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.
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.
An interesting thing happened on my way to writing this sermon. First, I got distracted by my pear tree adventure. For those who are not aware: buckle up. I was picking some delicious pears from my backyard pear tree when the ladder I was on collapsed under me. Gravity being what it is, first the ladder hit the ground and a few moments later I hit the ladder. Happily I broke no bones. But I did get banged up pretty good. My cuts are all healing nicely, but it seems I also tore some ligaments and sprained some tendons … or maybe it was tore some tendons and sprained some ligaments. Whichever, as you may have noticed I’m on crutches and will continue to be seated during the sermon.
For me, there have been two learnings from this pear tree adventure. One is obvious. Climbing high on a ladder can be hazardous to your health. But it is the second learning, not at all as obvious, that has really captured my mind and that I would like to share with you this morning.
The result of my pear adventure has been a significant amount of pain and a sudden loss of free-wheeling mobility. As many of you know, I’ve had a succession of health adventures over the past few years. Pain is no stranger. That does NOT make it any more fun, but it’s not a stranger. And that has made it much easier for me to deal with, as “painful” as it is.
But I have gone a lifetime without suffering the loss of mobility that I have had over the past two weeks. And never having suffered it, I truly had no idea what would be involved. Yes, I have been ill and laid up in bed for several days and even a couple of times for a few weeks. But this was different.
Using crutches is a skill, and I’m still working on it. But more than that, it had never occurred to me that moving things around, simple things like carrying a plate of food or that essential morning cup of coffee, would be difficult at best if not flaming impossible on crutches. In the kitchen, I’m constantly in motion: cleaning this, checking that, dashing back to the oven to prevent something from burning. Now things not only take longer to do, but I’m actually trying to plan my movements so that I don’t have to cross back and forth as much.
And then there are the stairs.
I tend to go up and down my stairs at home probably thirty times a day when I’m working at home. Now I try to do it only once a day … as stairs can be a dangerous place when on crutches.
So where am I going with all this? For me, the lesson is a reinforcement of something that I knew but had never applied to mobility. … And that’s what’s crucial. I knew it, but still had never applied it to mobility. What did I know? – that we can’t really understand something until we have experienced it. No matter how empathetic and compassionate we may be, we truly can’t understand something until and unless we’ve experienced it. If before this adventure someone had told me that I suffered from “mobility-privilege,” I would not have understood. But I do now. Mobility is an incredible privilege.
Again, I believe it’s important to understand that it’s not a lack of feeling or compassion. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been sympathetic to a person, say, confined in a wheelchair or permanently on crutches, but my actual awareness would not have been anything close to what my awareness is now.
As Joni Mitchell sang it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
I had no idea how completely for granted I took my mobility until I lost it. Now, barring some unforeseen mishap, I’ll have my mobility back in a few weeks. But this I can tell you, I’ll never take it for granted again.
It brings home for me what a person of color means when he or she says something like, “I appreciate that you care, and I appreciate you are an ally. But you don’t understand. You can’t understand. You haven’t lived as a person of color in this country.”
It brings home for me what my women friends mean when they tell me something like, “I appreciate that you truly reject patriarchy, and I accept that you are a feminist. But you don’t understand what a women is subjected to in this country. You can’t. You’re not a woman.
It brings home for me what my gay friends tell me as well.
Most if not all of us are familiar with the Native American saying that to truly know someone you must walk a mile in their moccasins. We know it. We’ve heard it how many time? But have we truly appreciated, I wonder, just how true and profound that statement is?
And please, I’m not talking about bigots. Yes, the bigots are out there, but right now, these are not the people I’m talking about. Yes, the racists are out there. But right now I’m not talking about them either.
I’m talking about those of us who are truly caring, full of good will and love. I’m talking about those of us who are compassionate and walk with our eyes wide open. As deeply as we feel, as much as we want to help, unless we have walked a mile in someone else’s moccasins, we can be warm and compassionate and caring, but we can’t truly know.
So, you may be asking yourself, what on earth has this to do with Living Interfaith? Hello?! In an important sense, it has everything to do with it. You may have noticed that recently the haters, for whatever reason, have come out of the closet. Right now, what is the most obvious from a sacred perspective is how quickly so many have become so afraid of Islam and Muslims – believing any and every weird thing that people may tell them. As a Jew, I am reminded of how quickly, and not that long ago, people were so afraid of Jews.
Many have asked how was it possible that people not only lived next door to each other, but were friendly towards their neighbors and then suddenly turned on them? Gays, Jews, Gypsies. Not that long ago people were frightened that a President John Kennedy would turn the country over to the Pope. Seriously! How was it possible? Actually, it was easy. That’s what we need to understand. It was easy then and it remains easy today.
It remains easy because even though there is interfaith discussion and interfaith action, there is so very rarely what we practice here – twice a month, ten months a year: shared spiritual paths. One of our core beliefs at Living Interfaith is that not only is it important to walk a mile in the moccasins of people whose spiritual paths are not our own, but heck … it’s also fun! We not only learn from each other, we grow from the experience.
For me this was and will always be the great call of Interfaith as a faith. Come, let us learn about each other. Come, let us explore the multitude of profound paths that can lead us to the sacred in all of us: all of us. No one excluded.
One of the great discoveries of Interfaith as a faith is that I don’t have to give up my spiritual path to explore and appreciate yours. But if I am to know you, I must walk at least a mile in your moccasins along your spiritual path. When we do this, fear vanishes. When we do this bigotry vanishes. When we do this hatred vanishes.
I deeply believe that our Interfaith model can truly help our troubled world. I believe that in too many ways our country, like one big herd of angry lemmings, is rushing to the horrid and jagged cliff of name-calling, bigotry and unbridled hatred. I also believe that this cliff can and indeed must be avoided if we are to leave to our children and their children the world of love we say we all want.
Interfaith is a path away from that terrible and deadly cliff. Interfaith is by its very nature a path that not only strongly encourages walking a mile in each other’s moccasins, but has made walking in each other’s moccasins a critical component of who we are.
So if you have never been to a Living Interfaith service before: welcome! And if you are returning after a glorious summer off: welcome! And if you’re still on vacation … see you when you get back!
We can make a difference. And with your continued help, we will. For there is much to do.
(I was a guest at Good Shepherd Baptist Church on Sunday, 14 August and was privileged to give the sermon)
Good morning. It was good to meet many of you before the service. In case you’d like to skip the bio in our Order of Service … in short, when I self-identify I tell people my faith is Interfaith. My spiritual path is Judaism. My tribe is humanity. I feel blessed that Pastor Chris Boyer is not only a colleague but a good friend … and walking buddy.
Thank you for welcoming me to your spiritual house. It is truly a joy to be here and share some thoughts together. If there is one thing that we can all agree on – I certainly hope and trust there are many more than one – but at the very least, certainly nobody likes to hear bad news. Some of us do seem to enjoy giving bad news to others, but none of us enjoys hearing it. And if there’s one thing that Biblical scholars can agree on it’s that nobody was more obnoxious in delivering bad news than the prophet Jeremiah. Indeed, Jeremiah is the one prophet with an English word derived from his name. Jeremiad. The Oxford English dictionary defines jeremiad as a complaining tirade. Webster’s just says a prolonged complaint. In the passage we just heard, King Zedekiah reacted to Jeremiah’s tirade by turning him over to the princes who wanted him dead. Only at the last moment is Zedekiah convinced that perhaps this really isn’t such a good idea after all, and Jeremiah is rescued.
But it’s Zedekiah’s first instinct that I’d like us to begin with this morning. I call it, the fingers in our ears syndrome. You may know of it: (fingers in ears) – “La, la, la, la, la. Can’t hear you!!”
We’ve all done it – some more than others, and you know who you are! But by chance, by some chance is there a more positive and even, constructive alternative that we might have available to us other than throwing whoever has given us the bad news into a pit?
Now few of us have the power of a king, which is probably a good thing; and I certainly hope none of us is prepared to kill whoever brings us bad news. But the impulse, I think, is something we can all relate to.
And ok, I realize that this may be a little off-the-wall, but one of the things I really like about reading Scripture is that it reminds me just how little in life is actually new. As our old friend Ecclesiastes was fond of saying, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” King Zedekiah indeed suffered from fingers in our ears syndrome. But boy-howdy, you may have noticed, there appears to be an epidemic of it today.
It’s everywhere. And it’s virulent.
Too many CEO’s suffer from it. They’re not kings or queens, though some may think they are. Profit is the bottom line, and any news that might impact profit negatively seems to receive either (fingers in ears) “Can’t hear you!” treatment, or the emphatic reply, “I didn’t hear that, I don’t want to hear that and don’t ever tell me that again.” It’s to be found in our auto industry where the people in charge didn’t want to hear about defects and so people have died and eventually, eventually there were massive recalls. The syndrome is to be found as well in our food industry, our hospitals, our police departments – even, “even”? – in ministry. It’s so much easier to put fingers in our ears than to hear and therefore have to deal with bad news.
Our politicians suffer from it too. Though, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll skip over politics this morning except to note that if there is any issue that is truly bi-partisan it is the fingers in our ears syndrome.
What’s worse, I believe, is that if we’re not careful we pass the syndrome on, we teach it to our children. That, for me, is one important reason to go back and read and reread Scripture, again and again. Zedekiah, at the last moment, allowed Jeremiah to be rescued. May we learn from that, and may we not wait until the last moment to act.
Of course one way that we can help each other is by learning from Jeremiah’s mistake. Perhaps the best way to talk to each other is not through an exchange of jeremiads. Angrily tossing invective at each other is rarely productive. It seems to me that one of the things we have forgotten in this day and this age is how to talk to each other civilly. Civil discussion should not be an oxymoron. And, if I may, I’d like to go off on that tangent just a little.
For the truth of it is, “Fingers in our ears syndrome” isn’t confined only to bad news. The virus has spread. It has infected almost every way we engage with one another. Have you noticed? As one example, for far too many of us the word “dialogue” seems to have lost its original give and take meaning. Today, “dialogue” seems to mean “I talk. You listen. And when you talk, you tell me how right I am. Otherwise, “I can’t hear you.”
And I’m not just talking about dialogue in the public square.
I truly believe that fingers in our ears syndrome is one of the most destructive viruses that afflict our relationships. Not listening can destroy a marriage. It can end a friendship. I think we’ve all been there. There is something bothering us, something important on our mind and heart, and we try to explain it: to our spouse, to a friend, a family member, a co-worker; and they just can’t hear. And let’s be honest, sometimes someone close to us, or just someone talking to us tries to explain something important on their mind and we don’t hear it. Our mind is somewhere else. Or we’re just not listening. It is a virus. It is contagious. And there is no quick and easy remedy. So what can we do? What can we … do?
There is hope. Truly. I would like to propose this morning a modestly revolutionary thought. I believe that an effective antidote to fingers in our ears syndrome just might be to recapture an ancient ideal that pops up in Scripture from time to time. It’s called … listening.
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 listen to them. Now even today those words can mean the same thing. When we’ve listened carefully to someone we will sometimes say, “I hear you.” What we mean is “I’ve listened carefully and heard what you said.” But these days, much too often, we hear someone but we haven’t really listened.
And it’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in Zedekiah’s time, and not in ours. That’s what’s important to understand. Listening, I believe must be taught – yet it is absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out www.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.
If I may, let me share a few famous thoughts on listening. The first is from an American author I greatly admire. His novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is to this day one of my favorites. Ernest Hemingway 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 from a gripe to words of advice. He wrote, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea: “Before you act, listen.”
British writer and artist David Hockney put it a little differently. He wrote, “Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.”
Or, if we’d like to return to the Psalms of Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”
So, we’re all going to listen better, right? What could be easier? Case closed. Problem solved.
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. “Every head is a world.” Ok then, listening is going to take some effort. So where do we begin?
As 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 that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response. Right? 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. 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 the art of listening is to put the phone down.
The Turks have a proverb. “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” With the Olympics going on … maybe it’s time to try for some gold.
Or, if you will, an old adage – and if it isn’t an old adage it should be! If you truly wish to show someone respect, listen to them – truly hear them, and be sure to let them know that you have listened.
Listening, truly listening to one another is a positive alternative to sticking our fingers in our ears. It can be an important path forward, helping us to answer the call to be loving and in community with one another. Maybe it is time not only to let Jeremiah out of the pit, but ourselves, and our families, and our friends.
If we can learn to listen, we can answer the call of our final hymn, not simply to lift my voice, nor simply to lift your voice, but to lift every voice. Every voice … and sing!
Thursday evening, July 21st, in response to the tragedies of the past weeks and more Lynnwood held a Love Thy Neighbor Rally. The Mayor and Chief of Police both spoke eloquently and with great compassion – as did the President of the county NAACP, and as did several clergy. I was privileged to give the benediction.
I serve a small church – Living Interfaith. Our members are Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Humanist and a few “not really sure yets.” We come together not to convert or convince but to share our holy days and our sacred selves with one another. In part, it is our way of lighting a candle in the darkness and holding high “Love thy neighbor” as our common commitment – not simply our belief, but our commitment. A part of that commitment embraces that “neighbor” holds no color or profession. … Outside, anger and fear seem ascendant. Here we ask, “What can we do?”
Fifty years ago, I was not only much younger, but the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. The Civil Rights Act was a mere two years old. And one of the great heroes of my life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was giving voice to non-violent change. Much has happened in fifty years … and much has not happened. We have yet to have a true national dialogue about race and racism. I truly believe that for the first time since Dr. King was so maliciously taken from us we have that opportunity now – born out of tragedy, but not still-born. It is for us to nurture that opportunity. It’s begun on Facebook – a national dialogue! It seems to me that our job is not to leave it there. I hope that our coming together this evening has truly been a part of that beginning, a part not of papering over but of truly coming together in love and respect … to heal. As we leave, may we hold that resolve in our hearts. Let us pray.
Bring us together.
We walk this one world
In different worlds.
Bring us together.
Help us see each other.
We tend to see what we expect,
Even when what we expect has fled.
Help us see each other.
May we embrace our common humanity,
And acknowledge that we are all connected.
May we embrace the compassion and love
That supports and nurtures our human community.
May we forgive, and be forgiven.
May we be accepting, and accepted.
May we be free from hunger and want,
As we strive to free our brothers and sisters from hunger and want.
May we always remember that
We are blessed by our blessing.
May we walk the sacred path of love,
By whatever branch best guides us,
All the days of our lives.
May peace find a welcoming home in our hearts.
May love of neighbor envelop us and flow through us in all that we embrace and all that we do.
May we be beacons of compassion and understanding.
And may we always remember that only a diversity of beacons can bring sufficient light to our paths to show us the way.
Go in peace. Go in love. Go in light.
I’ve been trying to process what has happened recently – not only the events themselves but also our reactions to them. Two men of color shot by the police. And what leaps out at us is that these aren’t isolated incidents. Five police officers were shot by a deranged sniper. And what leaps out at us is just how dangerous going to work can be for our police. At first people seemed to be taking “sides.” But our better angels appear to be bringing us together in remembering that all these deaths are tragic.
But what does still appear to be tearing us apart is the juxtaposition of “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” as if one can exist in the absence of the other. I deeply believe they are linked. Indeed, when I have been physically able to march in support of Black Lives Matter, I have alternated the two chants. But at this moment I’d particularly like to speak to those who are offended by “Black Lives Matter” and insist that “All Lives Matter” should be enough.
I agree! All Lives Matter ought to be enough. But it hasn’t been, and I believe we need to recognize and own that difficult truth. Slavery was officially abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment in 1865. But it was soon replaced by what Douglas Blackmon rightly called “Slavery by Another Name”, and the Jim Crow laws. Then, despite the legendary work of one of the great heroes of my life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s, we’ve had what Michelle Alexander has rightly called “The New Jim Crow”.
Yes! All Lives Matter. But too often that’s only been a catchphrase, and perhaps wishful thinking. The truth is that Black lives haven’t mattered as much as other lives in this country. And they haven’t for far too long.
I am reminded of the words of C. K. Chesterton. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” There are exceptions to this broad statement. I have been fortunate enough to have known some wonderful human beings who despite the Christian ideal being difficult have indeed dedicated their lives to embodying it. But nonetheless, the statement is often spot on target.
Similarly, the ideal that All Lives Matter has not been tried and found wanting. It has, for the most part, been found inconvenient and left untried. I believe we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter, because it has been far too easy for our culture to forget that if indeed All Lives Matter then Black lives have to matter! My brothers and sisters in the Native Lives Matter movement also need to be heard. For their lives too are much too often simply overlooked. Our country enslaved African Americans and came close to annihilating Native Americans and then, for the most part, simply relegated them to “other.”
I long for the day when indeed we will not only mean but in fact practice the saying that All Lives Matter. I hope to live to see that day. But now, at this moment, in this country, the sad truth is that all lives do NOT matter. And until they do, we need to be reminded that the promise of this country, made in 1776, is still unfulfilled. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Too many have been denied these “unalienable Rights.” Too many are still not included when we say “all”.
Yes, all lives matter. And because of that I will continue to support Black Lives Matter. When all lives matter, when all lives truly matter, I will gladly stop marching.
I want today to be a celebration of something truly special and remarkable. Today concludes six wonderful years together as the Living Interfaith Church. In September we will come together to begin our seventh year. But while today will still very much be a celebration, the truth of it is – we don’t live in a bubble. Much has happened over the last few weeks and months. We cannot, should not and must not ignore it. So before we begin to celebrate, I’d like to share with you some thoughts.
It’s often said, and the saying attributed to any number of people from Confucius to Eleanor Roosevelt, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But too often, I feel this is misinterpreted to mean don’t curse the darkness: ignore it. Pretend it’s not there. Lighting a candle, actually lighting a candle involves more than intent. It involves action. It requires follow through. I believe that to refrain from cursing the darkness is not enough. We are called to action. We are called to light a candle. That, for me, is a big part of what we’re about. Candle lighting: both literally and metaphorically.
There is so much wrong in the world … yet here we are. There is so much darkness that the path ahead is truly daunting … yet here we are. So yes, today … even as we recognize so much hurt, we will celebrate. We celebrate that we have chosen to come together. We celebrate that we refuse simply to curse the darkness. We are Interfaithers. We light candles.
While there is much we could talk about, you should see earlier drafts of this sermon, as an Interfaither what I’d most like us to consider this morning before we settle down to celebrate is how the murderer in Orlando has been described. I am no longer surprised, but still am deeply saddened and disturbed by the way so many in politics and the media and even from the pulpit have sought and still seek to characterize the slaughter of forty-nine human beings. “Radical Islam.” I thank the president for not using those words. But too many others have.
What I’d like us to ponder this morning is how effortlessly our country’s fear of “other” has taken hold of so many. Intriguingly, our irrational fear of the LGBTQ community took a back seat. They became “us”, and our fear of that community subordinate, however briefly, to our irrational fear of Islam. “Radical” Islam.
Let’s light a candle to see just how irrational this is. Let us examine, if we would wish to use today’s language, the very successful attempt to establish not that long ago Christian “caliphates,” if you will, within the United States – particularly but not exclusively in the South. Governors, state legislatures, mayors, city councils and chiefs of police in so many places were members of the KKK – a racist, white supremacist group that claimed to draw its legitimacy as a Christian organization. They, with their burning crosses and horrific lynchings, were the upholders, or so they believed, of “true” Christian ideals. Yet even as the country roused itself to fight the KKK, no one, to my knowledge, ever claimed that they were “radicalized Christians” – that any Christian, anywhere, might be radicalized and become a cross-burning, African-American lynching racist. No one suggested that we needed to watch the entirety of the Christian community for signs of radicalization.
And to be clear, there was no reason to. I don’t think members of the KKK were or are radicalized Christians any more than the bigoted, desperately alienated followers of those who call themselves “Islamic State” are radicalized Muslims – despite their waving a Bible or the Qur’an when spouting their hatred.
Today, the KKK is far less powerful. But it hasn’t disappeared – nor has Christian Identity, an organizations of white Christian racists. Yet to my knowledge, no one has, as another example, referred to the mass murderer in Charleston last year as a radicalized Christian – but rather, and rightly so, a mentally unbalanced racist. Nor was he the first. I was reminded of this especially this last Tuesday, which marked the anniversary of three civil rights workers murdered by a city if not state run by the KKK in the name of Christian purity. I still remember the horrible day I learned that the bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were at last discovered, confirming the nightmare I so many others had feared.
So what’s my point? What I hope we can take from this morning are a few candles we can use to light the way for others see that the term “radical Islam” to explain terrorist acts is as intolerant and intolerable as using “radical Christianity” to explain terrorist acts.
But enough about darkness. Let us together celebrate some light. Indeed, let us celebrate six glorious years of light.
Literally just the other day I had the joy of explaining what we’re about. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, Secular Humanist, New Age, Interested but Doubting … all coming together not to convert or convince, but to share. Here we create safe sacred space, without fearing we will need to defend our beliefs, and without attacking someone else’s beliefs. We share, to learn from each other about the multitude of paths that can, can lead us to lives of love and compassion. We when say all of good will are welcome we do not mean “tolerated.” We mean welcome and respected.
There’s that old saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it at least 4628 times, “Can’t see the forest for the trees. There’s a reason we hear it so often. It’s because it’s so true. But as I’ve been pondering it lately, I think the opposite is also true: “Can’t see the trees for the forest.”
Humanity nourishes a great forest of spiritual trees. Some shoot straight up into the sky. Some are hugely broad. Some trees provide fruit. Some trees provide nuts. But you can’t stop there, because pear trees will not produce oranges. Pecan trees will not produce walnuts. Maples do not produce fruit or nuts, but where would our waffles be without them?! So when we can’t see the individual trees for the forest, think of how much we miss.
And even more so from an Interfaith perspective, think of what we miss when can’t see the branches of the tree.
Today, it is most particularly obvious when it comes to Islam. And it’s hardly an intellectual exercise. Think of how much damage U.S. policy has wrought in the Middle East because our leaders had no clue about two of the largest branches of the tree of Islam: the Sunni and Shia branches – nor are they the only branches. And, of course, it’s not just Islam.
When I was a kid, I was well aware of the many branches that comprised the tree of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox. But still, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I learned of another branch of my own spiritual tree – the branch of the Reconstructionist.
And yet, uh … hate to admit this … despite knowing of so many differing branches of Judaism, and shaking my head when people talked of “the Jews” as if we were all the same, I was a sheltered kid and even when I was in college and meeting for the first time lots and lots of Christians, I simply thought of them as Christians. I couldn’t see the branches for the tree. I didn’t begin to see them until I had graduated.
One of the things we do here, and I hope will do it more and more in our seventh year, is share not only the differing trees of our wonderfully diverse spiritual forest, but also look at some of the branches. They’re different! They grow differently! And as we do this, I hope and trust we will always be able to keep in mind that there is no one “right” branch to a tree!! Just as there is no one “right” tree in the forest.
Perhaps, in the future, we will think of our varying services as “nature walks”. What Interfaith invites of us is to take frequent strolls through our diverse spiritual forest, without pausing to exclaim, “Oh! That’s the right tree cut all the others down.” And without exclaiming as we look at a particular tree that attracts us, “Oh! That’s the right branch, hack all the others off!”
Now that doesn’t mean we won’t find a favorite tree. That’s fine. That’s reasonable. That’s … human. But may we always remember that however much we like a particular tree, a healthy forest has a diversity of trees. And the branches grow as they will.
So today, as we celebrate six glorious years, and at this moment as we sing our final hymn “We Would Be One,” may we always remember that we seek to be one not in the sense of all alike. We would be one in recognizing, respecting and celebrating our diversity. We are one, even as we are men and women. We are one, even as we are gay and straight. We are one, even as our colors differ, even as our spiritual trees come from different parts of the forest, even as our branches are from differing parts of the self-same tree. Still, we would be one. … Indeed, we are one. That, my dear friends, is worth celebrating. And there are goodies for that purpose just outside the door.
On May 5th we had a double whammy of a day. It was, for one thing, Holocaust Remembrance Day. But it was also the National Day of Prayer. I shared some thoughts about Holocaust or Shoah Remembrance in our monthly newsletter which, you may have perhaps read. Today I wanted to turn our thoughts to prayer.
As many of you know, I’ve had an interesting past several weeks. As it turns out, I’m recovering from pneumonia just in time to have my surgery to remove a cancer in my left kidney next week. Something that a lot of caring friends have said is that they are praying for me. Many used a phrase that I have often used, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.” I think we all recognize that these words are said with compassion and caring. But what do they actually mean?
It will come as no great shock to anyone here that I don’t propose to tell you what you should mean when you say this. Nor am I going to try to define prayer for the ages. Other people will see prayer differently and define prayer differently. If you know me, you know that I respect that. But I do think it’s worth some time and some pondering. And the whole idea of what prayer is has been on my mind of late. With the caution that I don’t speak in stone tablets, I’d like to share a bit.
Prayer, I think, can take many forms. I tend to look at two very different ways of approaching prayer: magical and mystical.
I must confess that magical prayer bothers me. Recently there has been some horrific storms and tornados around the country, and I happened to hear a woman being interviewed who said something to the effect that she and her husband were safe, as was their house. God had answered her prayers, she said. This while so many of their neighbor’s houses were destroyed and people injured, some seriously and some killed.
It reminded me of a service I attended some forty years ago, long enough ago that I really don’t remember where the service was or why I was even there. Some teenagers had been in a terrible accident the Friday before. At this Sunday service, as they passed the microphone for sharing, a woman shared that her daughter was in the hospital but had survived the crash. It was an answer to her prayers, she said. She declared clearly and proudly that God still had plans for her daughter. Across the room there was this huge sob. I learned later it was from the mother of one of the teenagers who didn’t survive.
So God didn’t have plans for the dead child? Or perhaps one mother knew how to pray and the other didn’t so God just ignored her? It made me wonder. Do people truly believe in a God who will only answer your prayer if you pray just right? That turned me off prayer for a long time.
I didn’t get back to prayer until I stopped looking at it as magical: “God, please negate the laws of physics for me. Amen.” Instead I began to see prayer from a mystical point of view. Prayer as a form of communion with the sacred. And that’s where I am today.
For me, prayer is a sacred act of humility. I think our spiritual paths have continually been on our case to pray, and you know they have, because, well, we humans tend not to be the most humble of beings. Or, in the current vernacular, humans tend to be humility-challenged. I believe a commitment to prayer, can help us to change that. And for me, when I pray, that’s what I’m after.
Prayer is a reminder to me that there is much not simply beyond our control or power but that is just flaming bigger than we are.
I believe when our spiritual paths remind us to pray, whether to God or simply to pray, we are being reminded to break out of our shells of self-declared superiority. For me this is a good reason to be on our knees when we pray. It helps us acknowledge that there is something greater than we are. And whether we pray once a day, twice a day, seven times a day, I believe we are reminding ourselves to be humble – to approach life with humility.
When I say to someone, as I do when I care and that person is hurting, “I will hold you in my thoughts and prayers” I mean that I will hold them. I won’t think about them for a moment and then drop them as I move on to something “more important.” And I will hold them in prayer, which means that knowing how little I can do doesn’t stop me from caring deeply about the outcome. Knowing in all humility that in so many ways I am powerless, doesn’t stop me from committing my hopes and my love for the best possible outcome. Prayer reminds me, always, of how big the universe truly is and how very, very small I am, and yet … and this is truly the wonder of prayer … small as I am I can be committed to love, to compassion, to caring beyond my small self. And to my mind, one of the great gifts we can give another person is for that person to know that we truly and deeply care.
A friend asked recently if a walk in nature can be a prayer. My own response would be it depends on how you walk in nature. Do you walk with arrogance? Do you walk without regard to the sanctity of the trees, the streams, the animals? “We humans rule. Let’s cut that tree down. Let’s dump our garbage in the stream.” In that case, my opinion would be no. That’s not prayer. But if you walk in nature with humility. If you walk with care and reverence for all that is natural, then yes. I believe your walk in nature is indeed a prayer – a beautiful and important prayer.
Duality plays such a large role in our lives. And for the moment I’d like to move to the duality of passive and active. And I’ll tell you up front, I’m a big fan of active.
Love – both passive and active. I can passively love the human race. But to actively love humanity I have to get off my rear and do something: to address racism, sexism, homelessness, hunger. It’s one thing to love. It’s another to act on that love.
Anti-racism – both passive and active. I can passively declare that racism is evil. But to actively be anti-racism I have to get up, acknowledge and address the racism that remains embedded in our culture.
Interfaith – both passive and active. If you want to define what we are about at Living Interfaith call it active Interfaith. We’re not into passive. That’s why we share our spiritual paths openly and respectfully, without attempting to convert or convince
Prayer – both passive and active. Passive prayer: I pray about something, ok that’s done let’s move on. Active prayer: means I’m involved, whether in terms of time and work or because I will keep in my mind and on my heart the reason for that prayer.
We have a full service today, so I’m going to end a little early. Also, in all honesty, as I continue to recover from my pneumonia I don’t quite have my breath back.
I would remind you that I won’t be here for the next two services. As I recover from my surgery, Cathy Merchant will lead us. I know she’ll appreciate your support and your help…and perhaps your prayers.
Buckle up. We’re going to talk about some difficult stuff this morning. But I’m going to give away the ending. There is hope, there is a better world waiting if we will come together and commit to it. Our choice.
I’d like to start with an image.
Possibly the strongest prison there is comes without bars or walls, let alone windows. It’s a “me-centric” prison. My world. And everything in it revolves around … me. Happily, there isn’t a prison anywhere that’s escape-proof. But this is a tough one, made all the tougher to escape from because far too often we don’t even recognize that it’s there.
I’m reminded of a movie. It’s called “The Truman Show.” And escape was never possible for Truman until finally, to his shock, he realized he’d been in a prison, an artificial world centered around him his entire life without ever knowing it.
We’ve talked here before about the high cost of cheap. But I’ve come to realize that one reason it is so very difficult to discuss and deal with the subject is that the perceived need to get things cheaply is but one symptom of a much larger issue. And that issue is how we build ourselves, and how indeed our world encourages us to build ourselves me-centric prisons, place ourselves inside and throw away the key.
It is divide and conquer at its simplest and perhaps most profound. If I concentrate on me, I lose all track of you, and of us. I believe that if we can’t as a culture at least begin to address how we have imprisoned ourselves, we will never be able to address how completely the pursuit of “me” and the pursuit of cheap has eaten away at who we are – devoured us spiritually and literally. So this morning I hope at least to begin to put language to that, and urge us all to broaden the discussion … to friends, family, anyone we dare!
A “me-centrism” is something that our culture not only encourages us to embrace but indeed nurtures within us. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Me. All that matters is “Did I win?” And what am I winning? More … and at the lowest possible price.
Consumerism, in all its naked glory, is a powerful and unrelenting force. It is how we end up celebrating Martin Luther King Day by shopping sales! This call to “me” has, I think, far too often overwhelmed the Christian call to love, the Jewish call to justice, the Muslim call to generosity, the Buddhist call to release ourselves from attachment, among so many other calls from so many spiritual leaders to think outside our self-made prisons of “me.”
A world-view of “me” is indeed a prison!
As I struggled to find the words for this morning, I realized that I have been fighting this battle almost my entire life, without ever truly understanding it. In my early teens I stopped celebrating my own birthday. I have not celebrated it since.
Let’s be honest here. That was a rather foolish and unnecessary line in the sand. I have happily and joyfully celebrated the birthdays of friends. They have been wonderful and happy occasions. I see nothing wrong with them. Yet for me, to celebrate my own birthday was somehow to tacitly give in to the “me-centrism” that it felt like the world was trying to push down my throat. To say no to celebrating my birthday was my way of rejecting the “me-centric” world.
In my “maturity,” I believe there are far more constructive and meaningful ways to engage and overcome “me-centrism.” The first, I think, is, as we were advised in the book “All the President’s Men”: to follow the money. Who is making a buck by telling me “You deserve a break today.”? It’s not me, it’s McDonalds. Who is making a buck by telling me, “You deserve a new car, new clothes, a better house, the latest gadget.”? Or most recently, a casino whose ad proclaims, “It’s all about you.” Oh really? I don’t think so. I think that if we are to live the spiritual lives we say we are all called to, it can’t be all about me. So what do we do?
There’s a saying I’ve shared here before that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want. And the truth of it is, from the time we’re children we are told to vote for ourselves.
One of the most respected consumer magazines, Consumer Reports, is in point of fact a prime example. When we are thinking of buying something, Consumer Reports tells us how well made it is. It will tell us which one’s cheaper. Indeed, Consumer Reports prides itself on labelling which items are the “best buy.” Isn’t that what we need to know? Isn’t that what we want to know? What’s the best buy?
But best buy for whom? Best buy for me! What else is important?
Not asking for hands! This is a metaphorical question, but how many of us consider the history of what we are buying when we vote for ourselves with our dollars? – when we buy a new lamp, or a book, or a new shirt?
History? Yes, history. As I look at a new shirt and like it, do I ask the question, “Was the person who made this shirt I’m about to buy paid a living wage?” Not unless I shop with intent. And if the only way I can get a cheap shirt is from sweatshop labor, or stores that pay their employees so poorly that they have to get food stamps, maybe … just maybe the price of that cheap shirt is too high. If an employer truly can’t afford to pay a decent minimum wage to produce his or her product, maybe the cost of cheap is too high. Maybe I need to shop elsewhere.
As another example, over the past year, the cost of gas has gone way down. And with the plunge in gas prices has come an increase in the sale of cars that don’t get great gas mileage – but they’re so much more powerful! And gas is now so much cheaper! But with climate change, maybe the cost of cheap is too high.
A personal example of wanting to consider history. I’ve only recently discovered the high cost of cheap eggs. We’re now talking about just the past few months! I’d grown up on cheap eggs. I’ve eaten cheap eggs all my life. Eggs are cheap source of high quality protein, right? And several years ago I felt better about it because by paying just a little more I could get what are called “free range” eggs. Trader Joe’s has them. Free Range organic eggs, and just three bucks a dozen. But the truth of it is that chickens have become widgets. I have discovered that “free range” is in fact today a meaningless term. I still like eggs. But today my eggs cost me three to four times what they used to. Between nine and eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs! It’s for what are now called “certified humane” eggs from pastured, not pasteurized, but pastured hens. Hens that freely walk around in the open and actually have a life. Yes, even eggs have a history.
But good grief! Nine to eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs? But you have to ask … well, actually no you don’t have to ask and that’s the thing … but I’m asking: why are eggs from hens that have a life so much more expensive? And it’s not because the farmers are planning to retire soon in the Bahamas. Rather it’s that treating chickens like widgets is so very much cheaper. This is just one example of how animals have become a part of our assembly line food manufacturing. Henry Ford would be proud. I’m not. For me, the cost of cheap is just too high.
So, what in the world are we voting for with our dollar? And one thing to remember is that we are not only voting with every dollar we spend on today’s world, we are also voting for what sort of world our children and their children will live in. And if you’re childless, as I am, you are still voting for what kind of world your friends’ and neighbors’ children will live in.
How will we treat our fellow human beings? How will we treat life that isn’t human? How will we deal with climate change and our environment? These are the sorts of questions that arise as we break free of me-centrism.
As an Interfaither, it seems to me that our spiritual leaders, including not simply those mentioned before but Bahaullah, Black Elk, the Dao and so many others, have consistently attempted to open the door and set us free. And the truth of it is that we have just as consistently refused.
And it’s worth the time to ponder why it is that we’ve refused with such steadfast energy to leave our self-made me-centric prisons.
I’m sure there are many reasons. But I think the biggest one is that it’s so flaming flattering to believe that we are the center of the universe. How dare Jesus, or Hillel, or the Buddha, or Mohammad, or Bahaullah, or anyone else tell us we aren’t!
Obviously, there’s more here than can possibly be crammed into one sermon.
What I would ask of us today is to remember just how interconnected we are. Let us remember that if my success is predicated upon your failure, then my success is an illusion. I firmly believe that he or she who dies with the most toys loses!
Let us commit to building a land where we bind up the broken, rather than ignore them or keep them in tent cities. Let us commit to building a land where there are no captives and no slaves – where my cheap shirt does not depend on your living in squalor. Let us commit to building a land where justice shall indeed roll down like waters.
Let us free ourselves from a “me-centric” worldview and truly embrace each other. We can do that. We can do that. Please join me in hymn # 121 “We’ll Build a Land” and let us commit to it.
When we’re kids, I think most if not all of us learned the ditty: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” But the truth of it is, words can harm us. And words can help us. As we heard in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a few minutes ago, words can lift us up. Words can also bring us down. Words matter.
In part, our discussion today is the result of a promise made to a member of this congregation well over a year ago to discuss what’s called “political correctness.” And we will discuss that, and more. Especially in this time of fear and polemics, words matter. I believe they matter a lot.
A basic truth that seems to remain beneath the surface much too often is that the power to define is one of the most fundamental and important powers that exists in human relations. The power to define is the power to control. A few examples.
Like many who believe in God, I have from time to time been confronted by someone who says something to the effect: “I don’t believe in God. And you do? You believe in a bearded white guy who pulls all the strings and controls everything on Earth?” “No,” I reply. “I don’t.” Then I’m told: “Then you don’t believe in God.” That person has had God defined for him or her, and that becomes the only definition that counts.
A powerful political example. President Ronald Reagan wanted to construct a defense shield against incoming ballistic missiles. It was dubbed by Senator Ted Kennedy “Star Wars” The name stuck. The idea died. People laughed it to death. The power to define is the power to control. It can, and I’ll share two examples, turn something to be valued into something to be disdained.
The teachings of the Buddha, Black Elk, Muhammad, Jesus, the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Humanist Manifesto, all ask us to live lives of love and compassion. It’s a good goal. Who wouldn’t want to be loving and compassionate? But when I was growing up, yes, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the words loving and compassionate disappeared. They were replaced with the words “bleeding heart.” A person who wants to share and be of help to those less fortunate ceased to be loving and compassionate. Instead, “Oh, another bleeding heart.” The power to define.
As I look at it, a large part of what has become the “Me, me, me!” fixation of America stems from our redefinition of generosity from “love and compassion” to “just another bleeding heart.” Love and compassion are hard to make fun of. But it’s easy to sneer at another bleeding heart. So yes, words matter.
Another example is in truth the root of today’s discussion. It’s hard to put down respecting other people and their right to be who they are, just as we have the right to be who we are. But “political correctness?” That’s a sneerable offense.
But beyond the wordplay of is it respect or political correctness … what are we talking about? I believe we are talking about power. If I can define you, it gives me great power over you.
When I was much younger, I was very close to a young woman who today would be called Hispanic, or possibly Latina. In those days, she and others, like Cesar Chavez, were struggling for their own identity and against the name that had been imposed on them: Mexican-American. They were asking, indeed demanding to be called Chicano or Chicana. In my youth I was rather ignorant. I asked her, what possible difference does it make? I don’t believe the term “political correctness” was in use yet, but that pretty much sums up how I felt. Her response, fortunately we were close friends so it was a calm and gentle response – but also quite firm and indeed unshakable. “We have the right to define who we are. You don’t. We have the right to be called by our name, not yours.” … Hard to argue with that.
Times change. Most in the Hispanic community will today call themselves Hispanic. But others will say Latino or Latina. And I will do my best to use the term that the person I’m speaking to prefers – not because it is “politically correct” but because Gay, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous Peoples, whoever we are we deserve each other’s respect. Not because it’s “politically correct”, but because it ought to be common courtesy.
Now there is another side to this. … Don’t you just hate that? There’s always two sides. Always!
In this case, there’s the person with a chip on his or her shoulders. Usually, if we will take a step back and look at the broader picture, this is a person who is wounded, who has been hurt by a world they’ve experienced as hateful. Still, there he or she is, just waiting for you to say or do something, anything that can be interpreted as disrespectful. And when you do, and you’re going to, they pounce. “You bigot!” What?
For me, this is where those who bridle at the thought that they need to be “politically correct” find their rationale. Such hyper-sensitive people are indeed among us. You may have noticed. But I also believe that most people do not have a chip on their shoulders. They are not looking to pounce. They are just asking for respect, and they deserve it.
And again, this is at its heart about power. Are we willing to give up the power to define each other and instead respect one another as we wish to be respected? For myself, chip on the shoulder people notwithstanding, I would just as soon give up the words “politically correct” and indeed say “respectful.”
Yet I want to move beyond this now, because I believe words matter in still another way, a way that many of us may not have thought of. And these are the words we hear, as opposed to the words we use. I would share with you a very personal example.
I have a good friend, now of almost fifty years. A good man. A good human being. We had a crisis about ten years ago. He lives in California and was up for a visit, or maybe we were talking on the phone. I don’t remember. We had a lot of catching up to do. And as we got caught up he mentioned a rather expensive something, I don’t remember what, that he had wanted buy. But it was outside his price range. He told me, “I Jew’d him down and got a great price.” “I Jew’d him down.” I was stunned, and deeply hurt. That, pretty much, ended the discussion. Fortunately, it didn’t end the friendship. He called me several days later to apologize. It was sincere. And, let’s face it, we all say something at some point in our lives that we would give anything to have back.
But I also knew this wasn’t the way he thought or talked. So I asked him how in the world it had come out of his mouth. He told me that some of the people he worked with talked like that. And he’d just … picked it up without even thinking about it. He pledged to think about it in the future, and call his associates on it.
But this is what I mean when I say words matter – not just the words we say, but the words we hear. The words we let ourselves hear. The words we let go by without speaking up. So I would ask all of us, and I definitely include myself, to be conscious not only of what we say, but what we listen to.
And to be clear, by this I do NOT mean that we shouldn’t listen to or discuss things with people who have opinions different from ours. If we shelter our minds that way, we put on the blinders we talked about last month. But I DO mean that words matter. By no means should we demand that the person we are talking to agree with us. But we ought to demand that that the language used be respectful.
A last example of this comes from my own recent experience. I had joined a Facebook group that supported the person I would very much like to see as our next president. No, I’m not naming names. That’s not relevant here. But the people on this page, the people supporting the same person for president that I do, were trashing with virulent invective, that person’s opponent. I spoke out against this, and finally had to quit the page. You can be against a person’s candidacy. You can strongly disagree with that person. But surely we can be respectful of each other…even if we disagree – even if we disagree strongly.
Words matter. The words we use, the words we choose, become an important part of who we are.
Buckle up. Every now and then, I get my dander up. No, I have no idea what that means except to say that today my dander is up.
Since our last service, when there was this big question mark listed as the topic for today, we seem awash in tragedy. “Active Shooter” is now a part of our everyday vocabulary, as is “Mass Killing.” Many in the media no longer refer to assault rifles as assault rifles. They are just big guns. Yeah. That’ll solve the problem.
And you may have noticed, over the past several weeks of mass killings … take a moment, just that short phrase should boggle the mind … over the past several weeks of mass killings that an interesting vocabulary has developed. If you are a white Christian and a mass killer, you are mentally ill. If you are a person of color, but not Muslim, your spiritual path doesn’t matter. You’re a thug. If you are Muslim and a mass killer, you are, of course, a terrorist. Think about that, please. If you kill a bunch of people, whether you are a terrorist, a thug, or mentally ill depends on the color of your skin and spiritual ethnicity … at least according to our media and a whole lot of over the top, out of control and spiritually bankrupt public figures…in my humble opinion.
The most recent example would be Robert Dear, who continued the ongoing terrorism practiced against Planned Parenthood in the name of Christianity, and who declared when he was formally charged that “I am a warrior for the babies.” Textbook terrorist? But Mr. Dear has not been considered a “radicalized” Christian terrorist, but rather mentally ill – parenthetical statement, as well he should be, for his fixation on murder as a solution in no way represents Christianity. But with Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the media seem fixated upon when and how they got “radicalized.” And far too many are yet again painting all of Islam with a brush they would never dream of using on another other spiritual path.
A passage from William Shakespeare came to my mind and has remained embedded there. “Oh Judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.” We have, of course, evolved from Bill’s time. Now women are acknowledged to be as just as capable of losing their reason as men.
But as horrific as that is, that’s really not what I wish to talk about this morning. This morning I want to talk about blinders – an epidemic of blinders. And I won’t be talking about “them.” As you may recall, there is no them. There is only us. And I wish to talk about an epidemic of blinders among us.
Blinders, as you know, go on either side of the head. They allow the eyes to view only what’s in front. They keep out … distractions.
It’s an odd juxtaposition. We have more information available to us today, from more sources, from more perspectives than at any other time in human history. And yet … so many of us seem to know less and less about what is happening. We put on blinders, to shield us from what we choose not to see. No one puts them on us, though certainly many would encourage us for their own reasons. No, we put the blinders on ourselves, and it has become an epidemic.
Some of us, I’m sure, do it out of parochialism or prejudice. But the epidemic, I believe, comes not from that but from a kind of sensory overload. Now, in all honesty, from time to time we need blinders to be able to focus on some specific and important project. But if we’re not careful, those blinders can become far too comfortable and, before we know it we don’t even know they’re there. We have limited what we see without realizing it. And that’s just not healthy. It’s not healthy for us, or the human race.
As much as anything, I believe our blinder epidemic is a spiritual problem. Our peripheral vision, if you will, is essential in reminding us of just how interconnected we are. Blinders cut us off. But how do we stay engaged with so many differing calls upon us? It’s a reasonable question. We can’t do everything. NONE of us can do everything. So, I believe, we do the very human thing of over-compensating. We put on blinders.
What’s interesting is that we are so very good indeed at pointing out the blinders that someone else is wearing, even as the existence of our own blinders eludes us. So a first step is realizing that all of us, all of us unless we are very, very careful, are prone to blinders.
This, we say, is what I’m interested in. This is what I care about. This is what I read about. And suddenly … this is all I see. Some examples.
Black lives matter. And they do. But I believe there is danger, if that is the only lens we use.
Women’s lives matter. And they do. But I believe there is danger, if that is the only lens we use.
Muslim lives matter. And they do. But I believe there is danger, if that is the only lens we use.
Now the truth of it is that there are indeed some who will say “All lives matter” simply in a contemptuous attempt to quiet a very real and important outrage over the cancer of racism that continues to afflict this country. But the truth is, all live DO matter. All lives.
I’m not asking Black Lives Matter people to stop chanting or to stop wearing t-shirts that identify them. Indeed, that would be counter-productive. But what I would like to see are Black Lives Matter people marching in support of women’s issues. Just as I would like to see Planned Parenthood supporters, wearing t-shirts that identify them as supporting Planned Parenthood, marching in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. And all of us marching in support of Black Lives Matter.
And these are but three issues. A few more examples … Gay lives matter. Homeless lives matter. The life of the planet matters.
But if we lock on to only one of these, which ever one we choose, and use blinders to block out the others … we lose. We all lose.
I honestly believe that we must hang together. We truly need to have each other’s backs. That’s what it comes down to. And while that does happen from time to time, it hasn’t happened yet in any great numbers.
I would argue here, gently but firmly, that humanity matters. We put on blinders and fragment ourselves at our peril. Blinders encourage a sense of me. Removing our blinders and engaging our peripheral vision helps us to remember our sense of we. Without embracing that sense of we, I don’t think we’ll make it. This was what was on my mind when I quoted Ben Franklin in our newsletter this month. “Either we all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
I believe this epidemic of blinders allows those who in truth don’t believe any lives matter except their own, to keep us in manageable pockets: divided. As I tried to point out in our newsletter, divided we not only fall, but we fail.
We need to be aware of the many issues that are, quite frankly, tearing the very fabric of human society apart, and lend our voices to as many of them as we can as well as working on the particular issue about which we are passionate.
This, I believe, is where we as Interfaithers can help to lead the way forward. We here are used to removing our spiritual blinders. And we also realize that removing our blinders does not mean losing our way. Respecting and celebrating other paths does not mean losing our own. I can, as one example, be deeply involved with supporting my Muslim brothers and sisters and also march in support of Black Lives Matter even while as a Jew I am lighting my Chanukah candles. Or, if you’re my age, maybe not marching quite so much anymore, but certainly we can all help to spread the word. This, I believe, is our great call moving forward as Interfaithers. A life without blinders.
I would like to close by reading the first verse of the hymn will sing together in a few moments, for I believe it epitomizes the joy and unity to be found if we will overcome our epidemic of blinders. “No matter if you live now far or near, no matter what your weakness or your strength, there is not one alive we count outside. There is not one alive we count outside! May deeper joy for all now come at length.”
Chanukah is the celebration of the Maccabee victory in the second century BCE over Antiochus of Syria. Antiochus had forbidden Jews to practice their religion and had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Specifically, Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Temple after it had been scoured and again made sacred. When I was a child, Chanukah meant only one thing to me. Presents! Happily, I grew out of that. Chanukah then became the celebration of a miracle. When they rededicated the Temple, so the story goes, there was only enough consecrated oil to last for one day. But the ritual to consecrate the oil took seven days. The miracle? Oil that should only have lasted one day lasted for eight. That’s when Chanukah lost me. Miracles have never been my thing.
I gave up on Chanukah and didn’t celebrate it for years, many years. But there came a time in my life that it occurred to me that Chanukah stood for much, much more than a miracle. I’m not sure any more, but I think it was listening to the song that we will sing shortly, Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” that I was moved to reconsider. And it occurred to me like a thunderbolt of understanding that Chanukah celebrates the first time in recorded history that a people revolted over the right to pray. It’s important to remember that much of history never gets recorded, but still this seemed important. The right of each of us to approach the sacred as we are called, and to pray … or not … as we are called. Ever since then, I have indeed celebrated Chanukah.
This year, particularly, I believe we need Chanukah. For me, the great question of Chanukah is, are we celebrating a Jewish holy day that celebrates a Jewish victory? Or are we celebrating a Jewish holy day that celebrates humanity’s right to worship as we are called. Not surprisingly, it is this second interpretation that both engages me and fills me with hope. For if, as a Jew, my interest in religious freedom stops at my own, it makes me a rather small human being and, as I read the Torah and Talmud, a rather small Jew. But if I look at Chanukah and the victory of the Maccabees as a human victory, not simply a Jewish one, then we create the hope of the Universal Chanukah that I deeply believe we are called to.
Today, at this moment, it is not the Jew’s right to pray that is so endangered in the United States, but that of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Chanukah is, for me, about justice, not simply for Jews but for all. This, certainly, is what “Light One Candle” is about. And since it has been my experience as a choir director that for a congregation singing a hymn it’s harder to concentrate on the words, I would like to sing “Light One Candle” for you. I would ask you to join me in the chorus: “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years. Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.” Let’s start then, with the chorus.
(a link to “Light One Candle” performed magnificently by PP&M)
As everyone here is well aware, last Thursday was a national holiday. We call it “Thanksgiving.” Most of the time, we don’t go a lot further than that in contemplating the day. So this morning I’d like to pose a modestly radical question. “Thanks for what?”
When I was a kid, I tended to think of Thanksgiving as Turkey Day. That’s what we called it. And that was a pretty accurate description. The Thanksgivings I recall were a day to stuff yourself silly. Baked yams dripping in brown sugar. Fresh pumpkin pies piled high with whipped cream. A token vegetable somewhere in the mix. But featuring, of course, a huge turkey. For a family of four, plus two grandmothers, a giant turkey was the gift that kept on giving. Turkey sandwiches for school. Turkey bits and pieces for days afterwards. But it was Thanksgiving dinner where we ate turkey and more turkey, yams and more yams, stuffing and more stuffing –slathered with gravy and more gravy, cranberry sauce from a can, and then, somehow, miraculously finished off with at least two slices of pumpkin pie swimming in whipped cream.
Turkey Day. Yes. But Thanksgiving? I know that for some of us, Thanksgiving is perhaps the one occasion all year where the entire family gathers, sometimes from far-flung corners of the country or even beyond. That is a good and wonderful thing and I don’t want to make light of it. But Thanksgiving for me as I grew older was just one more sign of our American obsession with over-consumption.
Then, as I got still older and learned the history of what United States of America did to the indigenous peoples as it expanded ever westward, Thanksgiving became for me a symbol of imperialism and genocide. This was not something I had any desire to celebrate. My excuse for declining Thanksgiving invitations from generous and well-meaning friends who didn’t want me to be alone on this traditional family day was to say, “Thanks, but I’m a vegetarian.” But my primary reason was I just couldn’t participate. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket on anyone else’s family gathering, but I just couldn’t participate.
And frankly, on this Thanksgiving, when so many are so overwhelmed by fear and hate that they are apoplectic over the thought that 10,000 refugees, 10,000 out of the millions of refugees who are fleeing for their lives, might after a two or three year vetting process be allowed to settle in the United States, I think it is not unreasonable to ask the question: “Thanks for What?”
It is frustrating and for many of us, myself included, depressing. And yet, “Thanks for What?” For a lot. There is much to be grateful for, and that’s really where I want to spend our time today.
Just a few moments ago we sang a hymn together. “Let Freedom Span Both East and West.” “In beauty, wonder, everywhere, let us communion find; compassion be the golden cord close-binding human kind. Beyond all barriers of race, of color, caste or creed, let us make friendship, human worth, our common faith and deed.” Yes, I am grateful for the hymn. But what I am truly grateful for is a congregation that can sing it, and mean it, and live it. I am so very grateful for each and every one of you. Muslim, Jew, Christian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Pagan, Secular Humanist, Seeker. We come together in joy, not conflict. We come together to share, not to convert or convince. We are a living example of how things can be. Please don’t ever underestimate that. It is indeed reason to be grateful.
I am also grateful that, as many of you know, there are people around the United States and Canada and even one or two countries beyond this continent who are now at work forming Living Interfaith congregations. It ain’t easy being at the beginning of a movement. But as our little seedling begins to grow and bear fruit, it is a lovely thing to see.
And yet gratitude is much more than that. If you’re on Facebook, you’ll know that many people have taken up the challenge of thirty days of gratitude: three things, every day, that they are grateful for.
Thirty days of gratitude? What about a lifetime? What??!!! The truth of it is, gratitude does not come easily to us. There’s an old adage, “There’s rarely a law against something unless people are doing it.” I would add a corollary. Our spiritual paths rarely nag us about something unless people aren’t doing it. And sure enough, the two things our spiritual paths, all of them, nag us about most are to love one another and to be grateful. Now we’ve hear a lot about love and compassion here, so today let’s look just a bit deeper at gratitude.
Of course, you can combine love and gratitude. As Abdu’l-Bahá of the Baha’i faith so succinctly put it “The best way to thank God is to love one another.”
Yet, the truth of it is, we humans are an ungrateful lot. … And so the nagging begins.
From Judaism, “Be not like those who honor their gods in prosperity and curse them in adversity. In pleasure or pain, give thanks!”
From Islam, “It is God who has made the night for you, that you may rest therein, and the day, as that which helps you to see. Verily God is full of grace and bounty to men, yet most men give no thanks.”
Ok, so we’re ungrateful. But humanity cries back in protest, “Have you looked at my life lately? Why should I be grateful?”
The Hindus offer this as a reason, “When a man is born, whoever he may be, there is born simultaneously a debt to the gods, to the sages, to the ancestors and to men.”
Frequently we reply, “I have so little, and you ask me to be grateful?” Let’s for now leave aside the wealthy among us who still find it so very hard to part with a dime to give to “others.” But for the rest of us, here is how Christianity replies:
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
From Buddhism, “One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.”
Ok, a whole lot too many “he’s” in these and not enough “she’s”. But for me, all of this begs the really big question. Why is it so hard for us as a species to be grateful? Why is it that our spiritual paths have to keep coming up with reasons we should be grateful? Why is it that our paths all continually nag us to be grateful? Now in truth, I have yet to find anywhere in any of our Scriptures the words, “Damnit, be grateful!” But it’s implied.
And as I ponder this, I have a thought. I do not propose it as “the” answer, which I’m sure is shocking. But I think it is an answer. It is an answer to why we are so rarely grateful.
We humans are a small, fear-filled race. Truth be told, we are afraid of our own shadow, and petrified by the shadow of others. The last thing on earth that we want is to be reminded of just how small and fearful we are. And gratitude, at its core, reminds us. When we say “thank you” we acknowledge that we needed something.
Gratitude and humility are for me brother and sister. They both remind us of just how small we are. And we don’t like that. It makes us insecure.
If you’ll recall the puff fish, that puffs itself up when frightened, that’s us.
Gratitude, real gratitude strips us of our puffery. So when we ask others and ask of ourselves to be grateful, to give thanks, we are in point of fact asking others and ourselves to give up puffery, to live our lives without puffery.
That, to me, is what scares so many Americans and not just on this Thanksgiving weekend. And let’s spread the wealth, we’re not just talking about Americans. I think of Puff the Magic Putin as an international example of the perceived need to puff oneself up and be ungrateful.
So on this Thanksgiving weekend, what I’d truly ask us to think of, to ponder, to work at, is living lives of humility and gratitude. In the Christian tradition, folks often “give up” stuff for lent. What I’d ask of us is to give up puffery for Thanksgiving. Let us be humble. Let us be grateful. And I repeat, because I mean it from the very core of my being, let us begin by being grateful for the people in this room
In that spirit, and before we sing our song of praise and closing hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a wonderful song of gratitude, I’d ask us to start a new tradition. A while ago we passed the peace. I’d ask us now to pass the thanks. Please, shake hands if the spirit moves, or hug if the spirit moves. But let us stand, look each other in the eyes and just say, “Thank you.” No more. Just, “Thank you.” It sounds simple. I think we will find it very powerful indeed.
Let us stand and pass the thanks.
(After the passing of the thanks)
Having just recited the United Nations Charter, two things come to mind. First, what a tremendous charter: it sounds so very wonderful. Second, signed 70 years ago this past June, it sounds very much like fantasy. The real United Nations has become a place where some people make sweeping speeches, while others blow off steam screaming at one another, and little if anything constructive appears to get done. Sounds a lot like the U.S. Congress.
Except, of course, it’s no joke. After two world wars and continuous wars in between and after, we are still a world divided and fighting … always, fighting. Killing. Why? Why??
No, I’m sorry to say I don’t have an answer to world peace to offer to you today. But I do think it’s important to take the time to ponder this – not every day, or we’d never get anything done, but from time to time. And this United Nations Day seems like a good time. We humans are a small, fragile, fear-filled race – afraid of almost everything, and most especially afraid of each other. We have been for centuries, millennia, indeed ever since we came down from the trees and probably even before that. We have banded together in tribes, trying to protect ourselves from “the other” and indeed creating categories of “other” faster than it is possible to track.
We’ve spoken here before about how every spiritual path has called on us, pleaded with us, begged us to come together. Jew, Sikh, Baha’i, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, I’ve quoted them all. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Hiawatha before – the legendary Onondaga chief and founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. So today, let him speak for all of our spiritual leaders, throughout time. He spoke some five hundred years ago. Yet things have changed so little that it is as if he were speaking before the United Nations today. Perhaps only a word or two would change.
“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. … My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all.”
Today, facing a collapsing ecology and the most destructive weapons ever created, we remain disunited nations, paralyzed by fear, distrust and tribalism. The words of Hiawatha, as well as Jesus, Bahaullah, Muhammad, the Buddha, Hillel and so many, many others notwithstanding.
So what are we to do? What are we to do? This much wisdom I will offer you upfront. Despair will get us nowhere. Neither will a smug and passive optimism. But I do believe that if we will work, if we will rededicate ourselves to the hard work of love, compassion and community, we may yet make progress.
Too often, if we can’t solve something, we throw up our hands and give up. But for me, what we are called to is progress, not solutions. You’ve heard me speak of this before. Our problems are indeed big; but that doesn’t prevent us from nibbling at them. One of my new favorite quotes comes from a Rabbi of the second century. Faced with so much work, even then … so many difficulties, even then … so much to do, here is what Rabbi Tarfon tells us, “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.”
It is not up to us to finish the work, the difficult and daunting work that lies in front of our faces, but that does not give us a free pass to avoid it. It is within that context that I would like to share with you some of the work I encountered at the Parliament of the World’s Religions last week. It was and remains a source of great joy, of renewal and of optimism for me – as long as we will take up that joy, renewal and optimism, take it upon our shoulders as a yoke and do the work. It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to avoid it.
Some of the work being done is by a group that calls itself the Abrahamic Reunion. Palestinian and Israeli, Jew, Muslim, Christian and Druze this is a wonderfully interfaith group that eats together, reads scripture together and walks together, as an interfaith group, hand in hand, down some of the most troubled streets in the Holy Land. They call it that. Not Israel. Not Palestine. Not Israel/Palestine. The Holy Land. Remembering the Buddha and others, I don’t think it’s the only Holy Land on planet earth, but most of us know the violent and hugely troubled spot they refer to and call home. I was able to go to two of their three sessions.
It was inspiring and it was healing to listen to them share their common goal of love, community and mutual respect. I had not heard of them. Not surprising. Our newspapers and television “news” are filled with Netanyahu and violence, not the peacemakers. But the peacemakers are there. Risking their lives daily these men and women are indeed doing the work of justice and peace – in the face of Hamas, in the face of Netanyahu, in the face of a media that considers them unworthy of coverage. Still, they do the work. Daily. Inspiring. It was so inspiring to meet them and shake their hands.
And these were just a few of the participants. There were so many, many others. It was truly exhausting. The Salt Lake City convention center was a huge three floor maze that the best of rats would have been lost in. It was an hour and a half presentation, then fifteen minutes to find your way through the maze to the next presentation. And then the next. And then the next. From morning into the night.
Cathy and I were there for four exhausting days. One plenary session as well as several presentations were devoted to income inequality, not as a political issue, but as a deeply spiritual one. Yes, we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And it is good to be reminded of this. “Me, me, me” and “more, more, more” may well be the way of Madison Avenue, but it is not the way of our spiritual teachings.
Other plenary and smaller sessions were on dealing with climate change as a spiritual issue – a moral obligation to our children and their children to leave them a good and habitable world.
A full day was devoted to the positive and important role of women in spiritual matters – including … gasp! … leadership. These were but some of the back to back to back sessions on spiritual matters as diverse as the people attending – some 10,000 people from more than 80 countries, representing over 50 spiritual paths. But the exhilaration of the four days more than made up for the exhaustion that we experienced. And it was on that fourth day that Cathy and I were privileged to give our presentation on “Spiritual Humility: The Faith of Interfaith.” And I’d like to share a little about that.
The first forty-five minutes of our presentation were spent talking about Interfaith as a faith and answering questions. Good questions. Questions that showed that people were not only paying attention but involved. During the second forty-five minutes, we offered an abbreviated Living Interfaith service and answered more questions. With an abbreviated service, those lucky folks got a five minute homily from me instead of a twenty minute sermon. You should have been there!
And I would like to share with you some of the uplifting things from that came out of the presentation. First, in a moment of reckless optimism, I prepared forty Orders of Service. We ran out! There were sixty people attending. A few people didn’t care for it, but the overwhelming majority were very enthusiastic. Afterwards, three people spoke to me about starting a Living Interfaith congregation in their city. They were more than serious, they were eager. I am quite confident that they will follow through. When I got home, there was an e-mail awaiting me from a fourth person, who had been at the presentation but hadn’t spoken to me. She’s already an ordained minister. And she wants to start a Living Interfaith congregation in her city.
My publisher was there. And let’s be honest, not just for me! Many of their authors, including my friends Jamal Rahman and Ted Falcon were there giving presentations. The publisher brought as many of my books as they reasonably thought they might sell. They sold out.
This is no endorsement of me. It is an affirmation of Interfaith as a faith. It is an affirmation that what we have been doing here for the last five years has indeed blazed a trail for others to follow – and they are following it. I know it hasn’t always been easy. Being first rarely is, particularly if it involves a paradigm change. But this indeed is an affirmation that now is the time for Living Interfaith to spread.
So we, here, each and every one of us are doing a part of the work of healing the world. Every time we come together to celebrate each other’s spiritual paths, we are doing the work of helping to heal the world. When I tell people how many spiritual paths are represented by our small group they are amazed. When I share with them that we not only honor each other’s spiritual traditions but indeed respect and celebrate our diversity they are floored. It is a new paradigm. It’s a new paradigm whose time has come.
That doesn’t mean we are free to stop. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a massive amount of work yet to be done – a daunting amount of work. Cathy and I came home from the Parliament a day early in order to attend the fundraiser for the Interfaith Family Shelter and support their important and so very much needed work. But understand, that because of what we do and our success in doing it, word is spreading. We are becoming, if we will stay with it, a movement.
Now, will Interfaith save the world? No. Is Interfaith “the solution”? No. Will Interfaith sweep the world, at last uniting the nations and bring peace and love and joy to this troubled planet? No. Darn! But Interfaith, and the spiritual humility that forms its core and foundation, can give us a way to speak to each other, to listen to each other, and at long last begin to disassemble the machinery of spiritual fear that has made the human race so vulnerable to violence and to hatred.
And what this wonderful Parliament of the World’s Religions, that brought together 10,000 people from over 50 spiritual paths from all over the globe, has shown us is that we can come together. We can listen to each other. We can share safe sacred space and do the work of healing that we are called to. May we continue to do so.
At the Living Interfaith presentation (by Steven Greenebaum and Cathy Merchant) a half hour service, including crucial the crucial elements that help to make Living Interfaith services safe, sacred space was offered. This included a short homily on spiritual humility that is included here.
Today we have called for spiritual humility in how we view the wondrous diversity that is humanity’s approach to matters spiritual. Some very honest folks have said to me, “I like the idea, but …” and then they explain to me a belief from a spiritual path not their own and they tell me, “I don’t believe that! How can you ask me to respect something I don’t believe?”
It’s a good question. The answer to it lies at the very heart of spiritual humility. And not being able to find a workable answer lies, I believe, at the heart of so many of our spiritual difficulties, even amongst those of us who truly seek compassionate understanding. So, if you will, indulge me with a small, possibly helpful parable.
Imagine we live in a city that has on one side a great cement wall. The wall is a mile or so thick, so there’s no hearing anything from the other side. It’s several miles high (and let’s assume no satellites), so there’s no peering over it. And it appears to go on forever either direction, so there’s no getting around it. So there’s no way of observing what if anything is on the other side. Being human, “What’s on the other side?” becomes something we very much want to know!
One day, a deeply spiritual man that we all respect goes to the wall. He sits, meditates and prays … and he realizes that there is a great sea on the other side, with amazing sea creatures. Now we know.
But some time later, a deeply spiritual woman that we all respect goes to the wall. She sits, meditates and prays … and she realizes that yes, there is a great sea on the other side, but it is a sea of grass, a huge prairie, with the most amazing prairie animals. Ok. A difference has developed. But at least we know there’s a sea of some sort on the other side.
Yet later another deeply spiritual man that we all respect goes to the wall. After praying and meditating, he realizes that there is no sea on the other side. There’s no sea of grass or water, but sky, with clouds and creatures we could never have imagined.
“Sea Believers” are sure this must be wrong.
Still later another deeply spiritual woman that we all respect goes to the wall. She meditates and prays. Then she meditates and prays again … and again. At last she realizes there is NOTHING on the other side of the wall. Nothing. No sea, no land, no sky. It’s empty. These other believers are simply deluding themselves.
Knowing humanity, sharp divisions will soon develop in our city, followed by arguments, disrespect, and perhaps even killings over who’s right. And people seeking power will leap at the chance to exploit our divisions.
And here’s the thing. There’s no way to know. Maybe there is a sea of some sort on the other side. Maybe there are clouds. Maybe there’s nothing at all. And maybe what’s on the other side is something no one could ever possibly imagine.
Spiritual humility is my realizing that whatever I believe, it remains a belief. It is not knowledge. No matter how much I revere the deeply spiritual foundations of my beliefs, and speaking for myself I do revere them, they are still not knowledge. This doesn’t make my beliefs any less important to me. My beliefs make me who I am. What spiritual humility requires of me is to recognize without prejudice or hierarchy the diversity of our beliefs. The fact that I don’t believe something, doesn’t make it wrong. What remains crucial for us all is what we do with our beliefs. And that is the great call of this Parliament, what we do when we get home to help make our world a little more loving. One helpful way to approach what we do is with spiritual humility.
We begin our sixth year today, six years of coming together to celebrate each other’s spiritual paths without hierarchy. That we gather today ever so slightly auspicious because tomorrow night is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have to admit, the fact that we humans have so many different New Years always brings a smile to my face. The Chinese New Year, the Roman New Year, adopted by Christianity as the New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Jewish New Year. And we’ve only just begun, as the Carpenters used to sing – does anyone even remember the Carpenters? And it’s intriguing to me that among the myriad of things that we cannot agree about, our differing traditions can’t even agree on when the New Year begins.
Every culture has its New Year, every culture has its reset button if you will. So does nature. It’s called: spring. Ok. Last year … over! Let’s begin again. And like nature, we need it. We need that reset. We need it if it was a spectacular year, to remind us not to get caught up in our successes. We need it if it was a particularly bad year to allow us to say, ok, new year, new start.
But to move forward, I believe we need to do more than just acknowledge a new year and turn the page. Most if not all of our spiritual paths recognize that without forgiveness, there is no reset. Or, as Desmond Tutu titled his book on South African reconciliation, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” For me, one of the great shadows over our future at this moment in history is all too often an almost willful absence of forgiveness and concurrent with that, an almost willful absence of the willingness to admit to mistakes and sometimes misdeeds. The two, unfortunately, go together: unwillingness to forgive and unwillingness to admit to mistakes, and both take as away from the sacred.
The Sikhs tell us, “Where there is forgiveness, there is God Himself.” … or Herself. I rather like the Jain approach, “Subvert anger by forgiveness.” But then, I’ve always been gently subversive at heart. The Baha’i urge us not to look at the shortcomings of anybody – to “See with the sight of forgiveness.” There’s a Buddhist saying that also calls to me. “If we haven’t forgiven, we keep creating an identity around our pain, and that is what is reborn. That is what suffers.” There are many, many others, of course. But I’d like to move to Islam.
The Qur’an of Islam teaches us, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.” For me what is so fascinating is the tie between “If we forgive” and then “God forgives.” Again, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.”
I was walking the other day with my good friend Chris Boyer, the minister here at Good Shepherd, and shared with him what I found to be a powerful part of the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It sounds so simple. But I don’t think it is.
It seems to me that that is inviting God to forgive us in the same manner in which we forgive others. Which of course means that if we are stingy and mean-spirited in our forgiveness of others, we are saying to God, go ahead and be stingy and mean-spirited your forgiveness of me – not something most us are hoping for, at least I don’t think so. But it draws the connection between how we treat others and how we should be treated. I see The Lord’s Prayer as the Golden Rule, this time applied to forgiveness. Forgive others, as you would be forgiven. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It tends to put a whole new face on it. God will treat us as we treat others. Yikes! Or, as the Qur’an puts it, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.” And, of course, both Christianity and Islam get the idea from … Judaism.
In Judaism, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. We have, according to tradition, those ten days to clear the air, to clean the slate – to ask for forgiveness and to be forgiven. More about that shortly. But again, according to Jewish tradition there’s an angel that looks at what we do, how genuinely we’ve atoned and how genuinely forgiving are we, and then decides if we’ve truly repented our transgressions or, if you will our trespasses, and then either inscribes for us in the Book of Life a good New Year to come, or one that is not so good.
The greeting in Judaism is, L’shana tovah tikasevu or tikatevu depending upon whether your Hebrew is Ashkenazic or Sephardic. But we won’t worry about that. This is the song we sang just a few moments ago. “L’shana tovah tikasevu” may you be inscribed for a good year. There’s a lot behind that greeting, because, again, according to tradition, you will only be inscribed for a good year if you have sincerely asked for forgiveness and have also freely forgiven those who have genuinely asked you for forgiveness. “L’shana tovah” is the typical greeting that Jews use when they see one another this time of year. But now, as they say, you know “the rest of the story.” It’s not so simple as “Hello” or “Happy New Year.”
I’ll admit, I wasn’t a big High Holy Days fan as a child. I only attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services because Mom and Dad said, “We’re going!” And as soon I was beyond the clutches of Mom and Dad I stopped going.
It wasn’t until years later that the importance, particularly of Yom Kippur dawned on me. Perhaps that’s because, well, a person needs a certain amount of living behind him or her before it dawns on them that forgiving is one of the things that makes living possible. That holding on to our grudges is embracing a poison.
Most especially, it’s the realization that we screw up. We’re human. We all screw up. If there’s no forgiveness, then there’s no hope – for any of us.
But to ask for forgiveness when we know we’ve wronged someone, this can be hard. It can be humiliating. And to give forgiveness when we have been wronged can also be hard. Sometimes excruciatingly so. But this is what we are asked to do. It’s why they are called the Days of Awe!
And, of course, among those people we need to forgive, perhaps the hardest person to forgive, sincerely and truly forgive, can be ourselves.
Not always though. As one of my favorite teachers in seminary, Sister Alexandra Kovats, was so very fond of pointing out – so much of life is a dance.
I’ve known some people who forgive themselves far too much and far too easily. And I’ve known others who have lived such difficult lives because they never let themselves off the hook. As Sister Alexandra would say, “It’s a dance.” We need to hold ourselves accountable. When we screw up, we need to admit it, both to ourselves and to others, particularly those we have hurt. We need to see what we have done and firmly resolve to do our human best not to repeat it. But if we do this, then Jewish tradition tells us not only that we may, but that we must forgive – truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, even and especially if the one we must forgive is ourself.
That, then, is Rosh Hashanah and the ten Days of Awe that follow.
And after those ten days comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And since we won’t be celebrating that here this year, I’d like for us to do a flash forward and, in a moment, participate jointly in a Yom Kippur ritual.
Behind the ritual is this idea, that the community is one. That we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That as a community we can do well, and as a community we can screw up. This ritual recitation is spoken by the whole of the community because we realize, recognize and celebrate that we are all interconnected.
With that in mind, let us turn to our responsive reading.
O Lord our God, and God of our heritage, we seek Thy help, Thy grace and Thy forgiveness.
We have striven to do right. We have truly tried. Yet much too often we have failed. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
By thoughtless word or deed we have caused those we love anguish and suffering. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
In anger we have spoken and done that which we should never have spoken nor done. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
We have been prideful, and careless of people we have not even met. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
We have been granted a mind, and the knowledge and awareness to make us a steward of the earth – the land, the sea and all that dwell upon it; and yet we have not always acted as a steward. Forgive us. And may the land, the sea and all the creatures that dwell therein forgive us.
Help us to do better.
Help us to cherish and protect the earth and all that dwell upon it.
Help us to see through the eyes of those with whom we would be angry.
Help us to be patient.
Help us to be kind.
Help us to be tolerant.
Help us to be generous.
And help us to remember that we are not perfect, that we will make mistakes, and that each of us is but one person. We cannot save the world alone, nor can we destroy it. But all we do is a contribution. Let that contribution be for good, not ill. Let whatever we may add to the scales, be it twig or boulder, be added to the side of righteousness. Help us to live a life of mercy, and of active compassion, and of love.
There are many reasons that one might wish pause and reflect a bit. One is a heart attack and triple bypass surgery! Another is a dream, a dream almost mystical in nature, that reaches the threshold of five full years of reality. With your permission, it is the second that will occupy our thoughts this morning.
About five and a half years ago, Steve Crawford, Dilara Hafiz and I sat in my kitchen and envisioned a congregation, founded upon Interfaith as a faith. Dilara now lives in Florida, and has found the commute, for some reason, just too much. But Steve is still here. Indeed, barring a revolt at our annual meeting after the service, he’ll be our president next year.
Five years. Five really good years. In five years we’ve gathered and donated nearly three thousand pounds of food for the Lynnwood food bank. We’ve walked the talk, literally, in the annual CROP Hunger Walk, where we regularly outraise churches five even ten times our size in online donations to address world hunger. Our own Rebecca Alder is coordinating monthly burrito rolls, where folks get together to prepare nourishing meals for the homeless and hungry. And we raised enough money not only to be financially solvent, but to begin part one of an Interfaith curriculum, where children will be able to learn about their parents’ spiritual path as well as a multitude of others, with respect and without hierarchy. When completed it will be available on our website, for free, for any community that wishes to make use of it. Not bad for a five year old church!
But more than all of this, for five years we have truly lived our Interfaith. We have practiced Interfaith as a faith. And that remains a wonderful and, frankly, remarkable accomplishment. That’s what I’d like to chat about briefly today, and I do mean briefly, as I’d like to leave plenty of time for celebrating. A fair-traded chocolate walnut pie awaits us.
We’ve practiced Interfaith here for five years and with really very little stress or strain. We were written up in the New York Times. I’ve written two books on Interfaith as a faith. Neither has been a runaway best seller! But people are indeed reading them. And yet, it does my humility good to remember that even now very few people truly get what we’re about. And that’s something to think about this morning. How might we better communicate what we’re about?
There is a growing comfort with interfaith dialogue. This is a good thing – a wonderful thing. Talking is an important step in our not hating and even killing each other over our diverse spiritual paths. When we say that Interfaith as a faith is different than interfaith dialogue, we are not, contrary to our cultural norm, saying that one is better than the other. But they are different.
Someone I used to know was very fond of what he termed “elevator speeches.” What’s your elevator speech? he would ask. How do you explain, whatever it is you are trying to explain, in the time it takes an elevator to go from the second to the third floor? I’ll admit, I frequently found it annoying. It’s our sound-bite world applied to everything. But, annoyance aside, he had a point.
So how do we explain what we’re about, in an elevator or anywhere else?
This might help. It’s a conversation I had between me and myself as I struggled over the past few days to describe the essence of Interfaith, and to do it in the time it takes to travel one floor.
What is Interfaith?
Interfaith teaches that there is no “them,” there is only “us.”
Fine, but what is Interfaith?
Ok, Interfaith teaches that it is not what we believe that counts, it’s what we do with our beliefs.
Fine. That’s what it teaches, but what is Interfaith? Me was beginning to find myself more than a little annoying; but we continued.
Interfaith embraces our spiritual diversity.
Fine. That’s what it does. But what is Interfaith?
Interfaith is spiritual humility. Interfaith is spiritual humility. It is a respect for our varying spiritual paths without prejudice or hierarchy.
I’ve talked with a lot of good people over the years – well intentioned, with big hearts – and I have come to realize that spiritual humility is not only the great call of Interfaith but also the great impediment to embracing it. Humility is never easy. We talked about this more deeply at the last service. Humility is not what we are taught. Intriguingly, it’s what is preached, but it is not what is taught.
I bring this up because I hope many of us will help to spread the word, will speak of Interfaith to others – not as “the” way and certainly not the “only” way but as a positive way forward. You may have noticed that the world is in desperate need of some positive ways forward. And we can help.
One way we can help is by being able to communicate succinctly what we are about. The essence of it, the “elevator speech” is Interfaith is about spiritual humility. That is the foundation of everything we have built on. That is our modestly controversial and definitely difficult foundation stone.
But here we are, five years into the great adventure, living proof of Living Interfaith. Spiritual humility is not only possible – it works. Here we are, from so many differing spiritual paths, coming together to share and learn. There are no sparks here, yet great warmth. Amidst all the diversity, such warmth, such compassion, such unity of purpose.
“Come, come, whoever you are,” as we sing every service. And we come together, committed to each other and to a world of compassion. There is indeed much to celebrate. And I shall never tire of sharing with you what a privilege and joy it is to be a part of this truly remarkable congregation.