Posts Tagged compassion

Seeking a Song of Love

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

A hand that’s warm in friendship strong,
that lifts us up when things go wrong
and builds a church where — more than creeds —
we count our blessings in good deeds:
our hands can offer hope’s embrace
to make the world a better place.
— additional fifth verse to hymn 300, “With Heart and Mind”

While in Denver for my seminary studies at the Iliff School of Theology, I also worked for the Mountain Desert District, first as Youth Chaplain and then as interim Youth Ministry Coordinator.  Working with teenagers and their UU congregations from New Mexico to Wyoming, from Texas to Utah, I witnessed their youthful struggles with matters of personal and religious identity, with questions of morality and justice, and with attempts to put their hopes and aspirations into words.  In other words, exactly the same…

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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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Appreciation and Encouragement

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

I attended my first General Assembly in 2001.  The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association were meeting that year in Cleveland and I stayed with a group of Ohians I’d met through the World Pantheist Movement.  I probably could have gone to GA as a delegate of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, but I’d only just become a member there and I was still figuring things out.

I was excited to be going to my first General Assembly, and a few months before I had filled out the registration form with considerably more anticipation than I did those of any of the academic conferences I was used to attending.  When the form asked for a title to go along with my name, I didn’t think much of putting “Dr.” in the box.  From what I already knew of the…

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How to Listen

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 4th 2013.)

Reading: “Deep Listening” by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton

Sermon: “How to Listen”

About ten years ago I worked in a university research group that met at lunch-time each Friday for a presentation.  The food — usually pizza — was provided and the presenters were often people from inside the group but were sometimes researchers visiting us from elsewhere.  The typical format had the presentation itself lasting around forty-five minutes and then there’d be time for questions and general discussion.

The room where we met was perhaps half the size of this Sanctuary, a simple rectangle with a screen on one side and tables arranged in a squared-off ‘U’ shape so that people could sit and eat and listen to the presenter.  Maybe it was the intimacy of the space, as distinct from the anonymity of, say, a big lecture hall, but it wasn’t unusual for people to interrupt the presentation by asking questions.

After being in this research group for a while I noticed something.  Sometimes the questions were simple requests for clarification or for the presenter to repeat something.  More often, though, the questions were more involved, and either distracted from the point of the talk or pre-empted what was going to come next anyway.  In those cases it was clear that the person asking the question wasn’t really listening to what the presenter was saying, and was instead thinking about the question they were planning to ask.

Now this sort of thing is to be expected in an academic setting, where ideas are supposed to be debated and tested and compared so that bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can be made better.  And in everyday life, we’re used to the back-and-forth of conversation as a dialogue, where giving advice or making suggestions is usually okay, and where whoever is not speaking at any given time is more often than not thinking about what they’re going to say next.  This is what might be called “regular listening”, though it’s really characterized by the basic sensory experience of hearing rather than the intentional, conscious act of listening.

Then there’s what is called “active listening”, which is what is supposed to take place in a classroom or a learning circle or during counseling or therapy.  Here the focus is on particular subject matter or issues.  The content of what is being said is evaluated by the listener, and may be reframed or reflected for clarification.  There is also a concern for the consequences of the conversation, in that its purpose may be to teach something or to develop understanding.  It’s called “active” listening in contrast to a passive activity where what is said is simply heard; rather, the hearer becomes a listener by actively engaging with what is said.

That’s all well and good.  Both regular listening and active listening have their value.  In a congregation such as ours, for instance, regular listening is the casual conversation that takes place before, between and after services, right outside the Sanctuary doors.  It’s the “small talk” that comes into the building with us as we arrive for a meeting, letting us catch up with what is going on in one another’s lives, helping us to feel connected to the people we know and like and love, and conveying in whatever words are actually spoken a simple yet essential reminder: “You are human and so am I.”

Active listening, meanwhile, takes place in RE classes and discussions, in presentations and workshops, in committee meetings and planning sessions.  Active listening is essential if information is to be conveyed, if knowledge is to be gained, if action is to be taken, or if decisions are to be made.  Active listening, in other words, is essential to the success of the business of the congregation, whether that’s providing hospitality on Sunday morning or developing programs for advocacy and outreach or funding a healthy budget that enables our mission and ministry.

But here’s where we run up against an important truth.  All of that business is in support of something other than itself.  And reminding one another that we’re human is a start, but not an end.  If the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, then we need more than either regular listening or active listening can provide.  We need what we call “deep listening”.

As doctor and author Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give one another is our attention.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.”

Deep listening is different from regular listening in that there is no conversation.  Dialogue, in fact, tends to get in the way, because when you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not actually listening.  And deep listening is different from active listening in that what is heard is not evaluated or judged, but simply accepted with attentive compassion.  It focuses on individuals and their experiences and their feelings about those experiences, and it is never, ever about offering advice or making suggestions or trying to “fix” the other person.

Now I’m more than willing to admit that this doesn’t come naturally to many of us — and that certainly includes me!  But it is something that, like most things, we can practice and get better at doing.  So I’d like us to do just that, right now.  Actually I’d like you to practice “active listening” first, since I’m going to give you some instructions I’d like you to follow, but I want you to hear the instructions in full before you start following them.

In a moment I’m going to ask you to pair up with someone sitting near you.  Whether you already know them or not doesn’t matter.  And if you don’t want to take part in this, that’s perfectly fine; just make that clear to the people around you.  Once you’ve found another person, decide between the two of you who will be speaking and who will be listening.  Then the speaker should start speaking, and what you’re going to speak about is something at least reasonably meaningful that happened to you during the last week.  Talking about something emotional is okay, but if the only thing on your mind has a particularly strong emotional charge, you should probably be the listener for the purpose of this exercise.  The listener, then, should simply listen.  No questions, no verbal responses, no conversation.  Just listen, deeply and compassionately.

After a minute or two, I’ll ring the bell.  (That may not seem like a whole lot of time, but remember that the point of this is not to convey information or an entire story about your daily life.)  At that point, the speaker should stop speaking, and now the listener will name the feelings that came across.  Was the speaker sharing a happy experience?  Or a sad one?  Was there regret or joy or fear or hope in what was spoken?  Simply name the feelings that you heard.  If there’s only one to name, that’s fine.  Then I’ll ring the bell again, and we’ll continue the sermon.

So now, please get into pairs and begin the exercise.

[The exercise took place!]

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has explained that “We hear with one aim only; we don’t listen in order to criticize, to blame, to correct the person who is speaking or to condemn the person.  We listen with one aim, and that is to relieve the suffering of the one we are listening to.”

Now unless those of you who were speaking were sharing a recent experience that troubled you, you may not feel that you had any suffering that needed to be relieved.  But I hope, at least, that in speaking you felt affirmed and sincerely heard.  I also suspect that, for more than a few of you, this may be the first time you have had someone else simply listen to you, without judgment or agenda.

As President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, has noted, people are now more isolated than ever before.  A 1985 survey asked participants how many people they knew in whom they could really confide; the most common answer was three.  Repeating the survey in 2004, the most common answer was zero.  Morales has called this “our greatest challenge”, that, in this age of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter, we are, in his words, “the most emotionally isolated human beings who have ever lived on this planet.”

As part of our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we offer facilitated opportunities to engage in deep listening, to bring people together simply to listen to each other, accepting one another’s words with compassion and without judgment, in the form of small group ministry that we call Fellowship Circles.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I have invited some of the participants from last round of Fellowship Circles to share their experiences with you this morning.

[Read on the UUFP e-Flame the testimonials offered by four UUFP members: “Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles”, “Turning Strangers Into Friends”, “The Quiet Heart of Our Beloved Community”, and “A Deeper Perspective”.]

Small group ministry affirms right relationship as a basic practice of life together, a way we live our faith that goes beyond petty pride and vanity to allow joy and pain to be genuinely shared, striving to be our best selves in fellowship with one another.  As we prepare to begin another round of Fellowship Circles this Fall, my question to you is not, “Do you have time to be a part of this?”  Rather, my question is, “Do you have the time not to be a part of it?”

I remain convinced that small group ministry is one of the most important ways we can save ourselves and our world.  Participants in our Fellowship Circles offer one another a safe space where they can share what is truly in their hearts, and that is the greatest gift that we can give one another.  As writer and behaviorist Margaret Wheatley declares, “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.  Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.”

May it be so.

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How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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Riding on a Donkey

(A sermon for Palm Sunday delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 24th 2013.)

As with the “nativity” story of the birth of Jesus, each gospel that starts the New Testament describes the events of Palm Sunday in different ways.  Just as the accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are blended together in the popular imagination to form the usual Christmas story, so are the four versions of Palm Sunday often combined into a single narrative.  Here is one way that might be done.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, they first reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.  Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you and, as soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone questions what you are doing, just say this, ‘The Lord needs it but will return it.’”  For as it was said by the prophet Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, for your king is coming to you!  Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

The disciples did not understand at first, but they went ahead and found a donkey tied in the street, near a door.  As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said, and the bystanders allowed them to take it.  Then the disciples brought the donkey to Jesus.  They threw their cloaks on its back and he sat on it.

Now many people had gathered for the festival.  Hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from palm trees and spread them on the road as well.  And as they took the path down from the Mount of Olives, all of the disciples began to speak loudly of the deeds of power that they had seen.  Soon the crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those who followed after him were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But he answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  And the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, we can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept for it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Then Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the whole city was in turmoil, with people asking, “Who is this man?”  Others from the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus went into the Temple.

Christian churches around the world are today celebrating Palm Sunday, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, and looking ahead to the unfolding of Easter in a week’s time.  In those churches there’s usually some sort of procession, whether that’s just the children or the clergy and other worship leaders or even the whole congregation, everyone holding palm branches and singing solemn music appropriate to the day.  Palm branches — or, in colder climates, branches from trees such as yew or willow — are also used to decorate church sanctuaries.  Having been blessed with holy water, the branches are then carefully stored until the next year, when they are burned to make ashes for use in services on Ash Wednesday.

The story that’s told on Palm Sunday comes from the Bible, of course, specifically from those four books at the start of the New Testament that are known as the gospels.  The word “gospel” comes from Old English, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”, and came to describe a particular form of early Christian writing that includes those first four books of the New Testament.  There were other gospels that weren’t chosen for inclusion in the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and though there was strong opinion within the early Christian community that there ought to be four and only four gospels, it took a few centuries for the list of books in the New Testament to be officially recognized by the Church.

Now each of the four official gospels tells more or less the same story.  It’s perhaps not that surprising that the gospel accounts are different from one another, of course, since each gospel was apparently written with different purposes in mind.  Some of those differences may surprise you, but in each case, the story is rich in symbolism, including signs that perhaps Jesus was not to be the kind of king the people were expecting.

The oldest of the four gospels is named Mark.  Like the other names attached to the gospels, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the book itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, which is thirty-some years after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity or his role as a messiah.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells the people he heals and the demons he drives out to keep quiet about what he did and who he is.  Jesus uses many parables in his preaching, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, it’s clear that they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark is really written for people who already understand who Jesus is, so the gospel only needs to serve as a reminder of certain details, rather than as a book that can be read by anyone.  It’s not surprising that, though the oldest gospel, Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is short and to the point.  Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey that’s never been ridden before, then he rides that donkey while people put their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of him, calling out “Hosanna!” and blessings on the coming kingdom.  This gospel’s account of Jesus’ arrival ends rather abruptly, though.  “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  All that fuss, and he just turns around and leaves again!  As I say, pretty mystifying.  The next day Jesus comes back to the city, stopping on the way to curse a fig tree for not having any figs on it before driving the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple.  The cursing of the fig tree — all the more bizarre because “it was not the season for figs” — is one of the few destructive miracles attributed to Jesus in the official gospels — the unofficial gospels have more — and is explained — to the extent that Mark explains anything — as foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew’s account is clearly based on Mark, but with a few differences.  Now this gospel was written a decade or two after Mark’s gospel, incorporating much of Mark as well as some other source material called “Q” that also shows up in Luke’s gospel.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, perhaps one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups following the destruction of the Temple.  As such, the gospel rarely explains Jewish customs but goes to great lengths to connect the events of Jesus’ life and death back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various Hebrew prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity as such existed, with the gospel’s purpose apparently being to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

As such, it’s not enough for Matthew that Jesus has the disciples run ahead to find a donkey that’s never been ridden before, a reference to Jewish sacramental practices that require clean and unblemished animals.  No, Matthew also needs to explain that this took place to specifically fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah.  The weird thing is that Matthew misunderstands those words.  You see, the actual lines from the book of Zechariah (9:9) are as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now there’s a structure in Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in a couple of slightly different ways for emphasis.  The prophet Amos, for instance, spoke of “justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” as two sides of the same coin describing a community based on fairness.  Zechariah was emphasizing the nature of the animal — a lowly donkey that had never before been ridden — an animal that in Eastern traditions represented peace, as opposed to the horse which represented war.  In the context of describing God’s inevitable victory over Israel’s warring neighbors, Zechariah really wanted to make clear that this would come about through peace and demilitarization, rather than through the escalation of violence, so the symbolism of the donkey as an animal of peace is really important.

Unfortunately, all of that is simply lost on Matthew, who only sees Zechariah’s words as a Nostradamus-like prognostication that just needs to be fulfilled in order to prove a point about Jesus.  Perhaps worse, Matthew fails to understand the poetic device of parallelism and instead takes Zechariah literally!  Matthew actually has Jesus send the disciple to find two animals, a donkey and a colt, which they do, and then he rides them both at the same time, presumably like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

Somehow Jesus makes it to Jerusalem without falling off and breaking a hip.  Matthew, unlike Mark, has people identify Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth, after which Matthew has him enter the Temple and immediately drive out the money-changers and the vendors.  Matthew has Jesus curse the poor fig tree the following day.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating the “Q” material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.  We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the book as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated, dedicating it and Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, to somebody called Theophilus.  That may have been the author’s patron or, since the name simply means “lover of god”, it may have been anybody looking for the sort of theologically sound, historically accurate account that Luke claimed to be.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem initially follows Mark’s very closely, and does not quote Zechariah.  As the people are calling out their blessings, though, Luke has the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop.   He refuses, saying that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out instead.

Then Luke includes an extensive lament by Jesus, weeping for the city of Jerusalem and its refusal to recognize the signs of peace, namely Jesus — the heir of King David — riding a donkey — the royal animal of peace.  Luke has Jesus speak of an assault on Jerusalem as punishment for its failure to recognize him as God’s emissary.  Jerusalem had, of course, fallen and its Temple destroyed by the time Luke was written.  Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus then immediately enter the Temple and drive out the vendors, but unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke does not include anything about the cursing of a fig tree.

Finally, we come to John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, they’re known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be seen together, or read in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and the exorcisms.

John is believed to have been written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  This gospel may have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society, having difficulty in particular with antagonistic synagogue authorities, given John’s portrayal of hostility between Jesus and other Jews.  Still, John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is preceded by his raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, a story that isn’t found at all in the other three gospels.  For John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most important signs that convinces people to follow Jesus.  John reports that, out of fear of what the Romans might do to them and the Temple, the priests and the Pharisees plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too.

John explicitly notes that it is a week before Passover when Jesus comes back to Bethany and then heads into Jerusalem.  John is the only gospel that specifically mentions palm branches, giving Palm Sunday its name.  Palm branches were traditionally used as a symbol of triumph and were probably meant to recall the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks a couple of centuries before, representing the people’s hopes that Jesus would similarly defeat the Romans.  Like Mark and Matthew, John has the people calling out “Hosanna!” which rather than meaning “Hooray!” is actually from the Hebrew for “Save us, we beg you!”

Now John has Jesus finding the donkey himself, and then quotes a simplified version of Zechariah that avoids confusion such as  Matthew’s over how many animals were actually involved.  Perhaps in subtle criticism of the earlier gospel-writers, John comments that the disciples didn’t understand this at first, but only figured out what it meant later on.  Then John has people speak about how they’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead, something that grows the crowd even more.  Finally, the Pharisees complain to one another in resignation that there’s nothing they can do.

John does describe how Jesus drove the vendors and the money-changers out of the Temple, by the way, only as an event very early on in his public ministry, around the time of a previous Passover.  Scholars debate such differences between the gospels, of course, and what they might mean for the chronology of Jesus’ life.

There are lots of questions that, without some sort of time machine, will never be answered when it comes to ancient texts such as the Bible.  Like it or not, though, it’s such a part of our culture in this society that it’s important for all of us to have some level of biblical literacy, whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or even Jewish.  Most Unitarian Universalists do not, of course, and have long since rejected the Bible as unhelpful or even untrue.

In a time when “religion” is all too easily used to oppress rather than to liberate, though, it’s particularly important to understand the Bible and what it says and where it came from so that others can’t use it against us in support of their own bigotry and small-mindedness.  The four stories about Palm Sunday are, I think, a good place to start, given the similarities and the differences between the stories as well as the important symbolism.

There’s the fact that all four gospels agree that Jesus was riding on a donkey, for instance, an animal of peace rather than an animal of war like the horse.  Given cultural traditions, including the writings attributed to Zechariah, the gospels agree that Jesus’ mission was all about peace.  This was not supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the victory of armed might, but a plea for peace, whether that’s between the world’s nations or between the various factions within Judaism itself.

Three of the gospels have the people calling out “Hosanna!” which comes from the Hebrew meaning “Please save us!”  Someone arriving in great power, with swords and other weapons, and certainly riding a big horse rather than a donkey, would have seemed a much better candidate for Messiah, I’m sure.  Perhaps the people were too wrapped up in their stories of how Judas Maccabæus had defeated the Greeks, driving them out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple as a Jewish holy site.  Perhaps they were thinking of how King David, who was said to be Jesus’ ancestor, had even as a young boy defeated much stronger soldiers like Goliath.

For me there are eerie parallels with some of the ways that, even in our modern world, we tend to pin our hopes on people we single out as special, casting them in the models of our heroes of the past and then, when they inevitably fail to deliver the miracles we demand of them, we crucify them.

By the end of that Passover week, of course, the Romans had executed Jesus, betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.  The triumph of Palm Sunday turns into the tragedy of Good Friday.  But let’s resist the urge to jump ahead to Easter.  Without that time machine, of course, we can’t know if any of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are remotely accurate accounts of actual events or are, as some people claim, complete fictions.  For me, it doesn’t really matter either way.

I can still learn something and find inspiration in the stories.  What I read in them is a message about the importance of loving one another and living in peace, or at least trying to.  Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things about Jesus, but we can at least think of him as someone who said some important things about being kind to one another, about treating one another fairly, about standing up for what we believe in without giving in to violence, and about the power of love to conquer everything, even death.

This Palm Sunday, may that be the “good news” we remember in the days and weeks ahead.

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The Messiah Is Among You

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 27th 2013.)

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger monks began leaving in dissatisfaction.  Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more.  Eventually only a handful of elderly monks remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the monastery’s decline on the faults and failings of the others.  Their leader, the abbot, didn’t know what to do.

Now an old friend of the abbot’s was a rabbi who had recently retired to live in a small cottage near the monastery.  After years of only seeing one another when the abbot had cause to travel into town, they were able to renew their friendship with more regular visits.  The rabbi and the abbot would sit together, drinking tea and remembering the good old days back when they were both students.

On one of his visits to see the rabbi, the abbot brought up the problems at the monastery.  This was not the first time the rabbi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the abbot specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other monks that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.

Hearing the abbot’s question, the rabbi was quiet for some time, sipping his tea as he thought.  As the silence stretched on, the abbot couldn’t contain himself.  “Don’t you have some advice that might save my monastery?” he begged his friend.

“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from an observation.”

“Yes?” said the abbot hopefully.  “Have you noticed something about the monastery that we ourselves have not?”

“I think so,” answered the rabbi, “and it is this: the Messiah is among you.”

That abbot was initially lost for words.  It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “The Messiah is among us?  But who is it?”

“As to that,” the rabbi replied, “I cannot say.  But I know that it is true beyond all doubt.  The Messiah is among you.  Share this with your monks and in time the truth will be revealed.”

Well, the abbot couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.  Taking one last gulp of tea, he thanked his friend profusely, jumped up out of his chair, grabbed his coat and, without even taking the time to put it on, ran out of the cottage and across the meadow.  Arriving breathlessly back at the monastery, he managed to convey to the first monk he saw that he wanted everyone to meet in the chapel.  By the time they arrived, he had recovered enough to address them.

“My brothers,” the abbot said, “I have incredible news.  I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following.  The Messiah is among you.”

The monks immediately started talking.  “One of us?  Here?  But who?  How can that be?”  Raising his hands to quiet them, the abbot explained what the rabbi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their work while they reflected on the amazing news.  And as the monks did their chores, each wondered to himself.

“It couldn’t be Brother Samuel, could it?  He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals.  But then, he brings such lovely flowers to decorate the tables.”

“Surely it’s not Brother Albert!  He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude.  But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”

“What about Brother Leo?  He’s always dirty, and he smells bad, too.  But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”

“And I can’t believe it’s Brother Thomas!  He always spills ink all over the desk where we write out the scriptures.  But then, his drawings and decorations of the scripts are so vivid and beautiful.”

The monks continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the Messiah, but none of them came to any conclusions.  Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the Messiah in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the Messiah in one another’s voices.  And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case.

And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the monastery, and they began visiting more often.  And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay.  And the elderly monks and their abbot found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the monastery thrived.

[This is one variant of the same story found in many places, including Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain.  Some story-tellers give credit for the original story to Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque NM.]

I first heard this story a few years ago and it stuck with me.  It speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, I think, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.

That idea of the Messiah comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one”.  It refers to a king or a high priest traditionally annointed with holy oil, and in the Hebrew Bible is used to refer to a number of people, including the non-Jewish king, Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from their exile in Babylon and commissioned the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  More often, though, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king, of the line of David, who will rule the reunited tribes of Israel and usher in an age of world peace.  As such, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, that describe the qualities and actions of such a leader.

Now somewhere in the third century Before the Common Era, scholars in Alexandria began the process of translating the Torah into Greek, since, as legend has it, the Jews living in Egypt at the time were not fluent in Hebrew, whereas Greek was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  By the time of Jesus, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became known as the Septuagint, was already in wide use by Jews all around the Mediterranean, including those living in Palestine, which is unfortunate because the Septuagint has a number of mis-translations.  One of those, for example, is the sentence in Isaiah that, in the Greek, refers to a messiah being born of a virgin, whereas in the Hebrew the word translated “virgin” doesn’t mean virgin at all but rather means a young woman of child-bearing age.

In any case, the Hebrew word “mashiach” was translated into Greek as “khristos”, which also means “anointed one”.  So when a new religion started to emerge around the idea of Jesus as the anointed savior, he was given the honorific “Christ” and his followers called themselves “Christians”.  And yet, since Jesus hadn’t fulfilled many of the expectations of the Messiah, those early Christians assumed that he would soon return to complete all of the prophecies.

In other words, while the rabbi and the abbot in the story could both come together over the idea of the Messiah being hidden in their midst, the difference was that for the abbot it would be the Messiah’s second coming whereas for the rabbi it would only be his first.  Either way, as the story goes, the possibility that any one of the monks might be the Messiah causes them all to pause before judging one another, to focus more on the good aspects of each other’s character and behavior, something that would be nice, of course, if we could all do it all of the time.

Now in Unitarian Universalism there is no Messiah concept as there is in Judaism or Christianity.  I don’t know when it dropped out of our common theology, though I’m guessing that the Universalist side of our religious tradition held onto it longer, given that the Unitarian side emerged from Christianity around the primary faith claim that Jesus was, in fact, fully human, rather than God incarnated in human form.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to believe in a Messiah as such to arrive at the place where we can treat one another kindly and fairly in spite of our faults and failings.  There are, after all, other faith claims — or, at least, other religious metaphors — that might work just as well.

For instance, one of the things I remember a former minister of mine talking about was the idea that there’s a spark of the divine within each of us.  Actually I remember hearing that idea from a local rabbi, too.  It’s a more Universalist idea than it is Unitarian, another version of the claim that we are all children of God, and the beauty of that, for me, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a literal faith claim or a religious metaphor.  What does matter is how we treat one another, and if we can see something of good, of value, of worth, even of divinity in one another, then maybe we’ll treat one another accordingly.

Actually, the same faith claim is already familiar to us, just in more humanist language.  Rather than referring to the spark of the divine within each of us, we can speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of each person”, but it’s just another version of that same classical Universalist claim that we are all children of God.  And it’s no accident that the promise that goes along with that Principle is to “listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others”.

So why did I end our Responsive Reading with what is otherwise the First Principle, and thus the First Promise, rather than putting them, well, first?

There’s a school of thought within and beyond Unitarian Universalism that, out of all Seven Principles, the one that is truly theological is the seventh, which speaks of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Some people have suggested that it should actually be listed first, since it’s the foundation and context for the other six principles.  That’s why I listed the Promises in reverse order, moving from the interdependent web of all existence, the grandest scale of being imaginable, down to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

For as I have claimed before, our inherent worth and dignity only makes sense within the larger context of our interdependence, calling us to relate to one another in life-affirming ways.  So I was glad to see that the promise that goes along with the Seventh Principle is to “live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community”.  But what does that mean?

Well, in the words of welcome that our lay leader spoke at the start of the service, you heard one meaning of that.  “The Fellowship is working to integrate reverence, gratitude and care for the living Earth into everything we do.  By committing to sustainable lifestyles as individuals and as a faith community, we are on the path to official recognition as a Green Sanctuary congregation.”  Doing the intentional, soulful work required to become a Green Sanctuary is indeed one way that our own church community aspires to live lightly on the Earth.

But there’s another side to what it means to be a church community living with awareness of the interdependent web of all existence, and that’s to recognize that we, here, in this congregation, form our own interdependent web in miniature, and awareness of that relates directly to how well we truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This was brought home to me in a particularly clear way about a year ago, when the Board was evaluating me as part of the final phase of assessing my fellowship as a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUFP Board included this comment in their evaluation: “Rev. Millard needs to continue to remind each of us about the larger mission of the UUFP and that our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”

“Our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”  I think that’s what the monks in the story discovered for themselves.  They didn’t have any understanding of their interdependence, so they needed someone to point them in the right direction so they might discover it for themselves.  The rabbi’s observation that “the Messiah is among you” prodded them into being more careful in the ways they related to one another, and ultimately that allowed them to be more caring, too, finally able to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of one another, no matter their apparent faults and failings.

The monks had a big advantage, though.  They were already on the same page theologically in terms of what they believed about the Messiah and what would be appropriate behavior toward the Messiah.  The rabbi’s observation, then, was all that was necessary to help them behave in those same ways toward one another.

I think a similar case can be made for us on the basis of our Seven Principles, but it’s not nearly so simple.  Belief in an anointed savior figure who will return in glory to bring peace to the world is, for many people, very compelling; for some people, in fact, it may be the only thing that keeps them going in life.  Our Seven Principles, however, are not nearly so compelling.

Oh, intellectually they’re very reasonable.  The ideas they contain are certainly big and important, but at face value they’re also mostly abstract.  The words themselves are hardly poetic.  As promises that congregations make to one another in order to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, and even rewritten as promises that we make to each other as individual Unitarian Universalists striving to grow the Beloved Community, we need to find ways to internalize them, to truly make them part of our souls, rather than leaving them as rather abstract ideals with which we agree intellectually but don’t always live.

And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Charles Wesley’s hymn, “I Want a Principle Within”, quite apart from the great tune to which it is usually sung.  Because, aside from Wesley’s eighteenth century obsession with sin and temptation and more sin and the blood of Jesus, he really was expressing a yearning for the strengthening of his own moral compass to help him find the good at those times when his own heart and mind would wander away from his best self.  I like to think that one of the most important things we can do as Unitarian Universalists is cultivate such a principle within ourselves that helps us to figure out right from wrong.  Yes, these written Principles, these mostly abstract and regrettably unpoetic words, speak to important truths, but reading them, even saying them out loud together, is only the first step in a journey together, a long journey that involves removing the splinters from our souls.

And how do we do that?  Well, only at each and every moment of our lives.  Let me give you a simple example.

Within the first few months of living about a mile the other side of Warwick Boulevard from here, I became convinced that I knew where, one day, I would die.  And that’s because, on those days when I drove to work, I had to get across the intersection on Warwick to get here, and then to get home again.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the turn lanes on the side streets either side of Warwick don’t quite line up, and not having any signals on is, I have discovered, an indication to most other drivers that I intend to turn right.  Or left, for that matter, but definitely not straight, and cars would regularly cut across the intersection in front of me — or screech to a halt when they noticed that I was actually going straight through.  After a while, the urge to honk was too much for me to withstand, and often there was swearing involved, too.

Well, sometime last year I realized that I ought to be better than that.  Rather than getting angry and impatient, I decided to try compassion instead.

If someone didn’t understand what my lack of signaling meant, well, I could wait patiently until I knew what they were going to do first.  If they really had to cut across the intersection in front of me, well, I could hope for them that they reached their destination safely.  If it took me a few more seconds to get to the office or to get home, or even a couple more minutes if I missed the light, well, I could be grateful that my commute was barely one mile.  And maybe it’s just me, but it has seemed to me lately that more of the people coming to that intersection from both side streets, most of whom are turning left or right onto Warwick, are better at letting cars go straight across, and, for that matter, better at signaling their own turns, than they were a couple of years ago.

I’ve tried the same change in attitude in other settings, too — when I’m on the telephone talking to someone in customer service about some frustration, for instance.  I don’t always succeed — I’m the first to recognize that I’m no saint — but whenever I can, I remind myself to look for the spark of the divine in the other person, and to treat them accordingly.

This is something that we can all do, at each and every moment of our lives.  You can start by picking one person with whom you interact and, without telling them, imagine what it might mean if they were the Messiah.  Try looking for that spark of the divine in them.  Think about what it would really mean to truly believe in their inherent worth and dignity.  See how it changes your behavior toward that person if you can see them in that way.  And if you notice that you’re treating that person more kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, try it with other people, too.

For this is the soul work that we are called to do.  In our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we are called to cultivate a spiritual health that is not only good for our congregation but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  Everything we say and do is a chance to grow the Beloved Community, bringing the interdependent web of all existence into our hearts and minds and hands so that we might know one another’s inherent worth and dignity.

So may it be.

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