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.


  1. Reblogged this on The INSPIRE Movement and commented:
    So inspiring, I had to share this sermon…

  2. […] January 5th: “Life Shines Through” […]

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