Those words from Whitman are the invitation at the beginning of any sermon—the invitation to take a little trip, looking back over the landscape of our lives, looking as clearly as we can at the present situation in our own lives and our shared lives, and looking into the future with hope.. ‘Come travel with me.’
Today is International Human Rights Day, as designated by the United Nations to honor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was the first global enunciation of the basic rights of all humans on the planet. Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind this carefully declaration following the terrible destruction of WWII. It was established in 1950.
You are invited to participate in International Human Rights, Day to stop by the Social Justice Table in the church foyer for more detailed information, including specific things you can do, such as writing a postcard to one of the unjustly jailed human rights defenders all over the world who have been identified by Amnesty International as “prisoners of conscience” imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their right to free speech—that little post card lets them know they have not been forgotten, that someone cares.
But why should we care? What’s the alternative to caring?
The reason we care is expressed nicely by Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
We care because we’re human; and caring makes us more ‘human.’ Caring is what distinguishes us from the other forms of life – our potential for active caring.
How do we know ‘the right thing to do?’ How do we know where to spend our time and effort? Where and how to spend our money? Where to donate?
I heard that a couple of people in the congregation recently said, “I’m suffering from donor fatigue.”
They were referring to the number of suggestions we’ve been making, with leadership from the Social Justice Committee, for places to which you might donate money and/or time; things about which we need to be concerned.
I understand donor fatigue; I understand compassion fatigue; there’s so much about which to feel a deep sense of caring. There are times when we simply feel overwhelmed by tragedies and we need to pull into ourselves the way the turtle does. We have pain thresholds and we have compassion thresholds.
I have a story about donor fatigue. Twenty five years ago my family and I spent a month in Egypt with my friend Joel and his wife Aurelie, who had been living there, teaching in American schools, for several years.
For most of our month in Egypt we stayed with them in their home in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. When we journeyed into the big city we took the Babalook train along with all the other commuters; people crammed in like sardines, as they say, people clinging to the cars from the outside and climbing onto the roof. ‘Come, travel with me.’ What a trip!
When we approached the train station my friend put money into one of the beggar’s bowls. I can picture him, still: an old brown-skinned man with a long white beard, sitting cross legged on the ground, half smiling, looking like the Buddha beneath the Bo tree.
There were thousands of beggars in and around Cairo, and everywhere we traveled in Egypt, but this was the only person to whom Joel ever gave money, and he never passed him by without putting money into his bowl.
Joel explained his reasoning: “This is my beggar,” he said. “He’s the only one I give money to. I like him. He likes me. And I like having just one person to give money to every day. It keeps me from becoming too cynical, and it allows me to say no to all the others.”
If you have donor fatigue, choose one place. Give yourself a break. But don’t deny the other worthy causes a place at the table. You have a responsibility to take care of yourself in this regard – if you’re not ‘for yourself, who will be?’ But if you’re only for yourself, what are you?
Last week I was talking with an eleven-year old boy who was going through a rough patch—we were talking about various feelings, like sadness, fear, love and hope, and I asked him which of those feeling buttons he would adjust, if there was a knob and he could turn them up and down. Without missing a beat he said he would adjust the sadness button. I paused and asked what kind of adjustment he would make to his sadness. He thought for a few seconds and said, “I wouldn’t turn it down all the way; I’d turn it about halfway down.”
I was surprised at his maturity. Stunned, really. Then he said, “You have to have some sadness, that’s part of life.” He paused, again, and said, “If you didn’t have sadness, maybe you couldn’t have happiness.”
We all have to adjust those buttons, which, of course, is a metaphor for taking care of ourselves, taking responsibility. He understood that he had to take care of himself – adjust the buttons. But he also knew that he didn’t have to do it alone. It’s all a matter of balance.
There’s a surprising passage in Emerson’s famous essay, Self-Reliance, where he says, “Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (There are persons) for whom I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;–though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”
He goes on to say, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
It’s all about balance. It’s all about adjusting those buttons: the compassion button, for example, as well as the sadness and joy buttons. It’s all about taking responsibility for one’s own life, including the need to find ways to make a contribution to the improvement of life on the planet—and here we’re talking about human life on the planet, realizing that we are intimately and intricately connected to all life on this fragile, abused planet of ours.
Being a person is a big responsibility. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to know ‘the right thing to do,’ or the right places to contribute one’s time, money and compassion.
Some people are helped in this regard by the rules of their religion – the Ten Commandments, for example; or the Sermon on the Mount; or the Koran, and all the other religious collections.
But even those who find direction for their lives from these writings still have to decide how to keep the Sabbath; how to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ how to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
Again we turn to Emerson who says that we humans are endowed with an inner sense of right and wrong, and that we are rewarded and punished by that inner sense.
In the Divinity School Address in 1838 he said, “The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.”
This week I got a note from someone who is taking a chaplain training program – after an explanation of the classroom work, the small groups and hands-on experience there was this statement: “But it’s when I’m on the hospital floors, talking with the patients, that I know I’m doing the right thing for me.”
There are moments, here and there, when we know we’re ‘doing the right thing,’ or in the right place.
A friend of mine has one of those GPS (Global Positioning System) in his car and he says it’s the best thing that’s come down the pike, since he has to do a lot of visiting of people and places he’s never been. (I use map quest.)
Is there an equivalent, built-in system that gives us direction in life? Is there an inner sense of right and wrong that moves us to ‘do the right thing,’ the way the homing pigeon is directed?
We’re not looking for a religion that dictates every aspect of our lives – we value our freedom, and we don’t believe that morality and ethics can be legislated or imposed by an ecclesiastical council; all the religious systems are as fallible as we are.
But we have high standards which we repeat together in our affirmation:
“Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
It begins with the word love, then moves to ‘service is its the law.’ It’s all summarized in a ‘great covenant:’ to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another.
Our Social Justice Committee, with our Director, David Vita, is one of the vital ingredients that helps to remind us that ‘service is its law,’ and to give direction to ‘service.’
Those reminders about things that need our attention and our help are not meant to make us feel bad; those reminders are meant to help us to ‘do the right thing,’ and to feel good about being given some direction, to set the moral compass.
I want to belong to a religion that focuses on the here and now, whose mission includes finding ways to help to make the world a better place. I want to support that kind of religious organization.
I like Emerson’s phrase: ‘the intuition of the moral sentiment.’
There’s an internal, built-in moral positioning system that moves us toward the good, the right thing to do.
But it doesn’t work all by itself. We influence one another. The GPS system bounces off satellites that are orbiting the globe; our moral positioning system needs similar satellites that circle the globe, sending signals and reporting from Darfur, Baghdad, Kandahar, Queens, Bridgeport. We need to use our own built-in communication system to respond to reports from those close to us who are going through a difficult time, which is why we have our candle lighting ceremony every Sunday. We need to use our built-in communication system to help us to pay attention to those with whom we’re sitting at the supper table.
We need to be receptive to the signals that help us to ‘do the right thing.’
The Iraq Study Group issued a set of directions to guide us out of that quagmire, with 79 recommendations that point to what the bipartisan group says is ‘the right thing to do,’ now. For the past four years you’ve heard criticisms about the President from this pulpit; those criticisms are never given lightly, and sometimes they’ve been costly. That’s one of the responsibilities of the person who occupies this free pulpit. But I’m hopeful that the Iraq Study Group’s report will be a turning point, just as the recent election was a turning point, indicating American’s disapproval of the President’s policies.
Robert Gates is the new Secretary of Defense, and he’s asking ‘what’s the right thing to do, now?’ God help him!
We can get bogged down in the past, staring at mistakes that have been made, personally or collectively. It’s one thing to look at what’s been done in order to learn from it – it’s quite another thing to look at what’s been done in order to assign blame. Blame is the muck and mire that bogs us down; it’s filled with recrimination and regret, in our personal lives as well as our collective life.
This is the season of hope. May we have the wisdom to follow a star that leads us on an inward journey so that we might give birth, again and again, to a sense of caring and compassion; it’s as much of God as we need on this journey.
I wanted to close with a poem, so I wrote this one, yesterday.
Suddenly, or so it seems,
Snow, or the threat of a storm —
Then waking to see the new snow
Fresh, clean, marveling at the whitewashed world; the snow
Covering everything, painting bare brown branches
Evergreens etched in white
Earth, with a soft, silent winter blanket.
Winter coat, woolen hat, gloves and scarf
Bundled up to go out into the crisp winter air
Walking along the wind-whipped shore – brisk and bracing
Sounds of gulls crying, waiting for low tide
Scavenging for clams, crabs and mussels –
Meals fit for a king.
Then, home again, glad to be inside looking out
Sitting with hot chocolate and
The morning paper, with the Sunday book reviews
Delivered on Saturday, listing the ten-best-books of the year,
Ten sure-fire Christmas gifts.
And some smiles with this week’s New Yorker cartoons
And memories of other winters, other storms,
Aware of the long winter sleep to come.
The word ‘sermon’ has a bad reputation. It sounds like a lecture, a criticism. Sometimes people say, “Don’t give me a sermon,” meaning, “Don’t scold me!” But a sermon is just a story with an explanation.
You’ve been learning about your Unitarian Universalist faith; two of the things we believe in: ‘every person is important,’ and we should ‘have compassion for all people.’
I heard a story that’s a nice example of these two things. It’s the story of a boy named Shay, who’s mentally disabled. At eleven years old, he’s not able to read and to do arithmetic.
One day Shay was walking with his father and they saw some boys playing baseball. Shay had never played baseball and he said to his father that he wanted to ask the boys if he could get in the game. The father was afraid the boys would say no. They were already in the middle of their game, but he asked, and they let Shay play anyway. They put him in right field as an extra outfielder.
The first time Shay got his turn at bat he didn’t know how to hold the bat, but one of the boys showed him. He tried to hit the ball. He got three strikes, so he was out. But he was really glad to get a chance to try. Even though he struck out he had a big, broad smile.
When it was near the end of the game the team Shay was on was one run behind, six to five. It was the last inning, and one of the boys got a base hit. Then the next two struck out. It was Shay’s turn at bat, and someone said they should have a pinch hitter for Shay, but the others said that Shay should have his turn, just like everybody else.
The kids on the other side were surprised, thinking they would easily win now, since Shay hadn’t been able to hit the ball. The pitcher wanted to help Shay try to get a hit, so he moved in closer and pitched underhand, nice and easy, but Shay still got two strikes. Then, on the third pitch, Shay made contact with the ball, for the first time, and it rolled to the pitcher, who could easily have thrown him out at first, and everyone was yelling for Shay to run to first anyway: “Run, Shay, run!”
Then the pitcher did something amazing. Instead of throwing it right to the first baseman, he threw it way over his head, so Shay got to first, and they kept saying, “Run, Shay, run!”
So he ran to second, and the first baseman threw the ball way over the head of the second baseman, and the kid playing shortstop pointed Shay in direction of third base, because Shay didn’t know where to run. By then the outfielder had the ball and could have thrown Shay out at third, but he threw the ball way over the third baseman’s head and Shay ran all the way for a home run, which made his team win.
Shay’s father was so glad for his son to get a chance to play baseball for the fist time in his life, but what really made him happy and proud was the way the other players helped Shay to get a hit and make a homerun.
This story is about that first principle of our faith, that “Everyone is important.”
It’s also about the Christmas story, which is about the birth of a babe in a manger, the baby Jesus, who is called Christ, which is the Jewish word for Messiah.
Some people think the Messiah is a person who will come to earth, but some of us think the word Messiah is a symbol of something in each of us – a symbol or a sign of compassion.
The boys who allowed Shay to play his first game of baseball gave birth to the Messiah that day. We hope that each one of us can find ways to show compassion, giving birth to The Prince of Peace, again and again.