the full on respect of any other path was a challenge to his need for one path; one right way.  What is important for us to understand and respect is that he is not alone.  Indeed, he speaks for a cultural norm.  It’s the norm today and has been for centuries.  It’s how our culture works.

I first experienced an aspect of this several years ago on my first book tour, when “The Interfaith Alternative” faced some of its steepest opposition from loving, compassionate people who had dedicated their lives to interfaith dialogue.  Now they saw me as redefining Interfaith and it made them hugely uncomfortable.  They saw it the way our culture tends to see things: as either/or.  Either interfaith is dialogue or it is a faith.  It can’t be both.  If one is right, the other is wrong – and thus they saw me as challenging the validity their life’s work – their important life’s work.  Little wonder they were so negative.

Sometimes some of us, and I include myself, ask, “It’s been seven years.  Why are we still so small?”  It’s been seven whole years!  🙂

The truth of it is, that we are new.  And in terms culture, little if anything in the way of change ever started out big.  And for good reason.

We get used to a way of doing something.  It becomes the norm, and change becomes a threat.  It becomes a threat because that’s how our culture looks at things: either/or.  Most of us have seen this in action, people who try to suggest “both/and” rather than “either/or” are considered at best well-meaning and wrong, and at worst malevolent and wrong.  But whichever: wrong.

And then, here comes Living Interfaith.  We acknowledge that we are different, while rejecting the cultural norm that different must mean either better or worse.  Indeed, everything about who we are is a rejection of that either/or cultural norm.

We respect Christianity and Islam without asking, “Well, who’s right?”  We respect Judaism and Buddhism without asking, “Well, who is right?”  We respect Baha’i, Humanists, and Pagans without asking, “Well, who is right?”  Nor do we ask, “Which is better?”  That too can become a roadblock.

For it means to some that all religions, all spiritual paths are the same.  I’ve talked to some who think Interfaith means putting all approaches to the sacred in a blender and making a syncretic spiritual smoothie.  But I think all of us have experienced that that’s not us either.

For us, the important thing always is to respect our differences, not ignore them.  Acknowledge them.  Discuss them.  Share them.  And always, always respect them.

Interfaith as a faith, takes as its primary article of faith that there are many, many ways to be a better, more loving, and compassionate human being in community with each other.  What is important, what is important to all of us, whatever our spiritual path, is that we become better, more loving, and compassionate human beings in community with each other.  As we’ve said before, it is not the path we walk, but how we walk our path that is so important.

So how have we walked our path?  We are close this year … I don’t yet know if we’ll make it but our small church is close to donating 1000 pounds of food to the food bank.  That’s walking the path of love.  We donate a part of what we collect in dollars every year to those in need: to a church that had been burned, to a mosque that had been defaced, to the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, to the Interfaith Shelter in Everett and many others.  We have created, our small church has created part one of what will be a four part Interfaith curriculum, and we’ve posted it on our website, available for free, so that people of good will might teach their children how to learn about, discus, respect and share our differing spiritual paths.  In the few months it has been available, that curriculum has been downloaded not only across the United States but in Canada, Austria, and India.  Our little church.

But to me, for all of that and more, our most important and significant accomplishment is that for seven years we have met, twice a month, ten months a year.  We have LIVED our Interfaith.  We have celebrated Ramadan, Easter, Passover, the Ascension of Bahaullah, the Solstice, Flower Communion, Earth Day and so many others – all with joy, sometimes with wonder, and always with respect.

Why do I believe this so important?  At a moment in human history when so many are throwing up their hands in frustration at how divided we are, how fearful we are, and how full of rage so many have become – and saying “There’s nothing I can do,” this small group of loving souls continues to meet, and continues to embrace our diversity rather than be threatened by it.  This is huge.

And it is so thrilling that in a few years we’ll have a sister church in Vancouver, BC.  And there are at least two other people, one I think in New York and the other in North Carolina, who have entered seminary with the idea of starting their own Living Interfaith churches.

That is our great hope for the future of Interfaith.

But again, change takes time.  Change takes patience.  And change also takes work.

I’d like to close with some reminders that in fact the change we seek lies at the core of all of our spiritual paths.  Our species has stubbornly ignored this core, but there it stands.  Just a few quotes to share.  And they are if you will, but the tip of our common, loving iceberg.

From Hinduism: “Let us have concord with our own people, and concord with people who are strangers to us.”

From Buddhism: “So what of all these titles, names, and races?  They are mere worldly conventions.”

From Judaism: “…Whether Jew or Gentile, whether man or woman… all are equal in this: that the Holy Spirit rests upon them in accordance with their deeds.”  Notice that it is a person’s deeds, not gender or beliefs that count.

Another chip from that same loving iceberg.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  A message from Paul to the Corinthians.  As different as we are, not only are we all connected but, gasp, we need each other.

Yet another chip, this one from the Qur’an.  “O humanity!  … We made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know each other.”  What a thought.  We are diverse so that we might get to know one another.

So despite the disquieting fact that not getting along with one another has become our cultural norm, that we really ought to get along is not a new idea.  Rather it’s that we keep forgetting it!

From Baha’u’llah: “O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth!  Set your faces toward unity and let the radiance of its light shine upon you.”

But frequently, even the idea of unity scares us.  Fear pushes us apart, as it does right now, in the United States and around the world.  Hiawatha might have been speaking to all of us when he said, “My children, war, fear and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire.  Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself.”  Sound familiar?  Hiawatha continues, “My children, listen well.  Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all.”

There are so many other quotations, from so many other spiritual paths, all trying to remind us of this sacred core common to us all that we all keep trying to forget.  But I’ll close with this quote, my personal favorite.  It’s an Akan proverb from Ghana.  “It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that two antelopes walk together.”  All of us being antelopes, or humans if you choose, what matters is not our gender or our beliefs but that we walk together so that we may blow the dust from each other’s eyes.

This is the example we would offer.  Let us walk with each other: fearlessly, lovingly, compassionately – blowing the dust from each other’s eyes so that we may revel and take comfort in our diversity.

This is Interfaith – not a religion but an abiding faith in our diversity and the importance of blowing the dust from each other’s eyes.  These are the lessons I take from our seven years, and the hopes I hold for our future.

Amen.

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Shavuot

As a kid growing up Jewish, Shavuot never did much for me.  The one thing it had going for it was that it came fifty days after Passover … my favorite holiday.  That’s how we marked Shavuot.  Why fifty days?

Scripture mentions seven weeks.  But that’s forty-nine days!  Wait seven weeks.  The day after, celebrate Shavuot.  Fifty days.  In Greek: pentecost.

Christianity also celebrates Pentecost.  But it’s Pentecost with a capital “P” and not the same holiday.  Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, Pentecost fifty days after Easter.  What makes things exciting is that with Judaism based on the lunar calendar and Christianity on the solar calendar, on any given year when Jews celebrate pentecost, Shavuot, it can be wildly different from when Christians celebrate it.

I was taught as a child that Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah to the Children of Israel.  That’s a beautiful gift.  The first five books of Jewish Scripture: the Torah.  Some Jewish scholars believe this, the acceptance of Torah, marks the beginning of Judaism.

It was only when I was much older that I learned just how holy this time is that surrounds the giving of the Torah.  In Christianity, Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon the disciples and other followers of Jesus when they were celebrating, hello, Shavuot in Jerusalem.  Some Christian scholars believe this to mark the beginning of the Christian church.  Not on the same date, but near enough to be fascinating to me, Muslims celebrate what our friend Sameer spoke of a month ago when we anticipated Ramadan and especially Laylat al Qadr or the Night of Power.  It marks the time that God gave to Muhammad the Holy Qur’an.

So in the same month, though very different centuries, Moses received the Torah, the pillar of Judaism, the Disciples received the Holy Spirit, completing the Trinity, and Muhammad received the Qur’an the pillar of Islam.

We’ll be speaking about Shavuot this morning, and, frankly, some troubles I’ve had relating to it over the years.  But I wanted to share how remarkable it is to me how this one month is so holy and special and foundational for all of the Abrahamic traditions.  This year our calendars aligned!  The first day of Shavuot was June 1st.  Pentecost was June 4th.  The Night of Power will be June 18th, 21st or 22nd depending on different ways of counting.  That’s just amazing.  Let’s take a moment and breathe that in.

Ok.  Shavuot.  One of the traditions about Shavuot that bothered me growing up was that the Torah is so flaming repetitive.  If it was indeed handed over to Moses in one piece by God, good grief, I wondered, was God really this disorganized?  And there were parts of the Torah in conflict with each other (perhaps most famously, two different creation stories).  Couldn’t God get the facts straight?  For me, this meant that however holy, Torah was the work of humanity, not the divine.

This was one of the things that pushed me away from Judaism, as, I think, the literal reading of sacred texts has pushed many away.  But other things in Torah pulled me back to Judaism.  I think I’ve spoken of this before – the peril of aging is that you’re never really sure – but even if I have, for me it was so foundational to why I stayed Jewish even as a doubting youth, and have remained Jewish even as I became an Interfaith minister that I want to risk repeating it.

Torah teaches us that when Abraham is told by God to fetch Lot and his wife because God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham doesn’t say, “Yes, God.  Whatever you say God.”  Torah teaches that Abraham said, and yes, I’m paraphrasing, “Wait a minute.  Ok.  You’re mad at Sodom and Gomorrah and want to destroy them.   I get that.  But what if there are fifty good people?  Will you destroy them too in your anger?  A just God doesn’t act this way!”

God doesn’t zap Abraham for what many might call blasphemy.  Instead, God relents and says if there are fifty good people, the cities won’t be destroyed.  Well, Abraham now has his foot in the door.  What if there are forty, what if there are thirty?  And finally, what if there are ten?  Ok!!  Well, there aren’t ten and the cities are destroyed.  But I really liked Abraham’s example.  It spoke to me.

Something very similar happens again in Torah, this time in the Book of Exodus.  While Moses is atop Sinai, getting not only Torah but very specifically the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from God, the Children of Israel waiting below lose patience and make a golden calf.  They begin worshiping the golden calf and God’s reaction is to lose it.  God is going to destroy them all but Moses says No!  A just God doesn’t act this way.  Moses instructs God … I repeat, Moses instructs God, quoting from the translation I have of Scripture, “Turn from Thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against Thy people.”  Moses tells God to repent!

And again, God doesn’t zap Moses for insubordination.  Instead, God relents.  I never took this as a lesson about God.  I took it as a lesson about justice.

I mean, if Torah teaches us that we can talk back to God if we feel an injustice is being done, it seemed to me that we are being told not only that we can but that we have an obligation to stand up to anyone acting unjustly.  We are being told that above all, above ALL, even our loyalty to God, is to act with justice.  What a lesson!  This teaching from the Torah, the gift we celebrate on Shavuot, is what touched my innermost self and kept me Jewish.

Not that there weren’t a few bumps.  For one thing, I learned as I studied that the Hebrews were farmers, long before they became Jews.  Judaism was a religion of farmers.  Indeed, most Jewish holy days were and still are centered around farming.  Sowing, reaping.

In fact Shavuot began as an agricultural holiday.  The late spring harvest.  Indeed, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot was and is called “Counting the Omer.”  Omer means sheaves.

I’ll confess, as a city boy this was of no interest to me.  And how an agricultural holiday could morph into the day we received the Torah seemed to me a stretch.  Quite frankly, I didn’t given Shavuot another thought until this year.

But what am I celebrating?

I know from my studies that the Torah comes from at least four different sources.  They are usually referred to as the Yahwist, the Eloist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist sources.  They are not only different sources but from different centuries.  So no, I cannot celebrate Shavuot as the moment God gave Moses the Torah.

Nor does Shavuot the agricultural holy day call to me.  Holy days that are crucial to a struggling and oppressed ancient agricultural community, may not have a lot of meaning for the posterity of that community some three thousand years later.

For me, the Torah has two fascinating but differing aspects and I believe this is important.  One aspect is as a vessel for holding sacred truths – a guiding light by which we may steer our lives – this never grows old and never loses relevance.  The other aspect of Torah is as a repository of ethnic history – not laws for today, but insight into the lives of our ancestors yesterday.

The truth of it is that for me the ethnicity of Scripture, however fascinating, ceases to be relevant.  I had to look up what sheaves are, I don’t carry shekels, and I haven’t sacrificed a ram in years!

So why this year has Shavuot not only taken on new meaning but a new urgency?  It is because Torah holds sacred truths passed down to me from my ancestors.  Most especially here, today, I look to a sacred truth that came both from Abraham and from Moses.   The call to justice: to be just and to reject injustice.  This call is consistent throughout Scripture.  From the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters.”  And the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord ask of you?  Only this: to act justly.”

But most especially, at Shavuot, as we celebrate the living Torah in our lives, I hear the call of justice from the work of Abraham and of Moses.

It is pivotal to me that we are called not only to act with justice but to stand up to injustice.  Stand up to injustice, not just complain.  Abraham did not go home and complain to Sarah, “Oh darling, you can’t believe how unjust God is about to be.  But what could I do?  It’s God!”  No, the lesson I took from Torah was that Abraham spoke up, even to God, to say, “You can’t do this.  It’s not just.”  For Moses it was the same conundrum answered in the same way.  The lesson again, is injustice is injustice, no matter from where or how high it may come.

At this sacred moment, at this sacred time when we celebrate Torah, the Holy Spirit, and the Qur’an, and at this time that injustice has come into our cities and our homes draped in the raiment of fear, and hate in order encourage our smallness and our acquiescence, let us remember our call to justice and our call to stand up to injustice.  All injustice.  We must demand justice.  We must demand justice.  We must demand justice.

It is not justice for me.  It is not justice for our small group.  It is justice for all.  Our Black friends, our Latino friends, our Muslim friends, our LGBTQ friends.

Let justice roll down like waters.  Let us act with justice and demand justice: no matter who is looking, no matter from where the injustice comes.  No matter how powerful the perpetrator of injustice may be.  As we celebrate Shavuot and throughout the year let us honor our sacred books and our sacred traditions by taking up the mantle of justice and not giving ground.

Let justice roll down like waters.

May we stand firmly against injustice.  Remembering that we are taught by all of our traditions that an injustice against the stranger is an injustice against ourselves.  In this time of such stress and fear, let justice roll down like waters.

Amen.

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June Newsletter 2017


June 2017

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May Newsletter 2017


May 2017

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April 2017 Newsletter


April 2017

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Our Earth – What We Can Do

In 1970, in 19 flaming 70 Alvin Toffler wrote a book called “Future Shock.”  Mr. Toffler didn’t coin the phrase “information overload” but he certainly popularized it.  And 1970 was pre-internet.  Today we have information overload by the bucket.

Just the past few days we’ve had murder motivated by bigotry labelled as terrorism when the murderer was Muslim, but simply murder by some nut when the murderer was a Christian White Supremacist.  There was the battle over repealing the Affordable Care Act.  There’s a Supreme Court nominee who is, shall we say: controversial.  There’s the extent of the Putin-Trump connection.  And, by the way, there’s widespread famine being predicted in parts of Africa and the Middle East.  Not to mention a multitude of wars and, oh yeah, the polar ice cap melting.  And that’s just the surface … this … past … week.

It seems to be flying at us from all sides.  So much, and so massively huge that we tend to fixate on what we can’t do.  There’s so much that we can’t do!  I mean, good grief the ice cap is melting!

I’ve watched some friends flame out by caring too deeply about too much.  I’ve watched other friends simply turnoff and tune out to protect themselves from going mad.  So much is wrong.  So much needs changing.  Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Sikh, Hindu … what’s our response?  What are we supposed to do?  Oh hell, maybe the ostrich is right!  Where’s a hole I can stick my head in? … Maybe not.

If you know me, you know that consistent with my Interfaither beliefs, I support remaining engaged without flaming out or tuning out.  I strongly concur with 1st century Rabbi Tarfon, who told us that our obligation is not to complete the work, but neither are we free to abstain from it.  Perhaps someday, after I’ve long departed, I’ll be remembered … by someone … as a proponent of the never-ending nibble approach.  Eat.  Sleep.  Work.  Play.  And nibble at what needs changing.  Whatever the problem is, keeping nibbling.  If it’s really, really dark, let us light a candle … and then keep nibbling.

Which brings us to our sermon topic today: Our Earth – What We Can Do.  The first thing to notice is that we are not asking “What can we do??”  That’s the question a person asks who’s on overload, ready either to burn out or tune out.  What can we do?  Instead we take the nibbler’s position.  Ok, big problem.  Here’s some things we can do – things we can do.  Right now.

Tonight there will be a worldwide honoring of Earth Hour, in support of action on Climate Change.  The Space Needle will go dark for an hour tonight, starting at 8:30.  Climate Change, Global Warming, is huge – literally earth-changing.  But again, let us not be distracted by “What Can We Do?”  Instead, we want to speak a little about what we can do.  Or, if you will, practical nibbling.  Maybe I’ll write that someday as a companion to Practical Interfaith.

Voting is, of course, critically important.  Politics is critically important.  I of course, I hope “of course,” encourage all of us to be informed and not only to vote wisely but first and foremost to vote!  But this is a spiritual gathering.  Let’s deal with matters spiritual and personal.  For aside from politics there remains much for each of us to nibble at.

First, let’s clear the spiritual air.  There’s a passage in Hebrew Scripture that must be addressed.  It’s Genesis 1:28.  “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’”  Some have taken this as license for humanity to do whatever we want to the earth and all that dwell here.  Not unlike the spoiled child, the comment is, “Well God gave it to us.  We can do what we want.”  And we have acted as spoiled children.  This is not the time to go into a lengthy discussion of how Genesis was put together.  Instead, I’ll simply offer that, assuming for the moment there is a God and God said this.  Having dominion, it seems to me, carries some responsibilities.  And one of those responsibilities is to leave behind us when we exit a habitable, thriving world for all creatures great and small – not to mention for our children and grandchildren.

I rather like a teaching from Taoism.  “Both the horse and cow have four feet. That is Nature. Place a halter on the horse or a string through the cow’s nose and that is man. It is therefore said, ‘Let not man destroy Nature. Do not let cleverness destroy what should be.’ ”

Right now, much of humanity’s “cleverness” is threatening to destroy our home, our planet.  Or to put it in terms of Genesis, we are horrifically failing our responsibilities as the ones who have dominion over this Earth. The problem is huge.  We aren’t.  But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and cry, “What can we do?”  So let’s look at some things we can do.

One of the things I could do was go to Standing Rock to support our Sioux brothers and sisters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.  A month ago, when I wanted to go back, my health wasn’t good enough.  Ok. So I couldn’t go back to Standing Rock and march, but I could organize a march here in Lynnwood.  So I did.  I was joined by thirty-five other concerned citizens and we not only marched to City Hall but presented the City of Lynnwood with a letter of petition and a proposed resolution of Support – so the City of Lynnwood could go on record supporting the right of our Sioux brothers and sisters.  That resolution is now scheduled to come to a vote on Monday, April 10th.  These were things I could do.  Each of us, according to our own lives and abilities have things we can do.  You may be able to do things that I couldn’t and can’t.  But what I would like to propose now are a few things we can all do.  And we can do them today.  Right now.  It’s nibbling at the problem.  I know that.  But I also know that the more of us who nibble, the more we can accomplish.

Nibble number one.  I think most of us are aware that our use of plastics has gone way overboard.  We have a throwaway society and we throw away mountains of plastic – plastic that will not decompose, plastic that kills and pollutes.  Like most of us, my recycle bin is fuller every week than my trash bin.  If I don’t have a bag with me when I shop, if I’m asked “paper or plastic” I choose paper.  But most of the time I bring a bag.  We don’t need plastic bags.  You may have noticed that we have plastic utensils that we use during the social hour.  We don’t throw that plastic out.  We take the plastic home, wash it and bring it back.  That’s one thing, along with recycling in our homes, we are already doing.

But speaking of recycling, did you know that computer plastics, of all things, are now being recycled into pens.  There is no longer any excuse to have pens that aren’t made from reused plastic.  In fact, I have brought three boxes of recycled plastic pens with me so that everyone here can try a pen out.  And there’s enough so anyone who wishes may take a second pen home for a significant other to try.  Every nibble counts!

And what about electricity?  I think we are all aware of the effect our oil-driven culture has had on Global Warming.  Some of us are in a position to do more than others.  But there is at least one thing we can all do today to reduce our consumption of electricity and thus our reliance on oil and gas, even as we turn more and more to renewable sources of energy.  We can transition not only from incandescent light bulbs but also compact fluorescent bulbs.  We have here today ten boxes of LED light bulbs.  Two bulbs to a box.  Everyone is welcome and indeed encouraged to take a box home.  And if there are boxes left over, please feel free to take two boxes.  I’ve transitioned from a house with fluorescent lighting to LED light.  It has worked beautifully for me … and yes, my energy use has gone down.

These first two were pretty easy.  This last one is more difficult.  It will take real intention and persistence.  We can start today, but it’s only a start.  It’s changing how we shop.  I’ll warn you, it takes time.  I’m still working at it.  It takes time because from the moment we were born it was drummed into our heads to seek “bargains.”  Whether it’s food, or clothes or appliances or anything else we shop for, we have been taught to search out the “best deal.”  Yet we’ve been taught to seek the best deal with one crucial element missing.  The best deal for whom?  Well for us, of course.  What else matters?  It’s thinking like that that is the primary force behind Global Warming and Climate Change.

But what if we change our worldview and decide that if a bargain for me means someone else lives in slavery or is paid poverty wages, it’s a false bargain.  If a bargain for me means that the production of the appliance I’m buying contributes to the destruction of the planet, it’s a false bargain.

So how do we navigate these false bargains?

There’s a book that can really help.  It was introduced to me some ten years ago by our own Rebecca Alder.  And I know I’ve introduced several of us to it over the years.  So I only have four copies with me here to hand out to anyone who may not yet know about “The Better World Shopping Guide.”  In short, the book rates products and companies A to F – not according to how little something costs, or even how good it tastes or works or how long it lasts.  The products and companies are rated A to F on how good or toxic they are for our planet.  I use it almost every day.  I know some of you keep it in your cars so it’s handy.  It’s purposely a small book, so that you can keep it in your pocket or purse.

And so we are back to thinking about what we can do.  These are things we can do … today.  And I hope we will share the knowledge.  If you feel like passing this forward, perhaps consider having a “Things We Can Do” party and invite some friends.  Pass out some light bulbs and some pens made of recycled plastic.  Talk about recycling in general, or suggest some other earth-friendly things that we can do that I haven’t mentioned.  And you might have your own copy of “The Better World Shopping Guide,” available for people to thumb through.

Let us stay active.  Let us stay engaged.  Let us not wonder “What can we do?” but instead commit ourselves to what we can do.  And let us relentlessly nibble!  Maybe not today, but in the near future, many of us can replace throw-away batteries in our homes with rechargeable batteries.  When we shop, we can seek out packaging that uses minimal or no plastic.  This is a way to keep our spirit whole.

Let us not let the enormity of our task dispirit or discourage us.  In celebrating our Earth and in committing ourselves to reclaiming the garden that it can be, let us remember to nibble and, when chance gives us the opportunity, encourage others to nibble as well.

Amen.

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Avoiding the Pathogen of Hate

We are about to exit the flu season for this year, for which anyone who has had the flu may well be exceedingly grateful.  And we may all be grateful that the worldwide flu pandemic which many dread every year, and some feel is only a matter of time, didn’t visit us.  Not this year.  But flu is not the only dangerous and indeed deadly pathogen that threatens us.  At the moment we appear to be in the middle of an onslaught of hate: deadly, destructive hate that does not seem to be limited to any season.

Indeed, we seem to be suffering from a worldwide pandemic of hatred: screaming, angry vindictive and often deadly hate.  It is perhaps most evident to us right now in the United States because we happen to live here.  And it’s not just national, it’s local.  A Redmond mosque was defaced, repaired and defaced again.  Just this week a Kent man, a Sikh, was shot outside his own home after being told to “go back to your own country.”  Yesterday a Jewish Temple in Seattle was defaced.

Given comfort and cover by the Hater in Chief, bigots appear to be climbing out of the woodwork.  Muslims are targets.  Hispanics are targets.  Sikhs are targets.  Jews are targets.  Women are targets.  People of differing orientations are targets.  And the list keeps getting larger.  And as horrific as this is, it is not illogical that the list continues to grow.  There is a reason.  Hate … is … contagious.  We saw it spread in the UK after the Brexit vote.  We see it in France.  And that’s just Europe.  The madness is worldwide.

So what do we do about it?  How do we react?  For me this is a crucial and paramount question, because I strongly believe that hate is indeed a pathogen.  I believe to my core that if we do not take steps to build up our own immune systems that hate will infect us.  Not “them” whomever we are calling “them” at the moment; but us.  Hate will infect us.  You and me.  So what I want to be speaking about this morning are some thoughts not only on how we might begin to stem this pandemic, but also how to build up our own resistance to that highly contagious pathogen: hate.

Oh come on, is that really a problem?  Is it?  We are such compassionate, loving people here, and I’m not joking!  This is a wonderful group.  Are we all really in danger of being infected?  I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.  And I believe it is when we think of hate and its co-pathogens fear and intolerance as weaknesses, something “those people” suffer from, that not only our country but we ourselves are the most at risk.

So let’s do some digging.  That’s what I’ve been doing this past week and a half.  And that’s what got me into a bit of trouble.

I tend to use the words hate and fear almost interchangeably because I believe them to be siblings: blood relatives.  Even so, it’s important to note that they are different.  Indeed, it is the way that they are different that became more and more apparent to me as I pondered it this past week.  As I see it, fear and hate are like cause and effect.  Yes, related; but different. So to have any hope of coming to grips with hate, we must also at the very same moment tackle fear.

I believe that for the most part, for the most part, fear drives hate.  It’s not the other way around.  Hate does not drive fear.  We do not become fearful because we hate.  We become infected with hate because we are filled with fear.  Both, then, are dangerous – but fear is the driving danger.

As an obscure and aging Interfaith minister once said, “Whether we are consumed by hate or consumed by fear, in the end we are someone else’s dinner.”  Or, to put it in different words, one of the surest ways to surrender our freedom is to be ruled by fear and driven by hate.

Demagogues have long known this.  To a control a people: fill them with fear, nurture their hate, and then point at “the enemy.”  “It’s their fault.”

It goes in that order.  I would suggest that one reason for this is that fear is socially unacceptable.  Fear is seen as a sign of weakness.  People may call hatred horrible or disgusting, but how many call it weak?  How many see hate as a sign of weakness?  Thus hate is fear given a culturally acceptable form.  Then, all we have to do is rationalize it.  “We hate because” … easy as pie.

No one is immune.  No one.  This is a pathogen that knows no political favorites.  Trump, Cruz and the rest of the Republicans got all the press.  But go back and read what so many of the Clinton people said about Sanders people, and what so many of the Sanders people said about Clinton people.

And still do.  It’s hateful stuff.  Hate is contagious.  Contempt and intolerance are contagious.  And remember, it begins with fear.  The breeding ground is fear.

So the first step, if you will, in vaccinating ourselves against becoming hate-filled and intolerant is to recognize and guard against our own fears.

I’m remembering some words my father said to me a long, long time ago.  Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things, but in this I thought him quite wise.  “Be fearless,” he told me.  “Don’t be stupid, but be fearless.”

I would suggest this: that a person filled with hate, however strong he or she may appear to be, is in fact desperately afraid.  And if we hope to turn down the hate we must deal with the fear behind it.  Thus, despite the title of this sermon, if we are even to begin to deal with any success with the pandemic of hate, and the intolerance and rage that stem from it, we must realize that hate is in point of fact the symptom … the symptom, not the disease.  If we would deal with the disease we must deal with fear – our own fear, and the fears of those around us.

Ok.  Suggestions????

Dr. King famously said that “Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”  I believe he was right and that a basic reason he was right is that the only way to successfully address another person’s fear is with love.  Not shouting.  Not anger.  Love.

As we read together earlier, the Dhammapada of Buddhism agrees, saying, “Never does hatred cease by hating in return; only through love can hatred come to an end.”

Now this is not to say that there aren’t people who preach hate and fear to further their personal power and their own agenda.  We know there are.  We hear them, almost daily, preaching fear.  But we make, I believe, a huge mistake when we treat the people they reach as hateful.  I do not believe they are hateful.  I believe they are fearful.  It is the fear, it is always the fear that we must address – including the fear within our own hearts and minds.  And that can only be done with love.

Love.  Some will see this as weakness.  Indeed, there was a time when I did.  But not now.

When I was a child, and indeed when I was a young man.  Ok.  Even when I was a middle-aged man I was baffled by something that Jesus is reported to have said.  “Love your enemies.”  What the heck?  “Pray for those who persecute you.”  Oh sure.  That’ll help.  Not!

These days I feel I understand it better.  For me it is “Love your enemies, lest you become them.  For fear and hate are contagious and deadly.”

Love your enemies, lest you become them.  Loving your enemy is being proactive, not passive.  Fear feeds on fear.  Hate feeds on hate.  It’s time to put both hate and fear on a diet! – a loving diet.

The power of love over fear and hate is something that Martin Luther King Jr. showed us.  It is something Mohandas Gandhi showed us.

And we can follow in that example.  Even today.  Indeed, as we face a decidedly difficult future, I feel we must follow that example – not only to overcome those who hate, but lest we become hate-filled and lose ourselves.

One small thing that happened recently gave me some optimism and I’d like to share it.  Many of you may know that I recently organized and led a gathering and march, right here in Lynnwood, in support of our Sioux brothers and sisters at Standing Rock.  I was deeply concerned because, just a few weeks before, a friend had led a march in Seattle in support of refugees and it had been overwhelmed with bad feelings and hateful speech.  We live in an angry, angry time.

Now to be fair, much of the time there is justification for that anger.  In my opinion the government and the police in North Dakota have acted outrageously.  Once again, to advance the profits of the white elite, our indigenous peoples are being kicked to the side of the road … at gunpoint.  Angry?  Yes.  Give in to the anger?  No.

The Seattle City Council, bless them, had taken a stand.  But I don’t live in Seattle.  I put together the march so that we might present to the Lynnwood City Council a proposed proclamation of support for Standing Rock.

But could we do that in this day?  Amidst so much anger, could we gather and march lawfully, peacefully and, if you will, lovingly?  Could we do it?

The answer is yes.  Thirty-five people got together and marched in peace and with love.  I share this with you because it fills my heart to brimming.  We can do this.  We can.

The Lynnwood City Council will consider our request.  I don’t know what their answer will be, though I will by the next time we meet.  But this much I can say.  We had a cause about which all of us were and are deeply passionate.  We marched for justice, with signs and with purpose … and with love.

How do we move forward in the difficult times ahead?  We move forward with love – with determination and passion … and love.

How do we fight fear?  Not with anger and not with hate: but with love.

Jesus mentioned that we should turn the other cheek.  But I would note that he does not talk about retreating.  Turning the other cheek does not involve standing down.  Turning the other cheek does not involve giving up or giving in.

Gandhi did not stand down either.  He marched.  He too turned the other cheek.  He never lifted his arms in anger, but neither did he stop marching for justice.  He marched with love and without violence, but he marched.

A few hundred years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  I believe we have reached such times again.

Evil must be resisted.  Hate and the fear that spawns it must be resisted.  That said, we need to recognize that it won’t be easy and it won’t be swift.  It will take time.  It will take effort, persistence and dedication and yes, boundless love.  And yes, there will be setbacks.  Yet I believe they can be overcome.  But if we would be successful in resisting hatred and fear in others, we must guard against it in ourselves.  The vaccine is love.  The vaccine is love.

Amen.

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March Newsletter 2017


March 2017

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Listen! … please

“A wise old owl sat on an oak;

The more he saw the less he spoke;

The less he spoke the more he heard;

Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”

 

It’s a nursery rhyme, from that internationally renowned poet … unknown.

Listening.  There are times when I wonder if it’s a lost art.  But then, calling it a lost art would imply that at some point the art actually existed.  I wonder, if you will, if that’s not an alternative fact.

One example.  Thomas Edison, he of the light bulb, is frequently credited with that wise saying, “We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”  Good stuff.  Modern humanity.  We need to start listening again!  The problem, of course, is that the electric Mr. Edison was not the first to notice two ears and but one mouth and give us that quote.  The Roman philosopher Epictetus, seems to have said it first, though not of course in English, around 100 CE.  And still, problems with listening predate that era as well.

In Judaism, my spiritual tradition, one of the most important lines in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy, 6:4. It is traditionally translated as “Hear, O Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” But I take issue with tradition here. I believe that a better translation would be “Listen, O Israel” rather than “Hear, O Israel.” The Hebrews were being called not simply to hear the words of the Lord but to (gasp) listen to them.  And, of course, not listening seems to be a problem that all of our spiritual paths are continually trying to overcome.

Today as well, much too often we hear someone but we haven’t really listened.  Or as Stephen Covey put it, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”  And folks, that’s not listening.   That’s hearing without listening.

It’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in the time of ancient Israel, not in the time of Epictetus, not in the time of Edison, and certainly not in our own.

Listening, I believe, does not come naturally to us.  It must be taught – and retaught, which is something our spiritual paths have known for centuries.  Yet listening seems absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out compassionatelistening.org. There are some wonderful people there who spend their time and efforts teaching people … well, how to listen.  And they are very much needed because it’s something our culture for too long just hasn’t considered all that important.  Speaking is important.  Listening … not so much.  And some pretty famous people have reacted to this most unfortunate situation.

Ernest Hemingway, an author I greatly admire, wrote, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal by listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Being a writer, Hemingway couldn’t leave well enough alone and he revised this a few years later to read: “When people talk, listen completely.  Most people never listen.”

Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea – one that to be honest has never truly caught on: His idea?  “Before you act, listen.”

Why?  Because, if we’ll return to Jewish Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”

And Buddhism, of course, calls us to listen … to everything from own breath to the breath of those around us, and the world around us.  Pay attention, Buddhism urges us.  Good advice.

So, we’re all going to listen better, right?  Case closed. Problem solved. … Not.

There’s a Cuban proverb I love. “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

I love that. It’s so true. Though in all humility I might revise it just slightly and say, “Every head is a galaxy.” Ok then, listening between the galaxies is going to take some effort.  Where do we begin?

Psychologist and writer M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” That’s worth repeating. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

Well, bummer! So much for multi-tasking! What our culture has taught us is what Stephen Covey talked about: that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response.  And now Peck is telling us that we can’t truly listen and be thinking about how we’re going to respond at the same time?

And it gets worse! Particularly today, particularly with smart phones. Have you ever … well, I have a feeling all of us have had the experience of talking with someone and realizing that they are either sending or receiving a text message while we’re talking.  Yes?  As Mr. Peck would put it, they are not truly listening.  So one of the things we’re going to need to do if we are to recapture or just flaming create the art of listening is to put the phone down.

And that, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.  So far, all we’ve been talking about is listening to each other.  Well, what else is there? Actually, there’s much more to listening than that.

A part of listening is listening to ourselves.  How often have we said, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that.”?   Yet we don’t usually complete that thought.  “I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but I just didn’t listen.”

And sometimes the question is not, “Do we listen?”  Sometimes the question is, “What do we listen to?”  Frequently, as example, we listen to our vanity instead of our conscience.  It’s been said, “It can be hard to hear the calling of our conscience over the braying of our vanity.”

Listening then, actually involves not only work but intent.  And … and it doesn’t stop there.

Our not listening extends to nature.  In my opinion, nature has been crying out to us, screaming at us if you will: “Look at what you are doing … to me, to your children, to their children.”  And far too many of us just aren’t listening.  We’ll get more into this in a month when we observe Earth Day … a month early.

For now, I’d ask us to connect two words, representing two ideas that aren’t usually spoken of together but for me are inextricably interconnect.  Listening and awareness.

Awareness is tricky.  We go through life, day after day, and how much are we really aware: of what we do, of what say, of how we feel, of how others feel?  How aware are we of what is happening around us?  Is our awareness antenna functioning?  Being informed is a good thing.  Indeed, I do recommend it.  But it’s not the same as being aware.  If we will not truly listen, we can be informed, I believe, and still unaware.

In terms of ourselves – I don’t believe we ever become truly self-aware if we will not take the time and make the effort to quiet down and listen to ourselves.

In terms of others – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of the humanity of the people we encounter if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.

In terms of nature – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of all that is around us, the air, the plants, the animals, the land, if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.

Yes, plants speak.  When they wither and die they are telling us something.  Yes, the land speaks.  When it blows away in a dust bowl it is telling us something.

So, how might we take the time and make the effort to be aware?

Time to become just a smidge controversial, because I’m going to suggest that one answer, one good answer to listening and becoming aware, lies in the sacred and something that all of our sacred paths have provided us throughout the centuries – not that we’ve paid much attention, but there it is.  It’s called: prayer.

When I think of prayer, I don’t think of asking God for favors – or as Janis Joplin put it, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”  When I think of prayer, I think of taking the time, making the time, to shut up and listen.  Whether it’s five times a day, twice a day, or once a week; whatever ritual we may choose to make our time of prayer special, for me the essence of it is, be quiet, to open ourselves to what is outside us and then: listen.  For some of us, this may be listening to God.  For some of us, this may be listening to the call of the Cosmos, or of Nature.  But whatever form it takes, the essence of it is to stop what we are doing, quiet our thoughts and our ego, put our next task on the backburner, breathe deeply, and listen – listen to the calling of our own hearts and all the hearts around us … listen to everything around us … and remembering that each of us is a small part of that everything.

For me, one of the great gifts of prayer, if indeed we pray, is to break out of the prison of “me, me, me” and to listen to all that is beyond “me” in its magnificent diversity.  If we as a people  we will listen, we may finally get a leg up on hate … and fear.  If we will listen, we might just survive.  If we will listen.

In that spirit, let us pray now, together.  Let us listen.

….

….

Amen

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February 2017 Newsletter


February 2017

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Your Money or Your Life?

I’d like to talk this morning about something that in many ways is talked about much too much … and in many ways isn’t talked about nearly enough. Money. Now you already know that we are an Interfaith congregation. So we aren’t going to be talking about politics, political theory or monetary theory – however tempting that might be … particularly with, well, we aren’t going there. We’re going to be talking about spiritual theory. A spiritual approach to money.

What?!! “Money is the root of all evil!” Case closed.

I disagree. Love of money may well be the root of much evil. Our headlong pursuit of money may well be the root of much evil. How we use and misuse money may be the root of much evil. But money itself is a simple fact. It exists. We created it. The question is: what do we do with it? How much importance do we place on it? How much of our lives do we turn over to it? That is a deeply spiritual question. And that’s what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.

At some point, if we don’t destroy the planet first, I think that one of the many ways historians are going to divide history is into fifty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years BTE. … Before the television era. Jack Benny was a star BTE. He had a show that in its day was, how should we put this? “Must hear, radio.” Now Jack Benny went on to become a bit hit on television, but it was his radio show that created his most famous skit. It’s where I’d like us to start this morning. Jack is walking down the street when he’s held up by robber with a gun. “Your money or your life!” the robber says. Silence. You can hear the audience laughing, yes, radio had live audiences! The robber repeats himself. “Your money or your life! Well?” Finally Jack says, “I’m thinking about it!”

It’s a good moment. A funny moment. But it’s also rather profound, because most of us answer that question without ever knowing that we’ve answered it. Our country has answered it, without ever really thinking about it. In many ways we’ve created a culture that answers that question for us. Now I’m not here to answer that question for anyone. What I do hope today and as we move forward, is that we can become a little more aware, a little more intentional with how we look at our relationship with money. Your money or your life? My hope is that we may answer that question with thought and intent, rather than just moving ahead.

One question to ask is how do our spiritual paths approach the subject? I think we already know. … Or think we know.

In Christianity, First Timothy, the actual quotation is NOT “Money is the root of all evil.” Rather, it is “The love of money is the root of all evils.” Money itself, then, isn’t the problem. It’s our obsession with it, our relentless pursuit of it. … And we’ll come back to this.

From Judaism, Ecclesiastes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain.”

From Islam, “Wealth is the fountainhead of inordinate craving.”

From Sikhism, “What is that love which is based on greed? When there is greed, the love is false.”

From Buddhism, “One road leads to wealth; another road leads to Nirvana.”

“The love of money is the root of all evils.” As I thought about it, I got the feeling that the reason we don’t like to actually quote what’s in Scripture is this: If money is the root of all evils, then it’s money’s fault, not ours. But if it’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, that puts the responsibility squarely in our own laps. No one to blame but us.

As I was writing this and reviewing how consistently all of our spiritual paths try to steer us away from greed, I was reminded of a favorite moment from a Bogart movie. The movie is “Key Largo.” Edward G. Robinson, of course, plays the gangster Rocco. Rocco is terrorizing a group that includes Bogart’s character. Why is he doing it? Bogart says, because “He knows what he wants, don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees, but when asked what it is that he wants Rocco is stumped. It’s Bogart who says, “He wants more. Don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees. “Yeah, that’s it. I want more.” He goes on to agree that no matter how much he gets, he’ll never have enough. If anything has come to symbolize what is going haywire in the U.S. and indeed around the world, and what our spiritual paths have been warning us about again and again over the centuries, it is this insatiable pursuit of more.

So how did we get here and what might we do about it?

First, there’s that old saying that a fish doesn’t know that it’s swimming in water because it doesn’t know anything else. I wonder if we might take a look at the water in which we swim. And the role of money imagery, so common to our everyday life that like a fish in water we don’t see it. We use it every day, and yet … we don’t see it. Oh really?? Example please!

Ok. Have you ever used the phrase when someone has done something you don’t like or approve of: “You’ll pay for that”? You’ll pay for that. There’s a cost to that. Or, if you agree with someone, “I’ll buy that.” If you disagree, “I can’t buy that.” We frame our discussion in terms of money.

Have you noticed that we spend time? Indeed, we spend our lives. Again, all money imagery.

Oh good grief, they’re just words, what does it matter? I think it matters a great deal. I really do. I deeply believe that words matter. We’ve been here before, but it bears repeating. The words we use shape not only our actions but our thoughts. Our words become our worldview. And if the words we use revolve around money, then that, even without our knowing it, shapes how we see and relate to the world … and how we see and relate ourselves.

All right, fine, maybe so. But how do we break ourselves of this? It’s part of our culture and has been for centuries. Indeed it has, which is why our spiritual paths keep bringing it up.

Still, it should come as no great shock to anyone here that I have a few modest suggestions about how we might change our vocabulary … if we choose.
War doesn’t cost lives. War kills people.

Perhaps we can cease to spend time with our friends. Perhaps we can be with our friends. Not, “I’m going to spend time with Philip today”, but “I’m going to be with Philip today.” Words do matter.

Perhaps we can be with our children, and not think of it as spending time.

Perhaps even more importantly, we can begin truly to live our lives, not spend them.

Let us not spend our days. Let us begin truly to live them, and to cherish the living.

Just words. Just ways of phrasing what we do. But I think that by choosing our words a little more carefully, we can answer the call and indeed the plea of all of our spiritual paths and begin to break free from our enslavement to money … our love of money … our passion for money.

So we come back to the theme: Jack Benny’s dilemma. “Your money or your life?” The spiritual question is where do we put our effort: our money or living a meaningful life?

But it’s much too easy and, to be just a smidge judgmental, rather stupid to say, “Money doesn’t mean anything. Money is unimportant.” Not true. Money is important. Without money we don’t eat. Without money there isn’t a roof over our heads. Without money we may not get the medical care we need.

What we are saying here is that money is a poor excuse for meaning.

We humans carry, if you will, the curse of sentience. We know we are alive and we know that we will die. As my great granddaddy used to say, “No one gets out of this alive.”

I’ve quoted from “Man of La Mancha” before, and I probably will again. At this moment in the play Cervantes says, “I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … I have held them in my arms at the final moment … their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question: ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived.”

So the question becomes, what shall we make of our lives? Shall we “spend” our lives? That brings to mind the miser who painstakingly doles out his money, careful never to spend too much. Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “He that is of the opinion that money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” I do miss Ben.

Or will we choose to live our lives, rather than spend them? And if we choose to live, where does our meaning come from? If we spend our lives, it becomes so very simple. Meaning is defined for us. He or she who dies the most toys wins. But if we choose to live, then meaning isn’t defined for us. So where shall we find it?

Other than suggesting that we take note of the water we are swimming in, I can only refer each of us to our own chosen spiritual path. Somewhere in there, I think we’ll find, among other helpful suggestions for finding meaning, a version of the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Treat others as you would be treated.

But I would like to offer what I believe can be a helpful tool for taking note of the water we are swimming in. A budget. If we have a budget already, let us be with that budget for a while. If we don’t have a budget, it might be enlightening to make one, to go over how we use money.

This may shock you; it certainly shocked me when I came to the realization not all that long ago. But a budget is a real time spiritual document, a spiritual reality check. What??!! Yes.

There’s theory. There’s proclaimed belief. And there’s what we actually do. Where does our money go? And it what order does it go? What are our priorities? Our budget will answer that. It can be a bit of a shock, but our budget will indeed answer that.

And our budget is not just about money. Where do we spend our time? Or, as I would prefer to put it, where do we choose to be?

Your money or your life? In many ways, I’m preaching to the choir here, and I know it. But there remains much we can do in how we speak, the words we use to communicate. We talk about the importance of candles and of light. Let us be bringers of light to our fellow fish in this ocean of a dollar-driven culture. Let us be aware of what is around us. And, if we dare, let us be bringers of change.

Your money or your life. May we choose life.

Amen

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January 2017 Newsletter

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Honoring Chanukah

Hineh mah tov (see song at the end of the sermon).  “How good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.”  Good … and pleasant … and these days darn near impossible!  Unity has never seemed so elusive – particularly the unity of our hearts.  If we ever needed Chanukah, we need it now.  Chanukah?  Yes.  I deeply believe that honoring Chanukah, the light of Chanukah, can be a dawn breaking on the dark days that surround us – a darkness of the soul, of the heart, and of the spirit.  We need light – enough light to recognize our common humanity.  Indeed, if Chanukah did not exist, I believe we would very much need to invent it.  Now.  But I want to be honest.  This morning’s sermon is a deeply personal sharing.  Some of my Jewish friends might consider me a bit of a heretic.  Still, I want to share and celebrate a universal Chanukah.  And yes, the Chanukah of which I speak is not the Chanukah of my childhood.

When I was a young child, Chanukah was my most favorite holiday – candles, miracles and most especially, presents!  What’s not to like?

When I became a youth, Chanukah became my least favorite holiday for the exact same reasons – candles, miracles and most especially: presents.  “And what did YOU get for Chanukah?”  A commercial nightmare.  That’s what I got.  That’s what I saw – compounded by the commercialism that overwhelmed Christmas as well.  Neither Christmas nor Chanukah seemed to hold much spiritual relevance.

In addition to commercialization, there was also the “miracle.”  A light that was supposed to last one day lasted for eight.  Assuming for the moment that the miracle actually happened: this is cause for massive celebration two thousand years later … because?

I didn’t take it seriously again for about 30 years.  And when I did, it was a very different Chanukah that I chose and still choose to celebrate.  And that’s really a part of what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.  We change.  We grow … hopefully.  We look at things differently when we’re fifty than we do when we’re twenty.  Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not so good.  But regardless, we change … and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that we change.

Indeed something that gnaws at me a bit about all of our spiritual paths and traditions is, sometimes at least, our insistence that they are timeless.  They aren’t.  They can’t be, because we aren’t.  Our eyes are different from the eyes of our brothers and sisters a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand, or two thousand, or three thousand years ago.

The basics of Chanukah most of us already know.  Quickly, tradition records that the Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the practice of Judaism in Judea in the 160’s BCE.  The Temple (located in Jerusalem) was desecrated.  But perhaps for the first time, at least in recorded history, comes the tradition of a people who revolted over their right to pray as they were called.  The revolt, led by the Maccabees, was successful, Antiochus left Judea, and the desecrated Temple was cleaned up.  But there was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day, while it took a full week to properly consecrate new oil to be burned.  Then the miracle.  That little bit of oil lasted for eight days – long enough for new sacred oil to be consecrated.

What should we take from this, we ask?  What about Chanukah might call to us over the centuries?  Specifically, do we celebrate the military victory and the miracle, or do we celebrate the sacred right of all people to pray as they are called?  That, for me, is what changed over time.

You may not know that modern historians, as historians are wont to do, have made sushi of the Chanukah story.  What was the revolt really about?  That’s a controversial issue these days, with many historians believing it had far more to do with politics than religious freedom.  Who was really involved?  That is also a matter of controversy.  Who actually won what is still being argued in scholarly journals.  But the truth of it is … the truth of it is the truth of it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter to traditionalists, who imbue Chanukah with miracles, glorious military victories, candles, dreidels and gifts regardless of what any historian says.  Nor does it matter to me.

What?!  History doesn’t matter?  Truth doesn’t matter?  Not in this case.  When I celebrate Chanukah as I do every year, I don’t light candles to celebrate an historical event in Judaism – whether it happened or not.  When we light candles this morning, I deeply believe we light candles to celebrate not an historical fact but an important spiritual truth.

If Chanukah happened as tradition outlines it some 2000 years ago, then fine.  But if not, that’s ok too.  Because whether or not Chanukah celebrates history, it does celebrate, though it too frequently gets lost in the whoopla and presents, the birth of an idea – a crucial truth that is so very important and that I believe we so very much need.  It is the truth that all people have the right to pray as they are called, and that no king, no emperor, and indeed no president has the right to stigmatize and outlaw a people’s beliefs.

For this reason, when we light our Chanukah candles a bit later, I urge us to be holding in our hearts the call for a universal Chanukah.  At Passover, admittedly my all-time favorite Jewish holy day, we say, “If one be slave, then none of us is truly free.”  I would like to start a new tradition here at this Chanukah.  I would like us to say, “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  That is the call of the universal Chanukah, that all of us have the right to pray in safety and to be respected in our prayers.

That sounds so simple, so why is it so hard?  There’s never a single all-encompassing answer to any complex problem.  But I will share with you what I believe to be one of the key issues that stands between us and the universal Chanukah.  Tribalism.  Cursèd tribalism.  Admittedly the bane of my existence.  We divide into tribes and then subdivide our tribes and then frequently divide yet again, constantly building righteous and self-righteous walls between us.

But I ask you, of what value is my religious freedom if you have none?  Of what value is our religious freedom if our neighbor has none?  It remains a supreme bafflement to me that we can speak of the majesty of God and then truly believe that God chooses one tribe over the others.  Chanukah can be a beautiful and indeed transformative holiday, but I believe only if we truly and earnestly seek a universal Chanukah, where all may worship God or no God in safety and none shall be afraid.

When I was growing up, Jews weren’t safe in so many corners of white Christian America.  Today, it’s Muslims.  And I would share with you, there is no difference.  Indeed, the very WORDS of exclusion, derision and hatred used when I was a child are almost identical to what is thrown at us now.  Only the name has changed.  Today, it is the Muslim conspiracy to take over the world.  Muslims are secretly plotting to take over the United States of America.

When I was a child, it was the Jewish conspiracy.  When I was a child, there were summer camps I could not go to because I was Jewish – though here and elsewhere, white Christian America threw in people of color along with the Jews in one big unhappy category: “not us.”  There were clubs we could not join and indeed neighborhoods where we were not welcome, and could not live.

Back in those days, Muslims weren’t even on the radar.  Today, now, they are in the crosshairs.  And we will be damned by our own inactions if we simply watch.  And worse, from my own perspective as a Jew, there are now some Jews gleefully participating in Islamophobia – as if the past never happened, as if Chanukah and religious freedom was for the Jews and no one else.  I cannot believe that.  I will never embrace that.

We are one tribe, one tribe: humanity.  For me, a universal Chanukah can lead us towards that great truth.  It can, with its candles, light the way.

But there is another truth at play here.  We can light a path, but light on a path remains nothing more than a well-lit path unless we are willing to walk it.  That, for me, is the great call of Chanukah – not only to light the path of religious freedom but to walk it.

And here is where Living Interfaith can help.  If we will not only help to light the path but then openly walk it, we can be an example.  And indeed, we have been that example.  We have been praying together, listening to each other twice a month for seven years.  But as we honor Chanukah today I have to share with you that that isn’t enough.  Not anymore.  Not with the darkness that threatens us all.  The time has come for us to spread the word.  We need to talk about what happens here.  We need to talk about the joy and spiritual reward of learning about each other, of sharing who we are safely and with mutual respect.

We live at a truly perilous moment.  Each of our spiritual traditions, even as we feel threatened, must break free of tribalism.  Our spiritual traditions, regardless of how privileged or how small, need to have each other’s backs.

My own spiritual freedom is not enough.  “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  In this spirit, never has a universal Chanukah been more important.

In a few moments I will share a prayer and we will sing my favorite Chanukah anthem: “Light One Candle”.  It is as if Peter Yarrow wrote it not only with the universal Chanukah in mind, but somehow also all that is happening today.  “Light one candle for those who are suffering the pain we learned so long ago.”  “Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger not tear us apart.”  “We have come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail.  This is the burden and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail.  Don’t let the light go out.”

I thought of this when I was at Standing Rock and we gathered before the sacred fire that must always be attended.  I thought of this again just this week as the innocents of Aleppo were being slaughtered in what the UN has called “a meltdown of humanity.”  I thought of this last night, as I learned more of what is happening in Sudan.

As Interfaithers, we are guardians of the light for all…for all.  Never has there been a higher calling … or a more difficult one.  Don’t let the light go out.

Amen.

(Songs referenced):

“Hineh Mah Tov” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCzUWap9rm0

“Light One Candle” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ

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Why Standing Rock Matters

(guest sermon for Evergreen UU)

Good morning.  I had some trouble deciding how to start what I wanted to share this morning.  Lots of electrons bit the dust on my computer.  But then I remembered something I was told in seminary.  Start with the personal.

Particularly these days, people like to put social media down.  But in August of this year, I would have known next to nothing about Standing Rock if it were not for social media.

Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a program called “The Last Word” had done a powerful segment both on Standing Rock and reviewing the sordid history the United States’ mistreatment of our First Peoples.  I saw it as it made the rounds on Facebook and strongly recommend the segment.  If you go to You Tube and search for “O’Donnell Standing Rock”, you’ll find it.  Still timely.  Sadly it is still so very timely.

It remained tough to get updates.  Neither the NY Times nor the WA Post were all that interested.  But Democracy Now was interested, and Amy Goodman was arrested and threatened with jail for having the audacity to document what was happening.  What was happening?  Dogs had been set on the Sioux and their allies who were peacefully gathered to protect their rights and their only natural source of clean drinking water.  Goodman’s case was thrown out.  But other daring journalists have been threatened as well, including documentarian Deia Schlosberg, who was facing up to 45 years in jail for recording what was happening and only this week was at last informed that her prosecution would be “suspended.”

But as August turned into September and then October, I was becoming increasingly alarmed.  The authorities had been shamed out of using dogs to attack the peaceful assembly.  Now they used pepper spray, mace, sound cannons – with worse to come.  Over and over again, the police would create a confrontation, and then resort to violence to “resolve” the confrontation they themselves had created.  For the seniors among us, when I see Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier I am reminded with a shiver down my spine of another Sheriff: Jim Clark of Dallas County in Alabama who likewise used violence in his day, the 1960’s, against peaceful civil rights marchers.

I was a shade too young to march with Dr. King in the 60’s, still in High School when Sheriff Clark called on the KKK to help him keep peaceful protestors in line.  Now, seeing it all over again, it tore at me.  What could I do?  I felt I needed to be at Standing Rock, but I didn’t know how to be effective there.  Then, thanks to social media, I saw a post of a friend who lives in Georgia.  It spoke of a clergy call to come to Standing Rock.

This call was just a week before the date we were asked to be there.  But it was important, hugely important to me.  So I made arrangements.  My ears don’t allow me to fly, and I frankly wasn’t well enough to drive 18 hours, so I travelled by train.

As it turned out, I was one of more than 500 clergy from a multitude of faith traditions across the United States who answered this call from Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock Episcopal Church to, “Come and stand witness with the Standing Rock Nation in its protest.”

There was violence the very day I arrived, the day before we would officially gather as clergy to witness with and support our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Nation. We met for several hours that evening of the day of violence, so we had real safety concerns as we listened to presentations and become at least marginally organized for the events of the day to follow.  Rev. Floberg had expected about 100 participants just the week before.  He was blown away that well over 500 clergy (plus many allies who were not clergy) would within a week, just like me, simply put their lives on hold and descend upon Standing Rock in support. How he managed even a semblance of organization is truly miraculous.

In a moment, we’ll speak of the Doctrine of Discovery.  I was aware of it before Standing Rock, and I’m told much of the congregation here is as well.  But quickly for those who may not be: in the mid-fifteenth century, the European powers were setting sail to explore the world beyond that known to Europe.  The Christian Church had begun to establish it before then but laid out a clear Doctrine of Discovery once Columbus returned from the Americas.  The doctrine encouraged Christian European nations to claim possession of and conquer the lands they “discovered.” Indigenous peoples had no acknowledged rights.  None.  A bit of background.

The next morning, over 500 of us gathered and listened as one Christian denomination after another renounced and denounced the Doctrine of Discovery–which, by the way, played a role as the United States expanded west.  A copy of that doctrine was then burned in the sacred fire that the gathered Water Protectors kept alive day and night.  It was a powerful moment and I was so very glad to be there.  We then marched close to but not onto the bridge that just the day before had seen so much violence.

We were fortunate that no police violence was initiated while we gathered and spoke … though police did continually buzz us with a helicopter (to make sure we clergy didn’t do anything untoward).  We heard from members of the Standing Rock Sioux as well as clergy representing a multitude of spiritual paths.  I was hugely honored and humbled to be asked to lead an interfaith prayer at this gathering of so many committed people.  That too was for me a very powerful and sacred moment.

It felt important to me to be at Standing Rock, supporting our Sioux brothers and sisters who, like all of our indigenous brothers and sisters, have seen too many treaties ignored, too many rights violated, and too many centuries of disrespect.

One of the distressing secrets of today … right now … is how in so many ways so little has changed.  As we are all I hope and trust much too aware, racism remains not only a stain but a cancer within our culture.  And while racism against people of color is at least much more frequently called out for what it is, are we even aware, I wonder, of how much racism exists concerning our indigenous brothers and sisters?

A few quick examples.  In the World Series this year, one of the teams was the Cleveland Indians.  I wonder how many of us were bothered or even thought about that?  How would we have reacted as a country if a team called the Minnesota Negroes were competing in the World Series?  If you watched the World Series, you probably saw grinning “Chief Wahoo” on baseball caps, jerseys and posters.  How many of us did that bother?  Or did we even think about it?  And there’s the Washington Redskins in the NFL.  There’s been some heat.  But do you think the “N” word would be allowed as the name of a football team?  What about the Washington Pollocks?  Or the Kikes?  How is it then that we still have the Redskins?

A few moments ago we sang, “Singer of Life.”  I’ve always liked it.  But buried in that song’s history is something I didn’t know until I went to Standing Rock. We sang a song there, meant for church, that had been written in Lakota.  But for years no member of the tribe was allowed to sing it in Lakota.  It could only be sung in English.  At Standing Rock, as best we could, we sang it in the original Lakota – over 500 non-Lakota speaking clergy.  What blew me away was that that Lakota melody is the one, used with different lyrics, in “Singer of Life.”  I was reminded of my friend Debra, a minister at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary in Ballard, who shared with me similar stories; deeply personal stories, of attempts to suppress, indeed obliterate Native culture.

As a nation we took whatever we wanted from the Native Americans, then unilaterally “renegotiated” when we found something new we desired.  We shoved them onto reservations and forbade them their language.  We did everything possible to make them invisible.  And it worked.

Something else I learned while at Standing Rock has more recently become more widely known.  It too shows us how facilely our culture has trained itself to ignore Native Americans and Native American culture.

As unearthed by the Bismarck Tribune – Early in the planning process, May of 2014, the Dakota Access application had as the route for the pipeline a path that crossed the Missouri River about 10 miles north of Bismarck.  The residents of Bismarck were opposed.  The Army Corp of Engineers evaluated the route and one reason given for this not being a viable route was that this was a “high consequence” area – meaning that a spill here could have significant adverse consequences.

Ok then, the application was changed and the route for the pipeline moved.  In September 2014, just four months later, the revised application was for a pipeline to cross the Missouri River miles further south, near the Standing Rock reservation.  Bismarck need not worry any more.

A spill here could only affect the Sioux.  Hardly a “high consequence” area.  The Sioux, once again, made invisible.

Then there’s the matter of a pipeline through sacred ground.  As Rev. Floberg put it: “Can you imagine the uproar if an oil pipeline were proposed to be run through the cemetery at Gettysburg?”  But here: no uproar.

I believe that one reason that the Standing Rock Sioux and their indigenous brothers and sisters from around the country are determined to stand their ground, in the face of attack dogs, mace, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and sub-freezing temperatures is a determination not to be invisible any more.

As the minister of a church based upon mutual respect and affirmation of our diverse spiritual paths, I deeply believe we are all one family, made more beautiful by our differences to be sure, but all one family.  None of our family should be considered invisible.

And yet…and yet, with all of this: the question remains, what do we do now?  What do we think?  Important, sure.  How do we feel?  Also important.  But what is crucial to me is what will we do?

Today is another day that clergy have been called to Standing Rock.  Not physically able to go back there, I was glad to be asked to be here.  To witness.

What shall we do?  We can help our indigenous brothers and sisters not to be invisible!  A few weeks ago, I participated in a small show of support of Standing Rock in Lynnwood, unable to go to the much, much larger gathering in Seattle.  I would encourage an organized show of support here.  I’ll gladly lend you a few signs.

Have you called the President?  If not, I would urge you to call the comment line and urge that the President do the honorable thing and support the Sioux of Standing Rock.  This is not politics.  This is not left or right.  This is honoring treaties with the Sioux nation.  This is honoring justice.  This is holding up a people that we have too long held down, often by design but frequently by indifference.

And stay alert.  We may all have to act quickly.  In 1948 we overcame the Russian Blockade of Berlin with airlifts and food drops.  We may have to duplicate that effort on our own soil.  As of this moment, both the Governor of North Dakota and the Sheriff of Morton County are trying to shut off all supplies from reaching the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.  They seek to make them invisible.  Again.

In closing, we are only helpless if we allow ourselves to be helpless.  We are only voiceless if we choose not to speak.  Why is Standing Rock important?  Because justice is important.

Amen.

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December Newsletter 2016


December 2016

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November Newsletter 2016


November 2016

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The Case for Humility

Our topic today is “The Case for Humility.”  It might seem perhaps a bit strange that a person would feel it necessary to make a case for humility.  But if we look around us, particularly these days, if there is one thing sadly lacking everywhere we look it is humility.  Humility would appear to be anathema: something to be avoided at all cost.

I’m reminded of the musical Camelot.  Mordred, fully enmeshed in the celebration of himself, recites “The Seven Deadly Virtues.”  He tells us, “I find humility, means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt!”

Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes being meek can get you run over.  But I have to share with you: I reject the notion that meekness and humility are one and the same.  Indeed, I believe they are not in any way the same.  And we’ll get there in a moment.

But the sentiment that there’s no upside to humility very much reflects our culture today.  Take a look at our politics – if you dare.  I doubt you’ll be surprised that you’re rather unlikely to find much humility … anywhere: not in the candidates nor their followers.  Humility is seen as a sign of weakness.  The meek must inherit the earth, or so I’ve been told; because they sure as heck will never earn it on their own.  Humility is for losers.

And it’s not just politics.  It’s everywhere.  Television, radio, newspapers.  You need to be the best.  You need to look the best.  You need to buy the best, and at the cheapest price possible. And we are told that not to think of ourselves is selfish.  Our economy depends on consumer spending.  So be a good American.  Don’t just keep up with the Jones’: look better, dress better, eat better, be better than “they” are.

Humility is for wimps.  The other night two dear friends shared with me a rather interesting article that suggested that while overblown, what the article calls “grandiose” narcissism was not helpful – I can’t imagine WHO they were talking about! – still, the article goes on, many of us could use a little more narcissism in our lives.  It will help us in our careers.  A little more narcissism will help us live better.  Be better.

So this morning: the case for humility.

Is there something, anything positive to be said about humility?  I think so.  To be honest, I think we gave that quest a good start with our responsive reading this morning.  And I personally believe that, contrary to our current culture, the greatest gift, the greatest gift we can give ourselves, let alone the rest of the world, is not narcissism but humility.  And yes, this ties into belief.  Humility will guide how we see the world, how we interact with the world, how we treat our own beliefs and how we treat the beliefs of others.  Humility is the essence of Interfaith.  But more than that, particularly for our purposes this morning, humility is a sign of strength.

Come again?

In all humility, I will share with you that humility is not weakness.  Humility is not being a doormat.  Humility, as one example, is not just standing there and taking it when someone says or does something you disagree with.  Humility is speaking up, but saying … and meaning, “I hear where you’re coming from and appreciate your point of view; but I disagree and I’d like to share why” as opposed to saying, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  I don’t know if I should even waste my time telling you how wrong you are.”

Humility does not mean that I’m unsure of who I am.  What it does mean that being who I am does not require my putting down who you are.  This, I believe, is important.

Thus, for me at least, humility is not meekness, it is not lacking belief or commitment.  Humility is acknowledging that despite my beliefs, which are strong – you may have noticed; despite my commitment, which is strong – you may have noticed.  Despite my lack of willingness to be a doormat – which you also may have noticed:  I acknowledge that I’m human.  And you’re human.  And whatever my strongly held beliefs, I should respect our common humanity and listen, truly listen, to yours – even when we don’t agree … especially when we don’t agree.  I believe humility, at its very core, is such a recognition of our common humanity.  Humility, if you will, is humanity without hierarchy.  OMG! I have a sneaking suspicion that that truth is what makes humility seem so dangerous to so many of us.  Humanity without hierarchy.

Moreover, it is a basic and terrible truth that it is when we cast our humility aside that it becomes so very easy to trample upon one another.  Whether it is racial narcissism, gender narcissism, cultural narcissism, political narcissism, spiritual narcissism.  In the musical, Mordred says that “Humility means to be hurt.”  I strongly believe that it is lack of humility that makes it so very easy for us to hurt one another.

One of my favorite plays comes to mind.  It never seems to lose its relevance.  The play is “Inherit the Wind.”  If you don’t know of it, it’s a fictionalized dramatization of the Scopes trial.  School teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in the public schools: which at the time, 1925, was illegal in the state of Tennessee – as well as elsewhere.  The trial brought two true giants of the day into conflict with each other.  Williams Jennings Bryan, three times a candidate for president as well as twice elected a member of the House of Representatives and serving as well as Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson administration, argued the case for the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, whom I trust needs no introduction, argued for the defense.

My favorite quote in the play, the importance of which has never left my head or my heart since I first heard it in my early teens, comes when a young woman is traumatized after being misled by the William Jennings Bryan character and she confronts his wife.  His wife defends him with a simple but so incredibly profound statement.  “He’s a human being,” she says.  “And he makes mistakes.”

He’s a human being.  And he makes mistakes.

We’re all human beings, and we all make mistakes.  Not to acknowledge this is incredibly foolish and, I believe, destructive.  One of our Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was asked about and made an off-hand, derogatory comment concerning an NFL player who kneeled rather than stood for the national anthem.  A few days later, after looking into it, she contritely and publicly apologized saying, “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”

What struck me was not that she was human and made a mistake, but rather that she was willing to admit it and apologize for it without equivocation and without excuses.  “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”  This is the essence of humility – the ability to say “I was wrong” without offering excuses.

So what is humility?  I believe it is the difference between “feeling sorry” for someone and having compassion for that person.

What is humility?  It is fully and truly acknowledging our common humanity, even when anger threatens to cloud our vision and hijack our reflexes.

Out of humility comes respect for others.  It is humility that allows us to move from tolerance to respect; or even more basically, from intolerance to tolerance.

We’ve already examined equating meekness and humility and found them not the same.  Now I’d like to look at modesty.

I have long felt that modesty was, by definition, false; but that humility is common sense.  For me, modesty is when you’ve done something well and someone tells you you’ve done that something well, and your response is: “Not really.  It wasn’t that good.”  But all the while, in your heart you know that it was darn good!  For me that’s modesty – for appearances, pretending something that you’ve done well is not as good as you know it is, and thus for me modesty, by definition, is false.

Humility is remembering our place in the universe.  Humility is the ability to do something well without it affecting our ego.  Humility is not having our self-esteem tied up in how well we’ve done something.  It’s enough to do our best, our humble best.

Humility does not relieve me from the obligation of attempting my best.  But humility also tells me that my best is enough, just as your best is enough.

Humility opens my eyes and mind to realize that I don’t have to be “better” than you to do well; that you do not have to fail for me to succeed.  This is so counter-cultural today that I want to repeat it.  You do not need to fail for me to succeed.  Indeed the greatest joy is when we both succeed.

Humility, then, is empowering.  Humility strengthens us.  Humility allows us to move ahead despite, as Shakespeare put it, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What is the case for humility?  A better world.  A better world for us, for our children and their children.  It is a world where we share, rather than hoard.  It is a world where we heal, rather than destroy.  It is a world worth reaching for.

That is the case for humility.

Amen

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