Reflections on Small (sermon)

(a version of this sermon/worship service has been given in other places and exists also here on this blog.)


gloriousdustA Chassidic rabbi from the late 18th century, Rabbi Simcha of Bunim taught that every person should have two pockets. In each pocket should be a piece of paper. On one side, the paper should state, from Genesis 18:27, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other pocket, on the other side, the paper should state, from the Mishnah, “For my sake was the world created.” Let us sit in stillness between these two paradoxical truths, holding the creative tension which our existence sings.


Reading: from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to simply be in your presence, like a thing –
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones –
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.

Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

I would describe myself
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany                      August 3, 2014

Small—capitol S– embodies inherent spiritual paradox. It exudes a spiritual mandate to hold insignificant and vast in the same breath, minute and cosmic in the same moment.

“Wisdom tells me I am nothing.  Love tells me I am everything.  Between the two my life flows.” So said the 20th century Hindu guru, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who taught non-dualism.

Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

“I want to be small but not so small that I am easy to miss,” tells us the poet, Thylias Moss, “About the size of the thought of a bud before it opens and becomes a universe in which bees orbit like planets.”

“I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough,” says the poet, Rilke, in our reading today.

The Unitarian Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote about his experience of being in the woods,

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

We are taught, according to logic, that small and large, or their various synonyms, are opposites, that they fall into the realm of one-or-the-other, perhaps even contradictions. It is not rational to say that one is both small and large. Yet even the great advocate of Reason, Emerson himself, sees no contradiction: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

I love that last phrase: part or particle of God. I’m not even sure I know what it means, but I feel its deep and abiding truth. And I’m not necessarily talking abou the truth about God part. I’m talking about the part or particle of that something Vast part.

“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars,” comes to us from Serbia. There is it again. Our perfect imperfection. Mind and heart, not as opposing dualities, not even as complementary qualities, but of the same essential cloth, distinct and reinforcing, renewing, regenerating.

I do not want to paint an overly pretty picture. Small is not always good. There are unpleasant and unredeemable connotations. Take puny, for instance. Where we might be able to rescue and reframe “small,” puny is unredeemable. Who wants to feel puny? That’s the guy on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face.

My friend Anne is now a hospital chaplain, full of deep compassion, sharp wit, and righteous sense of justice. She used to be an immigration lawyer, seeking asylum for all sorts of people from all over the world. You might not be surprised that after decades of stories of torture and denial of applications, she’s a bit on the cynical side towards our nation’s government. The other night she was describing Room 405 in the federal building in Hartford, Connecticut. It used to be where immigration officials work. There is a waiting room, full to the gills with people, whole families, small children, made to arrive on time, made to wait interminable hours, yelled out when their kids run around and do the things that kids do, made to feel puny. Unworthy. Insignificant.

Though I am still a seminarian, up until May, for two years I had the great fortune – a blessing, really – to serve as part of a co-ministry a small church as it discerned its future, choosing rather than to close, to move away from a strictly Christian identity to a more fluid – shall we say, UU – one. It’s in a tiny rural town where there is a mix of both old timers and new blood, long tradition and a strong sense of creating a local culture that will help people adapt to the new changes in our climate constricted world.

A year and a half ago, one of the congregants died at the age of 91. He had worked for one of those big insurance companies back in the day. In conversation with his surviving son shortly after his father’s death, the son reflected on how well the company treated his father in retirement, his son said, “They didn’t treat him like a cog in the wheel. They treated him like he was part of the machine. It’s not like that anymore. But it was then.” They treated him worthy. A small and worthy part.

Worthy but not arrogant, not self-important. It’s a connected sense of Small, it’s a contextual sense of Small. It’s one where I may be a small piece, a speck, a fragment, but I have a place. I may not (yet) know that place, but I have one – and somehow, in that paradoxical way, the wide vastness of the cosmos gives me a greater sense not of belittlement, but of belonging.

Not of belittlement, but of belonging.

It makes me think of the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s famous, “pale blue dot,” a photo taken in 1990 by Voyager One space probe as it was leaving our solar system. It’s an image of the earth but you can barely tell, because it’s taken from 3.7 billion miles away. From that perspective, the earth looks like a tiny “mote of dust” in the midst of a never-ending sunbeam. Here is what Carl Sagan said in 1996 while reflecting on that Small:

“On [that dot], everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinne
r in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 He continued,

“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. …To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Half a year or so ago, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewed on the public radio program, Fresh Air, as part of the roll out of the new and improved Cosmos show on television. He was asked about another scientist who complained that a show deGrasse Tyson had curated at the Hayden Planetarium had left him feeling, well,…small. Here is deGrasse Tyson’s response:

 I think if you walked in there with an ego that says I’m large, I’m important and I’m significant, [the show’s] going to hurt. This information is going to hurt. And so I think he went in there with the wrong attitude. …

He continued

I claim that if you went in there with no ego at all and then you saw the grandeur of the universe, recognizing that our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy, then you would see the universe as something you participate in, as this great unfolding of a cosmic story. And that, I think, should make you feel large, not small.

In seeking each other out, as we do when we gather for worship, fragments and Wholeness, human creatures and godly Mystery, deep fullness and essential emptiness, we become not opposites, not contradictions, but spirit-filled paradoxes just outside our own grasping. It brings with it the possibility of transcendence, of becoming Small and Vast at the very same time, which is another way of saying there is no separation:

  • not between us as stardust and that stardust “out there;”
  • not between us and God/Love Eternal/Ultimate Source/Deep Spirit; and
  • not between us and this pulsing planet that we have for too long treated as possession, but which breathes and lives.

There are times we need to be reminded of our capacity for transcendence – a reminder that is sometimes nearly impossible to find in the coarse and cruel interactions of human beings with one another, alienated as we can become, from our Source. Emerson wrote of finding such solace in nature; some of us find it in the young faces of children; and some in the flurry of stars always there, day or night, always — always –there. So we look out to the heavens and look back to the whole of this planet, this cherished blue mote of dust, to find our compassion and kindness for one another, a sense of belonging that transforms our smallness into a Mighty Smallness, connected and ever a part of that which is greater than ourselves.

Amen. And blessed be.

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