CLICK HERE for video of this sermon
It is so good to see you all here again. I want to thank our amazing worship associates for leading outstanding worship for us this long hot summer. How many of you made it to a summer service? Let’s give our WA’s a round of applause!
One of many sojourns this summer took us to visit our daughter Emma in the countryside just outside Asheville, NC. Emma and her partner Zanny are building a house, made mostly from recycled materials. What does that mean? Picture this, Francis and me hovering over old oak siding from a barn, planning it board by board to make a floor in one hundred degree heat. But we had fun didn’t we? Emma and some of her friends have bought adjoining properties at the end of a Blue Ridge Hollar, or Hollow, a road that branches off the main road and winds its way into a small valley or cove that dead ends where the hills are the steepest. In the midst of that paradise lies a very large house, an old mansion actually, that she and others are turning into an alternative school for change agents. It’s called the Cabbage School, named after that plain and lowly vegetable that has such nutritional utility. The school now in its third year is loosely patterned after the craft schools of Appalachia, schools where adults can go to learn the basic skills of small sustainable agriculture, small building skills and such esoteric skills as wooden bucket making. In the midst of this curriculum is a commitment to advance the causes of locally based social justice. So while I was there there was a course on persevering fruit with daily meetings on how to affect sustainable agriculture in your home communities, conflict management, and the principles of anarchy. To name a few. The school has a small but loyal following, progressive millennials from Asheville to as far away as New York. So successful is this endeavor that every Sunday they hold a community potluck at the school and dozens of people show up, some of whom live on the road and many who consider this their vocational and spiritual home.
After the first year they were operating, my daughter-in-law Zanny who works in Asheville as a social worker for the county and encounters real poverty every day, asked why aren’t they reaching out to their North Carolina neighbors, people, who have lived on this land for generations, many of whom are dirt poor. So they did, and several of their most immediate neighbors including two brothers who live directly across from the school started to come to the potlucks. Reluctantly at first, these brave folks entered into the hub bub of scores of millennials, few of whom are from NC who spoke of such things as “disruption” and “gender politics”. You can imagine how foreign these two worlds seemed to each other. But then something remarkable started to happen, the young people asked their neighbors to help them build a sauna. Jeff and Roger two brothers who lived right across from the school in a dilapated trailer I thought was abandoned were more than willing even if that weren’t sure what a sauna actually is.
And so one summer day, Jeff and Roger, two North Carolinians and six 30 something folks from the school went about building the wood fired sauna. Turns out the brothers knew a thing or two about building with recycled material and after several days they produced a marvelous little sauna house. When I sat down next to Jeff at the potluck, now two years later, I asked him what he thought of all these kids. He smiled his toothless grin and said “We wasn’t so sure about these kids, seemed like hippies to us. But they are real neighbors, they have been there for us more than a few times.”
As I drove back home through the blue ridge to the East Coast, I thought long about this remarkable community these most unlikely neighbors have made for one another. In an age, where my daughter and her friends voted for Bernie, if they voted at all, and Jeff and Roger voted for Trump, here was an example of the best of what we could be as Americans. A vast gulf between generations, political identities, gender politics and wealth had been bridged. And I thought, why can’t we do that here?
Why do we consider it a forgone conclusion that we here at TUCW or in Westport cant’ engage with folks so very different than we are? People who believe very differently from most of us. Why? Why is it that we take the circus that is playing out on the political stage and assume that all manner of civility is flowing out of us as a people? I am not buying it my friends. I am not willing to give up on our neighbors who are different from us. We are bigger than that, we are better than that and as progressive people we are braver than that! Can you hear me?
I see a vision wherein we make real the imperative that I came here with, in the words of my colleague, John Buehrens (From James Luther Adams), that we become a “spiritual center with a civic circumference”. That we deepen our center to truly form a faith in the best of what we can become as humanity, borrowing from the wisdom of the ancients and adding to it the power of our own stories and learnings. If this summer taught us anything around here it was that we have all the spiritual power we need in the voices and the lives of those of us who are here. The fact that those summer services were so well crafted was not an accident. They came from the intentional spiritual work of our worship associates who practiced what they preached and prepared to journey with you into the deeper spiritual work that we can become.
Our spiritual center can grow very deep if we want it to. Starting with worship and music that feeds and deepens our souls, renewed by the spirit of love and able to then engage with the communities around us – all the communities around us; from Bridgeport and Norwalk to our more conservative neighbors in Newtown and Stratfield. We cannot become deeply spiritual unless we engage with our neighbors and we cannot engage with our neighbors unless we become deeply spiritual.
Why do I think knowing our neighbors will save the world? Because of my Taoist leanings. Left to our natural tendencies we eventually swing back to Our humanity. Look at history; every tyrant falls, and while disparities are rampant, and taken as a whole we are better off now than we were a hundredth years ago.
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
Could this be part of our vision? A formation of faith deeply held that helps us to reach out and widen our civic engagement as a community. I think it could. I think if it can be done in NC in the heart of Appalachia where there is literally a Baptist church on every corner (I never knew there were so many different kinds of Baptists, Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Reformed Baptists), then it can be done in the heart of Blue CT. Then we could really live up to our name as Unitarian Universalists. Can I get an amen for that?
Next week I will be outlining what I mean by deep faith formation, the formation of that spiritual center each of us so desperately needs. And then the following week I will outline what I mean by an expanding our civic circumference.
We will need both a spiritual center and a civic circumference to find our vision. Now let me say that vision is not the same thing as sight. Sight is external, vision is internal as the great Bishop Carlton Pearson once said. Many blind people can see, just not in the way that sighted people do. Vision is vital for a community growing like this one not so much for what it is and for it will do. That is why I hope you will make an effort to come to the visioning sessions next Saturday. This is how we will decide our farther vision. Our future, and our hope.
We will also do this with service. This is our 70th year as a congregation. David found the original membership book. Dedicated souls who saw a vision of liberal religion in a world that is constantly challenging us to embrace our better angels. I have dedicated this entire year to the cause of service as we discern and then enact our vision. If you have been thinking about serving, this is your year. Talk to me, we will find you a place to help guide us forward. The story is told of immigrants who hop trains in central America and ride them North through Mexico to cross into the United States. One day two sisters were coming home from market with their family’s food when a train came hurtling past and the migrants cried out, We are hungry. Without thinking about it, the sisters threw their food up to the migrants. When they came home and told their parents, the parents, far from being angry with them, vowed to help and so the next day the whole family was there to throw tortillas, beans and rice. Soon more villagers came to help and now, with the help of several non-profits the Patrones (the name of their village) meets the train every day with food, the only food some of these people will eat on their trip to El Norte. Even the train engineers slow down to let this act of kindness, this radical neighborliness happen. This is for me, is our farther vision. We too could be La Patrones.
The last time I sat with Jeff and Roger for a meal in NC, I asked them if all of this was a bit too much for them. I mean, young people chanting and drumming, dancing around a maypole, and it turns out coming in and out of the sauna in the middle of that big field, naked. Jeff laughed a hearty laugh, “Too much? Are you kiddin’ me? We love these crazy kids, you never know what they will be up to next. Why it’s better than whatever trash they got on TV.” “Besides” said Roger the more serious of the two, “we are neighbors now, and neighbors look out for neighbors no matter how drunk or crazy they are!”
So my beloveds, here is to a most remarkable year together. Our vision is calling us forward in ways we barely can imagine. As the Jewish High Holy Days approach I would like to close with this quote from colleague Victoria Safford:
“Imagine this. Someone has been preparing all year to speak with you, to write to you, to ask you a hard question. Perhaps in some way not quite conscious, you have even known this, and you have been preparing too. Finally, you answer the door or the phone, or open the letter with shaky hands, and there it is, what you thought you’d been longing for but really have dreaded: someone is asking your forgiveness. The task is not about comfort, it is about truth. Awkward is irrelevant. You get to choose now, you have to choose, whether and how you will participate in restoration..”
This might just be our moment to bring some restoration to the world. Amen.