Opening Words: Messenger, by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Sermon: The Silver Strand
There is a silver strand that runs like an underground river through the heart of all the religions. We know full well that there is a flaw in the various religions of the world, and it’s important to be honest about that flaw—the ethnocentric notion that the world is only big enough for one religion–ours! Or the idolatrous notion that we know enough about the divine to put the name God on it and claim that God ‘is on our side.’ We know about the flaws.
Today, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (at-one-ment) I want to trace the silver strand that I see running through the heart of all the religions at their best.
Yom Kippur is a good place to start. It is, after all, about forgiveness; it’s about reconciliation. It acknowledges the broken-ness of the world, and the ways in which we humans are so often broken–separated from one another by disagreements and divided within ourselves by the realization that we’re not living out our own values.
Yom Kippur gets at the heart of what it means to be human; it’s about reconnecting, after sensing the separation, even those little silent separations in the mind—the nagging feeling of in-authenticity. Yom Kippur is about the ideal of mending the brokenness: Tikun Olam, healing the world.
It’s about the work we need to do between one another, and the work we need to do internally, individually.
Mary Oliver says it poetically: “My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird, equal seekers of sweetness…am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
The days between the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, are called ‘the days of awe.’ To be ‘in awe’ is to feel humble in the face of this amazing Creation.
Wordsworth opens his poem, Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood,
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The silver strand that runs through Yom Kippur is about the sense of awe that awakens our spirituality–it’s about being astonished, it’s about getting back a piece of that lost innocence, it’s about the realization that the miracle is happening now, but we need to ‘stand still’ from time to time in order to ‘be astonished.’ It’s about realizing ‘that we live forever.’ as Mary Oliver tells the moth and the wren and the sleepy dug-up clam.
It is, as the poet says, about ‘rejoicing,’ and it is about ‘gratitude.’
The silver strand that runs through all religion is the ability to say thank you—to say ‘thank you’ to Life itself…not just ‘thank you for life,’ but thank you to Life. The essential ‘thank you’ comes wrapped inside the sense of awe.
All the religions, then, are like poems that attempt to break the language barrier by speaking in metaphor.
Religion, in its generic sense, the kind that comes without a label, is the universal attempt to re-connect during this brief sojourn from birth and death. The birthing process culminates in the severing of the Umbilical cord: “the flexible cordlike structure that connects a fetus at the abdomen with the placenta and that transports nourishment to the fetus and removes its wastes.”
The word religion is from the Latin verb, legare, which means to bind or to connect. Re-legare, or religion, then, is the birth-to-death process of connecting and re-connecting to other persons, to an ever-changing, aging, fallible self; and it’s about the lifelong process of coming to realize that we are not separate from Nature, but we are Nature become aware of itself.”
To be alive requires that we find the nourishment we need and it requires that we find ways to ‘remove the waste,’ the old anger, resentment, fears and prejudices we accumulated so far.
It’s about telling ‘the moth, the wren and the sleepy dug-up clam, over and over, that we live forever.’ We’re part of something that is eternal, though our minds are not capable of grasping it. The ultimate re-connection is inevitable: to be re-connected with the eternal.
Do you remember the poem, The Duck, by Donald Babcock? It’s about religion as reconnecting:
“Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.”
He doesn’t know much about the gods and the creeds and dogma, but he’s got religion.
He doesn’t know much about Bibles, and the Bhagavad Gita, but he’s got religion– because he’s ‘realizes’ that he’s connected to the world, which is why ‘he reposes in the immediate,’ or, as Mary Oliver put it, he can ‘stand still,’ why he can ‘cuddle in the swells,’ free from worry and at peace with the world.
The silver strand that runs through all the religions is this deep, innate sense of connection that we call Spirituality; it’s about the sense of awe we feel in the presence of this Creation, of which we’re a part.
The silver strand is symbolized in the mythological story in the book of Exodus, the liberation story, when Moses stands barefoot on sacred ground–stands in awe—seeing a bush that is burning but not consumed by the burning; he hears a voice encouraging him to go to work for peace and justice and asks this voice, ‘who are you?’ It is, of course, his inner voice that says, “I am that I am; I am becoming.” This is liberation: to be who you are, to be yourself, and to be consciously engaged in the process of becoming. Moses says to himself ‘I am alive, and I am capable.’
The silver strand expressed in all the religions is this verb, this process of becoming conscious of the sacred-ness of our ‘connection’ to Nature, the realization, on a deep level, that we ‘live forever,’ not as separate individuals, but as part of Everything.
The silver strand is the belief, built on a foundation of hope, that we will not merely endure, but we will prevail because we feel that connection at our core, the soul, and it ignites a sense of ‘passion, pulse and power,’ the sacred energy of ongoing Creation.
The silver strand is expressed in a Yom Kippur story:
“Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish. He was no where to be seen—neither in the synagogue nor in his study, nor at one of the minions. He was certainly not at home. His door stood open; whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But there was not a living creature was within.
Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt. A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. That is what the people thought.
But once a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the Holy Books but stuff themselves with Talmudic law. So this Litvak points to a passage in the Gemarah where it is written that even Moses did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime. Go argue with a Litvak!
So where can the rabbi be?
“That’s not my business,” said the Litvak, shrugging. Yet all the while–what a Litvak can do!–he is scheming to find out.
That same night, right after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits. He’ll watch all night and discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does during the Penitential Prayers.
Someone else might have got drowsy and fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate of the Talmud by heart. At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
The rabbi has already been awake for a long time. The Litvak has heard him groaning for a whole hour.
Whoever has heard the Rabbi of Nemirov groan knows how much sorrow for all Israel, how much suffering, lies in each groan. A man’s heart might break, hearing it. But a Litvak is made of iron; he listens and remains where he is. The rabbi, long life to him, lies on the bed, and the Litvak under the bed.
Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds, mumbling a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors. Everyone has left. It is again quiet and dark; a bit of light from the moon shines through the shutters.
(Afterward the Litvak admitted that when he found himself alone with the rabbi a great fear took hold of him. Goose pimples spread across his skin, and the roots of his earlocks pricked him like needles. To be alone with the rabbi at the time of the Penitential Prayers! But a Litvak is stubborn. So he quivered like a fish in water and remained where he was.)
Finally the rabbi, long life to him, arises. First he does what befits a Jew. Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes: linen trousers, high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long wide leather belt studded with brass nails. The rabbi gets dressed. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope.
The rabbi goes out, and the Litvak follows him.
On the way the rabbi stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an ax from under the bed, puts it in his belt, and leaves the house. The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.
The hushed dread of the Days of Awe hangs over the dark streets. Every once in a while a cry rises from some minyan reciting the Penitential Prayers, or from a sickbed. The rabbi hugs the sides of the streets, keeping to the shade of the houses. He glides from house to house, and the Litvak follows after him. The Litvak hears the sound of his heartbeats mingling with the sound of the rabbi’s heavy steps. But he keeps on going and follows the rabbi to the outskirts of the town.
A small wood stands behind the town.
The rabbi, long life to him, enters the wood. He takes thirty or forty steps and stops by a small tree. The Litvak, overcome with amazement, watches the rabbi take the ax out of his belt and strike the tree. He hears the tree creak and fall. The rabbi chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks. Then he makes a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket. He puts the bundle of wood on his back, shoves the ax back into his belt, and returns to the edge of the town.
He stops at a back street beside a small broken-down shack and knocks at the window.
“Who is there?” asks a frightened voice. The Litvak recognizes it as the voice of a sick Jewish woman.
“I,” answers the rabbi in the accent of a peasant.
“Who is I?”
Again the rabbi answers in Russian. “Vassil.”
“Who is Vassil, and what do you want?”
“I have wood to sell, very cheap.” And, not waiting for the woman’s reply, he goes into the house.
The Litvak steals in after him. In the gray light of the early morning he sees a poor room with broken, miserable furnishings. A sick woman, wrapped in rags, lies on the bed. She complains bitterly, “Buy? How can I buy? Where will a poor widow get money?”
“I’ll lend it to you,” answers the supposed Vassil. “It’s only six cents.”
“And how will I ever pay you back?” said the poor woman, groaning.
“Foolish one,” says the rabbi reproachfully. “See, you are a poor sick Jew, and I am ready to trust you with a little wood. And I am sure you’ll pay. While you, you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents.”
“And who will kindle the fire?” said the widow. “Have I the strength to get up? My son is at work.”
“I’ll kindle the fire,” answers the rabbi.
As the rabbi put the wood into the oven he recited, in a groan, the first portion of the Penitential Prayers.
As he kindled the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recited, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the Penitential Prayers. When the fire was set he recited the third portion, and then he shut the stove.
The Litvak who saw all of this became a disciple of the rabbi.
And ever after, when another disciple tells how the Rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Litvak does not laugh. He only adds quietly, “Even higher…even higher!”
The silver strand is poetically expressed in this story, just as it is expressed in the parables of Christianity, especially the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as it is expressed in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, or China’s sacred books, the Tao Te Ching, and the Analects of Confucius; as it is expressed in Buddhism, in Greek philosophy’s Humanism. The silver strand is simply kindness and compassion, a universal value we Unitarian Universalists share with all people…the best in all the religions of the world.
It’s as simple and as profound as the Wordsworth’s reference to ‘that best portion of a good man’s life, a thousand little unremembered acts of kindness and of love.’
As we move through this difficult time in the world, and whatever personal challenges we face individually, may we never lose sight of that silver strand; catch it and hold on tight!