Archive for January, 2014

Life Shines Through

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 5th 2014.)

Responsive Reading: #588 in Singing the Living Tradition

While it is generally accepted amongst scholars of the Bible that the Book of Isaiah originates with the eighth-century Hebrew prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, it is also widely known that he did not write the book himself.  What’s more, given evidence such as the sudden change in style and theology after chapter forty, the book as a whole was probably the work of multiple authors.  Its various pieces were then arranged to create an overarching message about life in Israel before and after the Jewish exile in Babylon.

Aside from being the book of the Hebrew Bible most cited in the Christian New Testament — even if, for instance, Matthew gets some of it wrong, such as basing a pretty major claim on the mis-translation of the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word for “virgin” — well, aside from that, Isaiah is foremost amongst the Hebrew prophets in speaking truth to power, calling for peace and justice, lifting up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and taking to task the avarice of the rich and the powerful.  Our responsive reading this morning, then, comes from such a passage on the topic of holiness and righteousness.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Aria: “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

Sermon: “Life Shines Through”

I think it’s fair to say that Leonard Cohen knows his Hebrew Bible.  His mother’s father was a rabbi and his other grandfather was founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.  And as a child, he knew that his surname came from the Hebrew word kohen meaning “priest”, indicating that he was a descendent of Aaron, older brother of Moses and the first high priest ordained by God.

Then there are the Biblical allusions in his songs.  His “Anthem” refers to “the killers in high places say[ing] their prayers out loud”, just the sort of religious hypocrisy called out by the Hebrew prophets — Jesus of Nazareth also criticized such false piety, of course, but he was, after all, a Hebrew prophet, too.

Then there’s the perhaps more subtle line in the chorus: “forget your perfect offering”.  Cohen is arguing against anything being perfect, and in fact that’s a good thing, because “that’s how the light gets in”.  The mention of perfect offerings is in reference to the Biblical requirement that any sacrifice must be pure and unblemished, and that the person making the sacrifice must be similarly clean and perfect.  Such requirements of perfection are impossible to meet, of course, but even when we know that, it can be very hard to let go of the idea that everything we do should be perfect.

That’s particularly the case when that’s something that’s drummed into us as children.  The British equivalent of high school that I attended had a song that we only sang three times a year, at the end of each school term.  It was printed in a little book that contained helpful information about the school, the teachers, our fellow students, and so on, but we were supposed to have the song memorized so that we didn’t need to refer to the book to sing it.  It was called “Heroes”, a portion of a longer poem by Victorian playwright Robert Browning, but even just those sixteen lines were hard to commit to memory, consisting as each did of twelve or thirteen syllables of floridly dramatic language.  But I remember parts of it even now, including the last line: “my heart and soul applaud perfection, nothing less.”

If having that as our school song wasn’t setting up impressionable teenagers for failure, I don’t know what was.  Appreciating perfection in terms of the ideals of good and beauty, of bravery and dedication, sure, that’s a positive message for teenage boys to absorb, but the implication that “nothing less” than perfection will do?  Well, I have to wonder how many of my classmates struggled with perfectionism in later life.  Aiming high?  Nothing wrong with that, so long as there’s at least some realism in there.  Aiming for perfection while shackled to the idea that anything less than a perfect outcome is unacceptable?  That’s a recipe for disappointment, procrastination and depression.

I’ve certainly found myself in situations where I’ve struggled with this.  On the one hand, really putting in the effort to make something as perfect as possible could make a real difference, and often the paper I was writing or the experiment I was doing or the computer program I was coding or the piece of equipment that I was building turned out much better than if I’d been more willing to settle for something “good enough”.

On the other hand, there were times when trying to get something perfectly right made things worse, when my frustration caused me to make mistakes or give up too early or not even try.  When I was twelve or thirteen I was asked to do a reading at the memorial service of another boy from my school who had died from cancer.  I was so worried about doing it right — so scared, in fact, of mucking it up — that I didn’t even look at the reading until the day of the service, at the rehearsal only an hour before. So yes, at the service itself I came close to mucking it up, thanks to my own unreasonable expectations.

Even without being so afraid of being imperfect, there’s always the risk of not having enough time, at least not for the perfect when something “good enough” would be just fine.  For example, when Scottish engineer Robert Watson-Watt was leading the development of the British radar system in the 1930s, he knew that his researchers were up against a rapidly growing Nazi air force.  Given enough time, they could have built the perfect system, but they knew that war could be declared at any moment, so instead they embraced the imperfect but good enough: “Give them the third best to go on with,” Watson-Watt advised; “the second best comes too late, [and] the best never comes.”

There’s another saying that someone shared with me a number of years ago that has stuck with me: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I first heard this in a small group that met around the subject of Voluntary Simplicity, something that is frequently misunderstood as purging almost all possessions, going to unreasonable lengths to live more lightly on the Earth, and frankly depriving oneself of anything that brings happiness or comfort.  In fact, that’s the opposite of Voluntary Simplicity.  Rather, as explained on the blog entitled “Choosing Voluntary Simplicity”, it’s really about “figuring out who you are and how you really feel.  What is important to you?  What do you strongly believe in?  What do you see as a worthwhile use of your time and your money?  What really makes you happy?

What we talked about that time in that small group was that it’s all very well to have a dream of living the perfect life, whatever that might mean for you, whether it’s quitting the rat-race and working for yourself, or growing and preparing all of your own food, or slowing down and living fully in the moment, or devoting yourself to great causes, but getting there is a process, and it takes time.  Try aiming for the perfect as if it were possible to leap there directly, without going through many intermediate stages of good and better and even better along the way, not to mention some inevitable set-backs as well, and the result may well be disappointment, procrastination and depression.

This is particularly important to keep in mind when it comes to making the world a better place, where it seems like there are so many things wrong that it’s easy to be frozen into inaction as if the only option were to fix all of it, in one go.  It doesn’t help that so much injustice is a result of interlocking systems, whether it’s the renewed disenfranchisement of women and minorities as voters, the erosion of the middle class and unions and public education, this economic “recovery” that has only really benefited the people who were doing well anyway, the attacks on reproductive rights and even contraception in the name of religious freedom, the millions of people still without access to health care except through the emergency room, the demonization of immigrants and the working poor, and so on.

For those of us fortunate enough not to be particularly impacted by so many problems, but who are at least willing to try to fix them, it’s all too easy to be convinced that we can’t, or that what we can do isn’t worth it.  That’s the way that systems of oppression work, of course.  But then there’s the fact that I should really have said “for those of us fortunate enough to not yet be impacted”, so not doing anything is a luxury we can’t afford.  As put best by co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

Over the next few weeks, then, we’re going to address some of the different pieces of this, and think about what we can do that will make a difference without setting ourselves up for failure by holding unreasonable expectations.

Our service theme for the month of January is justice.  Next Sunday, Jennifer Ryu, my colleague at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, will be preaching here as part of a pulpit swap that we’re doing.  Jennifer’s sermon will look at how religious diversity is a key part of a strong democracy and ask how we UUs can deepen our interfaith work.  The following Sunday I’ll be preaching about the Thirty Days of Love, which is an interfaith public advocacy campaign running from the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to the weekend after Valentine’s Day.  It invites us into a month of intentional action, service, education and reflection as we grow the Beloved Community together.  And at the end of the month you’ll hear from a panel of speakers including our own UUFP Charter Member, about how this congregation has been and continues to be part of the civil rights movement.

Turning to the theme of stewardship in February, you’ll hear from local UU Margaret Sequeira about marriage equality, including the fact that her own marriage is legal in California but not here in Virginia.  (Someday it will be of course! The Defense of Marriage Act is history and seventeen states and counting, plus the District of Columbia, now recognize the right to marry!)  And I’ll wrap up the Thirty Days of Love with a service as part of the interfaith National Preach-In on Climate Change, joining a thousand other clergy around the country to offer a religious response to what has been called the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.

Of course there’s more to this than what is said in this room on a Sunday morning. Unitarian Universalism is not a faith content to sit and contemplate its own navel; it’s a faith that demands to be put into action.

So on January 21st, I’ll be in Richmond for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People, a day of advocacy at the state capitol.  Hopefully you saw the recent e-Flame article about the UU Legislative Ministry of Virginia that is participating in the Day for All People in order to support legislation that would allow eligible immigrant youth to attend Virginia’s colleges.  And I’ll be back in Richmond on January 28th for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action, which is about advocating for bills supporting equal rights and legal protections for all Virginians regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Then in February I’ll be in Raleigh, North Carolina, answering a call from my colleagues to participate in what is being billed as the “most massive moral rally in the South since Selma!”  Though prompted by a number of social problems in the state, the driving force for what has now been a series of demonstrations is North Carolina’s voter suppression, including reducing early voting, requiring unreasonable identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud), and penalizing students for voting on campus.  And that matters here, because Virginia’s neighbor to the south is essentially being used to test such measures before they are also introduced in other states.  And on Valentine’s Day, I’ll be at the courthouse here in Newport News, taking part in a witness organized by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, and supporting same sex couples applying for marriage licenses or requesting that their marriage in another state or DC be recognized here, too.

So, my stole and my “Standing on the Side of Love” clergy shirt are going to be out in public a lot during the next few weeks.  It won’t just be me there, though.  I know that I’ll be seeing a lot of those yellow T-shirts at these events, too, some of them worn, I’m sure, by some of you.

Of course I don’t expect any of these events to suddenly bring about massive changes that usher in a new age of love and abundance.  Even the most idealistic organizer doesn’t expect that to happen.  Chances are that the events themselves won’t go completely according to plan in all their details, either.  But that’s okay.  Because speaking up matters; and even if there’s nothing to say, showing up matters; and if your life doesn’t allow you to be there in person, supporting those who are there matters.  Expecting everything to be perfect would only be setting ourselves up for failure, and there’s too much work to do for that.  Rather, we should have reasonable expectations of making mistakes.

But making mistakes doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  Mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world, so long as, like Beatrice Bottomwell, “the Girl Who Never Made Mistakes”, in the children’s story this morning, we’re willing to learn from them.

Perhaps a decade ago, the three Unitarian Universalist congregations in and around Hartford, Connecticut were partnered with an African Methodist Episcopal church in a coalition known as Congregations United for Racial Equity and Justice.  We referred to it using its initials, because not only do we like acronyms, but in this case we could pronounce those initials (CUREJ) like the word “courage”.

One Sunday afternoon, there was a special service at the AME church to benefit CUREJ, with members of the choirs of the three UU congregations participating.  I arrived with another member of my congregation, but neither of us had been there before, and we were early, so nobody seemed to be about.  We found a door with a doorbell and we rang it, hoping that somebody would let us in from the cold, and shortly we saw a man coming to answer the door.  Well, we thanked him for letting us in, and he welcomed us, and we said we were there for the service.

Now I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I’ve found that sometimes when I’m in an unfamiliar place and I’m not sure what’s going on and I don’t know where I ought to be, well, I lock onto what I think I should be doing because at least I know that much.  I get something like tunnel vision.  And so, on that Sunday afternoon, without further conversation, I blurted out a question to the man who had let us in as to where we could leave our coats.

A number of things happened very quickly.

One was that I realized that this man who had just opened the door for us was the minister.  He was a solidly built African American man, a good half foot taller than me and a couple of decades older than me, and in my semi-flustered state I hadn’t recognized him; he’d done pulpit swaps with my minister, so I’d seen him before, and I should have recognized him.  Then I saw that he was staring at me in disbelief.  Then I was aware of the racial undertones in what I had just done.  Then I saw him look to the other member of my congregation, an Asian American woman who was a local judge, and something I thought was confusion crossed his face.  And then he let out his breath and told us he’d show us where we could leave our coats.

Everything that happened in those few moments has stuck with me: my sense of the awkwardness, the sheer brokenness of that situation heightened by the fact that I was actually there for a service dedicated to racial equity and justice, and with one unthinking question had reduced this proud man to a coat-checker.  It’s a lot more subtle than, say, passing laws deliberately intended to disenfranchise a whole demographic of people.  I have since learned that I committed what is known as a micro-aggression, a small indignity that, even if unintentional, nonetheless communicated an insult.  Remembering that, I try to pay more attention to how I am treating other people, and it’s one of the reasons why, in becoming a minister myself, doing justice work, and being a part of a congregation that does justice work, is so important to me.  We may not do it perfectly, but it matters that we do it.

I’m going to conclude with a parable that I’ve heard in a few different forms, though it’s generally said to originate somewhere in Asia.

A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole that he carried across his shoulders.  Every day the water bearer carried the pots down to the stream, filled them, and carried them back to his master’s house.  Now one of the pots was perfect and always delivered its full portion of water.  But the other pot had a crack in it, and it leaked, so at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot had only half its water left.

This took place every day for two years, with the water bearer only delivering one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house.  Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, of how it was perfectly fulfilling the purpose for which it was made.  But the cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and was miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been created to do.

So after two years of what it perceived to be failure, just as it was about to be filled from the stream, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer.  “I am ashamed of myself,” the pot said, “and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the water bearer.  “What reason do you have to be ashamed?”

“For these past two years,” the pot replied, “I have delivered only half my load of water, because this crack in my side causes it to leak out all the way back to your master’s house.  You do all that work, but because of my flaws you don’t get all the results you deserve.”

The water bearer felt sorry for the cracked pot, and spoke with compassion.  “Let us return to my master’s house, and as we go I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”

So they went back to the house, and this time the pot noticed the beautiful flowers growing in the warm Sun along the side of the path from the stream.  And the pot cheered up a bit from seeing them.  But when they reached the house, the pot still felt bad for having again lost half its water along the way, and so again it apologized to the water bearer for its failure.

Then the water bearer said to the pot, “Didn’t you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other side?  That’s because I have always known about your flaw, but I put it to good use.  I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day as we came back from the stream, you watered them.  For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table, and without you being just the way you are, there would not have been such beauty.”

The moral of the story, of course, is that all of us have our own flaws and imperfections.  We are all cracked pots.  But it’s those cracks that are part of making us who we are.  They may seem inefficient or even useless in certain areas of our lives, but they can turn out to be blessings in disguise, and they remind us to have a little more compassion for one another, and for ourselves.  Nobody is perfect, and not only is that okay, but sometimes it’s even a good thing, particularly when life shines through those flaws, blessing us with miracle, inspiring us with mystery and supporting us with love.

So may it be.

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But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 8th 2013.  At the time, it looked like a military strike by the United States on Syria was imminent; that’s no longer the case, though Iran is now the object of our saber-rattling instead.  The first service used a pre-sermon reading while the second used a multigenerational drama to tell the story.  Both are included here, but you can jump down to the sermon.)

Reading: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Harper was born in 1825, the only child of free African-American parents living in Baltimore.  During her long life, both before and after the Civil War, she applied her skills as a writer and a public speaker in political activism for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights and women’s rights, and for other social causes.  She died nine years before women gained the right to vote, and her funeral was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where she had been a member.

Harper wrote “Songs for the People” at the very end of her life as “the culmination of [her] literary goals as well as her self-conception as a writer, speaker and activist”.

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of [all]
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and agèd,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of [all] grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

~ ~ ~

Drama: “Jonah” (based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Book of Jonah)

Scene One: In Jonah’s Home

Jonah is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper, the Joppa Daily Press.  A prominent headline says, “Wickedness on the Rise in Nineveh?”

Narrator:  Now the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah son of Amittai.

God:  Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Jonah:  Do I have to?  It won’t do any good, you know.

God, a little taken aback:  Wait; what?  Why do you say that?

Jonah:  Er…  Well, look.  You are a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

God, flattered:  Well, that’s kind of you to say so.  Ahem!  In any case, [speaking more commandingly] you will go at once to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness!

Jonah:  But I don’t want to go to Nineveh!

God:  Tough luck, sunshine.  That’s an order.  Now go!

Narrator:  But Jonah decided instead to flee to Tarshish, hoping that there he would be safe from the presence of God.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board.

Scene Two: In the Hold of the Ship

Jonah is asleep in a chair to one side of the platform.  The mariners, including the captain and the sailors, are huddled fearfully in the middle.

Narrator:  Now God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm arose that it threatened the ship.  The mariners were afraid, and each cried to his own god as they threw their cargo into the sea, to lighten the ship.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and was fast asleep.

Captain:  Okay, what’s next?  What else can we throw overboard?

Sailor #1:  Captain, look!  There’s that passenger we took on in Joppa.  How is he managing to sleep through this storm?

Captain, waking Jonah:  What are you doing?  Get up, call on your god!  Perhaps your god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.

Sailor#2:  Captain, we’re out of cargo, and out of ideas.  I think we should cast lots.  Then we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.

The captain produces a handful of sticks.  Everybody takes one and then holds it up for the others to see.  Jonah’s is shorter than the rest.

Captain:  Tell us why this calamity has come upon us.  What is your occupation?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  And of what people are you?

Jonah:  I am a Hebrew.  I worship the Lord who is God of Heaven and Earth, who made the sea and the dry land.

Narrator:  And the mariners grew even more afraid.

Sailor #3:  Oh, that doesn’t sound good.  What is it that you have done?

Jonah, sighing in resignation:  I am fleeing from the presence of God.  [Looks sheepish.]  Didn’t I mention that as I was getting on board?

Captain:  No, you didn’t!  And look, the sea is growing more and more tempestuous!  What should we do to appease your god, that the sea may quiet down for us?

Jonah:  Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.

Sailor #4:  Captain, we’ve tried rowing as hard as we can to bring the ship back to land, but the sea is too stormy against us.

Sailor #5:  We don’t want to perish on account of this man’s life, but we don’t want to be guilty of spilling innocent blood either!

Narrator:  But they knew that God had brought the storm on Jonah’s account, so they picked him up and threw him into the sea.  [The mariners push Jonah off the stage.]  And the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the mariners feared God even more, and they offered praise and made vows.  And God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in its belly for three days and three nights.

Scene Three: In the Belly of the Great Fish

Narrator:  Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the great fish.

Jonah:  I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.  You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.  I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.  As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.  Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.  But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Narrator:  And the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah a second time.

God:  Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Jonah:  Okay, if you let me out of this great fish I will, sure.

God, skeptically:  No running away this time?

Jonah:  Nope.  I’ll go.  I could do with a hot meal, too, if you want to throw that in.

God:  Don’t push your luck.

Narrator:  Then God spoke to the great fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Scene Four: In Nineveh

Jonah is off stage.  The people of Nineveh are going about their business on the platform, while the queen of Nineveh sits on a chair to one side.

Narrator:  So Jonah went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord his God.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, requiring three days to walk across it.  Jonah went into the city, going a day’s walk.  And he cried out,

Jonah, stepping onto the platform:  Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

Narrator:  And the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s words.  They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the queen of Nineveh, she rose from her throne, covered herself with sackcloth, and had a proclamation made in Nineveh.

Queen of Nineveh:  By the decree of the queen and her nobles:  No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who knows?  God may relent and reconsider; God may turn from this fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Narrator:  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God reconsidered the calamity that was to befall Nineveh.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah:  O Lord my God!  Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord my God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry?

Narrator:  But Jonah did not answer.  Instead, he went out of the city and sat down to the east of it, making a booth for himself there where he could watch the city.

Scene Five: In Jonah’s Booth

Jonah sits on a chair in the middle of the platform.

Narrator:  Jonah sat, waiting to see what would become of the city.  Meanwhile God appointed a bush, and made it grow up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  And as the Sun rose, God prepared a sultry wind from the East, and the Sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.

Jonah:  It is better for me to die than to live.  For I can’t help but feel, O Lord my God, that you’re just messing with me.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah:  Yes, angry enough to die.

God:  You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

~ ~ ~

Sermon: “But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!”

One of the traditions of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is that the Book of Jonah is read at the afternoon prayer service.  It’s one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible, but it tells a great story that many people have heard — or, at least, they’ve heard part of it.

I remember, as a young child in Sunday school, hearing the story of Jonah and the Great Fish.  It’s certainly a tale that captures the imagination, particularly the part about being swallowed by a large sea creature as a key stage of character development, something that’s been used in stories from Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.  In the case of Jonah, this half of the story appears at first sight to be simply about refusing, but ultimately accepting, responsibility.

Jonah hears God tell him to go and be a prophet, but he doesn’t want to do that.  Rather than heading east, inland, to Nineveh where he’s been told to go, he tries to head west, across the Mediterranean, to what is now Spain.  That’s not part of the divine plan, of course, so God hurls a storm at the ship to stop Jonah from getting away.  After arguing about what’s going on, Jonah finally admits to being to blame for the storm, and the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard.  The storm ends, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, where he is kept for three days and three nights while he thinks about what he’s done.

The reluctant prophet is a fairly common theme in the Bible, of course.  Being a prophet isn’t supposed to be a happy, healthy occupation.  When you go up against wealthy and powerful people who aren’t treating their fellow beings very well, telling them to mend their ways can get you into a lot of trouble.  As for Jonah himself, he seems to be a good person, taking ownership of his decision to run away, holding himself accountable for the storm, offering himself up to the sea in order to save the mariners, and eventually agreeing to accept the responsibility that had been given to him.  But that isn’t the end of the story.

For all that the first half of the story seems to be a fairly straightforward tale of someone running away from great responsibility, that’s hardly what the second half of the story is about.  And it’s certainly not a typical story of wicked people refusing to listen to one of God’s own prophets.  So let’s think about what the person who wrote the story, and wrote it something like two-and-a-half thousand years ago, might have been trying to say through the whole book, not just the first half of it.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, when he’s barely gone any distance across it and has only said what in Hebrew is just five words, he has the most amazing success of any prophet at any time in history ever.  The people of Nineveh change their ways instantly.  They refuse to eat or drink, they put on sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes, and even the animals fast and repent and go into mourning, too!  But is Jonah happy with his amazing success?  No, he is not.

In fact he’s not just unhappy with it, he gets so angry about it that he can’t see the point in living any more.  He thinks that God is taking it way too easy on the people of Nineveh.  If it were up to Jonah, in fact, he’d give them what they surely deserved for their wicked ways, rather than letting them off so easily.  God asks Jonah if he’s really justified in being so angry, but rather than answering, Jonah leaves the city, finds a place to sit and watch and then, well, he sulks.

So now it’s God’s turn to teach Jonah a lesson.  First, a bush grows up, in just one day, right next to where Jonah is sitting and sulking, and it gives him some shade from the Sun.  Well, he likes that.  It’s hot out there, after all.  But then a worm eats away at the roots and just as quickly the bush dies.  Now Jonah is getting hot and sunburned and thirsty and faint.  Angry about the bush, Jonah again says it’d be better for him to die.

Finally God tries to put it all into perspective for him.  If Jonah was concerned with a mere bush, which he didn’t plant and he didn’t help to grow but he received its benefits anyway, why shouldn’t God be concerned about a whole city full of people and animals?  The people of Nineveh didn’t know good from bad — they even thought it would be a good idea to dress the animals in sackcloth, after all — but at least they were trying.

So maybe the story isn’t really about Nineveh.  Other Hebrew prophets certainly denounced the city’s wickedness and described its inevitable demise, something that did happen when the Assyrian Empire disintegrated.  Since that empire had previously destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there was definitely no love lost there.  Rather, having Jonah go to hated Nineveh just makes all the more incredible the amazing success of one lone Hebrew in convincing them to change their ways so easily.

And moreover, given Jonah’s evident personality flaws when everyone else in the story — from the ship’s captain and the mariners, to the people and king and even the animals of Nineveh — ends up being saved from perishing, a number of rabbis and other religious commentators have identified the Book of Jonah as a form of satire, poking fun at someone who was a lousy prophet in spite of his success.  I mean, never mind that he saved more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls: Jonah ends up arguing with God about a plant.

So maybe the entire story is actually about getting Jonah to be a better person.  Perhaps the fact that he had such unbelievable success — not to mention being swallowed whole by a never-before-or-since known giant fish — means that it was actually a nightmare-ish dream that Jonah had, and maybe it helped him to realize that he shouldn’t be quite so self-righteous or judgmental toward others.

As Unitarian Universalists, of course, we are called to make courageous choices that lead to greater justice.  That’s because Unitarian Universalism is a prophetic faith, in that we are called to speak truth to power, to try to make the world a better place in everything we say and do.  But we have to be careful not to end up like Jonah, sitting in the Sun and sulking because our own self-righteous need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s a lot in our world, in our nation, in our state and in our town that needs our help to get right, but we are called to offer that help from a place of love, and to do so with compassion and kindness.

Now in about ninety minutes’ time, this is where our staging of the Book of Jonah — the drama that takes the place of this sermon in this morning’s second service — will come to an end.  That’s appropriate for a multigenerational service, telling a story that starts with a well-known tale before telling the rest of it that isn’t so well known, and then thinking about what it means and what lessons it has for us today, some two-and-a-half thousand years after it was written.  But as I prepared for these services this week, I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough for this sermon.  I realized that I couldn’t just leave it bundled up so neatly with a shiny bow on top. Real life isn’t like that.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in the last decade of a life filled with ceaseless struggling for freedom and justice, declared that

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

I’d love to be able to create or even play music that could do that.  Since I can’t, I appreciate it even more when people like B— and C— share their gifts of music with us.  But I also try to bring about some of the same effects using spoken words, even though they’ll always be, as far as I’m concerned, a poor substitute for “music, pure and strong”.  So I strive for sermons that are like Harper’s “songs for the people”, calling us to embrace a “more abundant life”, helping “hearts [to] relax their tension”, raising “anthems of love and duty”, and leading us into a vision of the future that “girdle[s] the world with peace.”  But I’ve realized that I can’t do that this morning unless I respond to something that is going on right now, something that is causing a number of people within this community considerable heartache and anguish, and that’s the possibility of a US attack on Syria.

Now I know you don’t come to church to get a debate about current affairs.  If that’s what you wanted on a Sunday morning, you’d stay home and watch television rather than come to services.  Or maybe you do that before you came here or after being here, but you’re not here for more of the same.  But I don’t want to talk about the politics of such foreign policy.  That’s not why I’m here either.  I’m here to be your minister, and the e-mails I’ve received and the posts I’ve seen on Facebook tell me that some sort of pastoral response to this situation is required.

So here’s my response.  I don’t want us — by which I mean both the United States as a nation and also all of us as individuals — to be like Jonah.  And I don’t mean the nice Jonah who ran away from what he thought was his responsibility, the brave Jonah who becomes a sort of role model to Sunday school children because, well, it can be hard to do the right thing sometimes.  No, that’s not why Jonah ran away.  He didn’t run away because he was afraid of trying.  He ran away because he wanted so badly to see Nineveh destroyed that he didn’t want to be any part of offering it any possibility of being saved.  Reading it in English it’s not clear, but the Book of Jonah actually uses the same Hebrew word to describe both the wickedness of Nineveh and the angry sulking of Jonah himself.

Now, Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, released on Friday a statement “urg[ing] the Obama administration to explore and then exhaust all peaceful diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the ongoing violence in Syria.”  Also on Friday, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee released a statement “call[ing] on the president and Congress to ensure that any American actions taken are designed to protect the rights and lives of the Syrian civilians above all other considerations and to conform with international humanitarian law.”  And Jim Wallis, one of the few outspoken liberal evangelical Christians, whose opinions and work with the Sojourners Community I respect even though I usually need to translated his theology into my own, notes that what is happening in Syria “is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response.  Doing nothing is not an option.  But [… our] first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy.  […]  The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict.

For myself, I have a hard time believing that the missile strikes that are being proposed will do much good, either in helping the Syrian people being currently brutalized by the Assad regime or in contributing to the long-term security of the United States.  My understanding is that there are still options available through the United Nations — including some ways to make Russia take responsibility for its actions in supporting Assad — and for that matter the United States could choose to join — or re-join, actually — the International Criminal Court.

Now I realize that not everyone who is part of or connected to the Fellowship sees the situation the same way.  Perhaps not all of you listening to me now agree with me either.  That’s okay.  I didn’t get up here this morning thinking that I could say a few words and — lo! — everyone’s hearts and minds would be magically changed.  It’s okay for us to disagree, and I preached about how to do just that a few weeks ago, after all.

What’s not okay — in this, or in any other matter of dispute — is for us to cast one another as Nineveh, to refuse to stay connected to one another for fear that we might actually help someone redeem themselves.  We wouldn’t want to end up like Jonah, sitting all alone and sulking because our need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s so much in our world, in our nation, in our relationships with one another that we can get right, but only if we locate ourselves in a place of love, reaching out to one another with compassion and kindness.

So may it be.

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The Work of Christmas


For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“When the song of angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among sisters and brothers,
to make music in the heart.”
— Howard Thurman

I am writing this on what is known in my native England as Boxing Day.  Traditionally the day when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts from their masters or other employers, I remember December 26th growing up as being a lot like a second Christmas Day.  Relatives would still be staying with us, so there’d be more big family meals, more time with the presents we’d unwrapped the…

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