This sermon was delivered on February 22, 2015 at First Parish Church of Groton, MA.
audio version here
Somewhere in Asia – Japan or Malaysia or some other country – there is a picture on a Buddhist monk’s smart phone. It is of the dining hall at Changmyay Meditation Center just outside of Yangon, Myanmar, where everyone is eating mindfully, heads bent with attention to each aspect of eating: reaching the spoon, carrying the food, opening the mouth, chewing, placing the spoon down. Reaching, carrying, opening, chewing, placing down.
My head is upright, my eyes surveying this new experience – the men sitting at the front and the women at the back; all of us sitting at low tables while our bodies are not on chairs, but on mats on the floor. There I am, taking in the bowing monks and nuns and earnest laypeople who prostrate in place to the big Buddha statue by bowing, hands placed together at the heart, three times, forehead to ground, offering gratitude and humility before partaking in the meal.
There is photographic evidence of my dilemma, which, it turns out, is a dilemma we all face: do I focus inward or do I focus outward?
As I watched this monk – who, I would like the record to note, was also not eating mindfully – take this picture, I realized just what it depicted – me, head held high, probably smiling from ear to ear in delight. I had to laugh at myself. No need for judgment. A beautiful quote from Tagore Rabindrinath, 20th century poetic father of India (and Nobel laureate), rang in my ears:
Whoever wishes to, may sit in meditation with eyes closed, to know if the world be true or false. I, meanwhile, shall sit with hungry eyes, to see the world while the light lasts.
There I was, with my hungry eyes, seeing that little compelling bit of the world while the light lasted.
It reminds me of the quote from E. B. White, famous for Charlotte’s Web which I hold, like many of you, in very high regard. I also love his book of essays, The Points of My Compass, from which this gem comes:
“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
It reminds me of choices we all face every day, all the time. It reminds me of choices our congregation faces as we continue with our clumsy, well-intentioned, muddled, idealistic, noble, pragmatic, worthy attempts to actively bend the arc of the universe towards racial justice – a metaphor spoken by Dr. King, but the origin of which actually belongs to our own Unitarian Theodore Parker.
Do we focus inside of our church? Or outside? Do we develop our own sense of purpose, examine our own racial privileges, clarify how we might grow ourselves and our children into more multi-culturally competent persons in the world?
Or do we leave these walls, lend our bodies and hearts to the social action and civic duties outside this predominantly (but not solely – let me not make anyone invisible) white congregation?
Do we do this work individually? Or do we find a way to respond collectively?
Do we focus on our intentions? Or do we focus on the impact of our actions?
So many choices, as if they are mutually exclusive or somehow contradictory.
As if. But not so.
As E.B. White said, it does make it hard – or let’s call it complex — to plan the day, or engage in the life of a congregation wanting to be our better selves. But this is the blessing of doing this work in a religious community, rather than a secular one: Spirit and Hope call on us to use our open eyes to see these as paradoxical, rather than contradictory. Complex, but not impossible.
Yes, we have choices to make and they aren’t easy, they won’t be easy, and already they have not been easy.
And there are mistakes to be made along the way. I say that, saying at the same time an echo from prayer: we commit, as always, to forgive ourselves and each other, to begin again in love.
A few weeks ago I offered some reflections on my travels in Myanmar and I started by noticing the abundance of ethnic groups there. You might remember that it was the amazingly high number of 135. It’s an unusual way to talk about a place, but it turns out that it is elemental.
While visiting the seminary hosting us, as part of a lecture, we were invited to sit in the front row of a large academic hall, honored guests, with about 300 students. The president welcomed our group warmly, then proceeded to introduce the student body. He began, “If you are Chin, stand up.” A fair number of students stood up. “If you are Shan, stand up…” and another sizeable group stood without surprise, resentment, or fear. The president continued like this, “Kachin,” and “Kayin,” “Burmese,” “Rakhine,” and so on.
It was nothing unusual…for them. It was nothing out of the ordinary, except our small group of Americans was feeling culturally allergic, even possibly itchy: in a large group of people, calling out folks by their ethnicity or race? For many of us, maybe even all of us, we were curious, but definitely out of our element and various degrees of discomfort.
As we swam more in those cultural waters, the discomfort eased. That experience has led to curiosity and wondering about how we – we Americans of all ethnicities and race, and especially those of us who identify as white, and how we Unitarian Universalists of all ethnicities and race, especially those of us who identify as white – are socialized to talk — or not talk — about ethnicity and race.
For there is discomfort here …because there are unspoken, confusing, and often contradictory “rules” about when and where and how and with whom and these “rules” are laced with a long history of racism in our nation, as well as its many present-day expressions. So when we try to cross invisible barriers, or just try to connect with someone different than we are, until we are quite practiced at it, we tend to be clumsy and unskillful, can be defensive or guarded, and so often, just plain awkward.
That is me. Maybe it is you, too, but it is definitely me. I have placed my foot in my mouth. More than once. And given the odds, it’s likely I will do it again.
Let me tell you a true story.
I have a friend and long-time colleague in my other work. We have worked together in one way or another for nearly a decade; we are just about to embark on our next shared project this spring. He is an African American man, more or less my age, smart, funny, and spiritual. One day, a few years ago, I made a comment about his boss, who used to also be my boss. We have a history of bonding over our exasperation about some of her choices.
My comment was meant to be about her, about how she was bringing him to some important meeting to show off how diversity-friendly the organization was. My intention was to be snarky, was to cast aspersions on her efforts which I thought smacked of tokenism. My intention was to join with my friend.
The impact was quite different. The impact was that I cast aspersions on the quality and substance of my friend’s work as if it were not worthy of recognition. The impact was to sound too much like someone else saying that affirmative action was the reason for a person of color to be at college or in a particular job. The impact was to offend my friend and create a painful distance between us. The impact was racist.
In moments like this, my Unitarian Universalist faith, my belonging to and with you, saves me. In moments like these, I hear the calling of our second principle — Justice, equity and compassion in human relations – and I feel both its burden and its inspiration.
I feel that foot in my mouth and I know I must do more than just remove it. I must find compassion for myself – we forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love – and I must also seek justice for my friend, even if it is as small – and as immense – as acknowledgement, apology, and accountability.
My heart searches for the compassion and courage to do these things in this prayer from Rev. Joseph Cherry, one that Elea spoke from this pulpit in early December, and will no doubt, find its way here again.
If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves,
we must be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be
so bold, so brave, and so loving.
When we can take into our hearts the wisdom of that prayer, see with open eyes in a way that makes us very vulnerable, we can move from ouch to thank you.
Thank you for the gift of being called out on the impact of our words or actions.
Thank you for being given the gift of knowing that we presented ourselves in a way that we do not intend. How many times have we acted thusly and not been made aware – someone has not taken the time to let us know, just has blown us off?
Thank you for being called out to be our better selves.
(Of course, it is up to us to hear this as a call to be our better selves. It is a choice. Not one we always make, but one available to us.)
I do believe it is what our faith calls us to — the holy work of choosing to look with open eyes not only at the intentions of our actions, but their impact:
a sorrow, yours or someone else’s, fully realized and received, not denied, not covered up, not justified or explained away, ignored — some sorrow clearly, previously seen is taken in, absorbed and felt, and reemerges, bent now into compassion. To see clearly is an act of will and conscience. It will make you very vulnerable. It is persistent, holy, world transforming work. (Open Eyes, Rev. Victoria Safford)
I share with you these experiences not to admonish myself or anyone else, but to remember, with compassion, the ways it can be any one of us and probably, given the odds, has been.
I share this with you because I do believe it is a blessing to be told that our foot is in our mouth, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time – our own embarrassment, or vulnerability, or feelings of misunderstanding weighting the blessing with an opaque curtain of anguish.
I share this with you because our faith calls us to pay attention to such choices.
I share this with you because our faith calls us to this persistent, holy, world-transforming work.
May it be so. Amen.
- Joseph M. Cherry, “Prayer for Living in Tension,” in Voices from the Margins, Skinner House, 2012
- Victoria Safford, “Open Eyes,” in Walking Toward Morning, Skinner House, 2003
- E. B. White, The Points of My Compass, Harper & Row, 1962