Listen to this sermon here.
That story is one of my favorites, I’ve told it a few times here.
In this season where we are making lists of all the stuff we’d like to receive or do, things that would feel like a treasure to us – this is a good story to remind us that the “gold” we are seeking often can’t be bought in a store, or even online, and isn’t even a matter of that mythical dream of “completing our to do list.”
But hearing the story this time, I kept getting stuck on how angry that guy must be.
I seriously never thought of it before, but this guy, he’d been sitting there for 30 years (!) starving, and then this other guy comes in and basically mansplains his solution. He spent three decades begging, sitting, striving, longing, waiting for the change to come. When in reality that whole time, he was literally sitting on everything he needed. The story says he was elated but really, how could he not be furious?
Even when the outcome is good, plot twist can still feel traumatic.
I know, it’s a new month, and a new theme – but I have to confess, I’m still not done processing last month’s theme – which was story – and really, just last month entirely…. And that plot twist we all experienced.
In many ways I appreciate the fast pace of life today – it suits my ever-present sense of how short life is and how much there is to do……but also, sometimes even I feel like it would be good if everything could slow way down. Like, if we could hit the global pause button for like, a year, that would be good for everyone – don’t you think? Like, a global time out. Where stuff could stop happening, and we could just take in and absorb where we are, all that’s happened, like, forever, we could take each other for coffee and clean out one another’s basements – literally and figuratively….
But of course life doesn’t work like that. Like poet Adrienne Rich says – ideally we would “make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history, or music, that we should begin with the simple exercises first and slowly go on trying the hard ones, practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring to leap into transcendence…. but we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once before we’ve even begun to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hardest movement, the one already sounding as we are born.”
We are thrown into the story of life already full force, already sounding, and so we just try to show up, to get present enough that we can be actors in this story, characters with a voice, who meaningfully impact the tenor and arc of that story, even as we are trying to understand what’s even happening….
Presence is this month’s theme – as in, how to be present in this month, rather than last…not as in – P-R-E-S-E-N-T-S, though we do hope you’ll consider how our presence P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E is inhibited or enhanced by those T-S presents, and also how we go searching for presents TS when really we are yearning for presence CE – as in our story –
looking for something outside ourselves, when really what we need is already here.
The last time I was with you on a Sunday – it was right after the election, it was a powerful day….and embodied well what we mean by presence. We were present to grief, and the pain, and present to what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would call “the cry of the oppressed.”
I didn’t read it to you that day, but every day since the election I’ve been thinking about the poem by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire where she says, “I held an atlas in my lap/ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered/where does it hurt? It answered everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” We were present that day to the suffering that is everywhere.
It was like we had opened a circuit into the great energy of all the world and its people,
and were in the flow of it. We’ve spoken about the idea of thin places – those holy spaces where we feel more deeply connected and alive to the great big everything that some call God. Usually we think of thin places as being connected to joy, as in a great and ultimate elation. That Sunday was a thin place for me, but it wasn’t elation, it was painful, exhausting, heart-aching.
Which is perhaps why, in the second service, at the end in the part we call the gratefulness response – when I said to you all my usual something like, “let us take a moment to feel grateful.” Someone went – Humh! Like…what?!
And I got it.
Whenever we are present to suffering like that – when we allow ourselves to really see it –
hear the stories of grief and loss –take them in to our person – it can end up feeling like it’s all we see – so that suffering and pain become truly everywhere, everywhere, and everything we hear confirms our sense of how terrible, and broken the world is.
Instead of just seeing and hearing pain, what we tapped into was a kind of seeing and hearing that indicates a deeper spiritual lens – a way of viewing the world, and being present to it. Everywhere, everything.
This is the sort of seeing and hearing that the phrase “eyes to see, and ears to hear” –
a common phrase throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture – is meant to convey.
It’s a phrase that’s asking if we are really understanding the world we live in for what it truly is, in its larger context and larger story – its greater reality. By the way, in scripture, the answer is, mostly we don’t.
In our story, it wasn’t just that the man didn’t see the gold in the box, there was something about his whole world view – is way of SEEING that didn’t lead him to look in the box at all.
For many of us, our way of seeing has been altered in the past few weeks, as we have been present to the pain in this world in new and different ways, perspective-changing ways, ways that – as teachers like Joanna Macy would say – might just inspire us to make the often difficult sacrifices required for necessary change.
Some of you have told me about your desire to keep up this seeing, to keep up a certain vigilance. In this I hear the reminder from Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker who recalls that a full review of Nazi Germany makes it clear that the Holocaust became possible because people lost this sight of human suffering – she says, “somehow those who built and operated the death chambers, those who gave the orders and carried them out, disconnected from what the activity actually meant.”
We do need to be vigilant, and remain present. The important question is – how.
How we will be present, how shall we see?
In my experience, there seems to be two main ways someone might be changed by a traumatic loss. In the first way, there isn’t just the death of the one who has died;
there is another death – the death of the one who technically remains alive but whose entire life is now filled up by that death – it becomes all they can see. Everywhere, everywhere is the loss; everywhere is the pain. Marriages end, jobs are lost, addictions return with a vengeance, or take hold anew. Despair and bitterness are overwhelming.
Or, sometimes, just a kind of numbness. That’s one way.
The other way is when that same person finds in that suffering a new and powerful connection to compassion, love, and joy – that somehow the window into suffering they experience becomes a window into love. And this makes sense, actually, because why would suffering even matter – except because of love? So we can open the atlas, and ask also, where is there love? And it will answer, every where, everywhere, everywhere.
Matthew Shepherd’s mother Judy seems a good example of this type of change –
after the brutal murder of her son, she was not overcome by that loss, nor did she deny it,
but instead went on to start a foundation in his name dedicated to help parents with gay children grow in acceptance, and travel the country telling his story and opening hearts.
More recently, the mothers of the most well-known young black men shot by the police,
the women who have become known as the mothers of the movement – they too demonstrate this kind of response to trauma, this simultaneous connection to pain and love; heartache and hope.
Parker Palmer says – there are two ways for the heart to break – to shatter and scatter,
or to break open into a greater capacity to hold even more of the world’s suffering,
but also joy, love, and hope.
Sometimes, when it comes to holding the suffering of the world, the heartbreak of injustice, it seems like we only know how to live as scattered and shattered. If we’re going to let it in, it must be everywhere and only. We have to be outraged! We can’t be grateful, the world is terrible! We can’t be joyous, we’ve got work to do! I mean grateful….HUMH!
And yet there is another way to hold this pain. Another way for hearts to break….this place where suffering and love are profoundly connected – even two sides of the same reality….. so that as we lean into suffering, we will see that we are actually sitting on the golden treasure of love. That love we are trying to build in the world is right here, already.
I know you might be making an inner “Humh,” and so I have an example, provided by our signs that are out on Drake.
In the first few days after the election, I was so connected to the thread of suffering that connects human life. In that painful place, it was very clear to me that we needed signs. What they should say, how they’d look, I wasn’t sure – but we needed signs. The suffering required response, because of who we say we are. So we started talking and before too long settled in on the phrase that you see out there right now. We love our / Black / Muslim / GLBTQ / Immigrant / neighbors.
It’s specific – a response to the suffering – but also grounded in our Universalist good news that all are worthy of love. So if you look just at the first and the last sign,
you get the whole of the message – we love our neighbors. Period.
It took a while to get the signs ordered, and then to figure out the logistics, so that by the time our administrator, Carolyn Myers – and one of our members, Rich Roberts – on his birthday by the way, thank you Rich – they were out there on Drake putting them up and suddenly I had a panic. How will people in the community react? How would you all react?
Which is to say, I lost track of the suffering – and instead turned to my own fear and self-protection. Which is absurd – because the message shouldn’t even be controversial – right? Except that it is now, which is the point. I want to lift up this momentary panic because, I think it’s something we can anticipate as we are attempting to make good on our mission. It is called courageous love because the path ahead is going to require that we do some hard things, things that might rightfully make any one of us and potentially many of us afraid. But that fear does not mean that what we’re doing isn’t the right thing to do.
So if and when this happens, my lesson is to connect back – away from fear – to instead return to hear the cries of the suffering, and the call of courageous love.
By this point in the story of our signs, however, it was long past the time for second-guessing – they were going up. So I took a deep breath, and waited to hear about the reactions. It started immediately – the honking, the waving, the thumbs up – all in joy. One woman pulled over to talk to them, in tears of gratitude – she was an International student – would she be able to get back into the country next semester? Did she no longer belong here? Our signs were a light in the darkness.
Since that day, the response has grown. Emails, and calls and facebook messages and drop ins – all saying thank you, and sharing stories of how much the signs mean, and why –
stories of grief, and heartbreak. The signs offered beacon of hope, and compassion. What began by opening a circuit to the world’s suffering, instead has become like tapping into the great circuit of love.
In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus talks about the eye as the lamp of the body – the text is on the front of your order of service – he’s pointing to this Jewish tradition of talking about the eye and sight as a metaphor for vision in a deeper sense. And so this text is about how the way we see life – the perspective we choose to take – will shape everything else.
The way we see will make all the difference in whether we spend 30 years starving – or if instead we will SEE the presence of joy and love that is already here, ready to feed not just us but our hungry world.
As we journey together, we get to choose, if we will see in a way that will have our hearts scattered and shattered…..or if we will allow our hearts to break wide open, awake to suffering as connected to love, shadow as connected to light. We get to choose if – like Emma Goldman – there will be dancing at our revolution. If there will remain laughter in our lives, if we will still overflow with gratitude because we are committed to the beauty….
Life is too short, and there is still so much work to do. Let us not spend our years seeking change, only to wake up decades later having missed out on the love and the joy and the good that was right here. Let our broken hearts burst with shouts of joy, and let us sing out in a protest of praise, still, alleluia.