Sermon: Waking to the Work

READINGS

Matthew 13:1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”

Throw Yourself Like Seed  by Miguel de Unamuno

Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; 
Sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate 
That brushes your heel as it turns going by, 
The man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant. 

Now you are only giving food to that final pain 
Which is slowly winding you in the nets of death, 
But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts 
Is the work; start there, turn to the work. 

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field, 
Don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death, 
And do not let the past weigh down your motion. 

Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself, 
For life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds; 
From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.
SERMON

             My colleague Victoria Safford tells of a tense meeting at a congregation she was serving held about six months after the 9-11 attacks. The struggling Social Action Committee had called it simply as an occasion for people to share how they feeling in the aftermath of tragic event. But Safford said she was worried that that tender, risky work would quickly be overwhelmed by, in her words, “all those noisy Unitarian Universalist opinions”: all the articles they’d read, the Web sites they’d found, the NPR commentaries they’d heard.

            Thankfully, though, she says, the circle held. Instead of getting lost in the dry sands of rhetoric, they found a way to connect with each other and with something deep in themselves.

            Sorrow flowed into the room. Rage decades old made its appearance, and silence, as she puts it, “made its holy way.” The group was edging up to the shores of cynicism and despondency, when someone made an observation.

            “You know we cannot do this all at once. But every day offers every one of us little invitations for resistance, and you make your own responses.”

            He told of a story he’d read recently in Ian Frazier’s book On the Rez.  It tells of a time when the girl’s basketball team on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota traveled for an away game. When they stepped out to be announced, the team members were greeted with anti-Indian hostility: fans waved food stamps, yelled fake Indian war cries and called out epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.”

            The girls hesitated, uncertain what to do, until one of the team members, a 14-year-old freshman, surprised her teammates and silenced the crowd by stepping out and singing and dancing the Lakota shawl dance. Not only did she reverse the crowd’s hostility, but they even cheered and applauded. And of course, Frazier goes on to say, they won the game.

            We convened a gathering not unlike the one that Victoria Safford describes here this past Wednesday. We ate a potluck meal together, gathered for a brief vespers service, and took time to talk. Our purpose was not to debate or analyze the results of the 2016 election but to acknowledge the pain, confusion and surprise that many of us were feeling afterward, and to affirm that we are a loving community that remains centered in a hopeful vision for the world.

            Now, nearly a week later, the shock has at least numbed a bit and we are being urged to move on. After all, elections come and go; some candidates win, some lose. We’re grown-ups. We know that. We have seen Hillary Clinton graciously acknowledge her loss and wish Donald Trump, well. We’ve seen President Obama welcome a man with whom he traded some bitter words during the campaign to the White House and promise a smooth transition to the next administration. The gears of democracy appear to be working.

So, can’t we move on? Well, on one level, of course, we will. Life goes on, the government transition is already moving, and people will be attending to what the pending changes mean for what they care about. There’s work to do.

But on another level: no. As people of faith, before we go on we need to attend to what this election season has showed us about some of the deeper and more disturbing strains moving through our politics right now and how we are called to respond to them.

To begin with, what this election reveals about the level of misogyny that is not only present but viewed by many as acceptable in this country is horrifying. And here Donald Trump revealed himself to be a chief offender. It’s not just a matter of his frat boy antics at the beauty contests he sponsored, but his own history of sexually assault that he even brags about on TV. Add to it his repeated demeaning of women throughout the campaign, and is it any wonder women worry for their safety?

Nor does it end there, Hillary Clinton’s bid to break what she called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” by seeking the presidency made plain the double standard that prevails for all women who attempt such feats: hated for their competency, demeaned for their ambition, held suspect for their success. Never before has this disparity in our national life been thrown into such sharp relief, and never was it more critical that all people, but especially men, denounce it and demand redress.

We are also left with raft of racism, homophobia and xenophobia from Trump or his supporters in either explicit language or code phrases that have fueled attacks and acts of discrimination during the campaign and since the election.

They leave millions afraid – immigrants fearful of expulsion, Muslims fearful of discrimination, GLBTQ people fearful of a loss of rights. So, sure, the government transition will go on. But we won’t forget to call out the oppression we plainly see or turn from the work to combat it.

We also but note an interesting dynamic that ran through the election from early on in both parties, a deep sense of frustration that many people feel about the state of their own lives and their inability to control their future. They struggle with economic stagnation, growing debt, social dislocations, and in this election their fury amounted to a kind of tsunami of grief, disappointment and complaint that washed out the structure of politics as we’ve known it in this country.

These were people who looked to the leadership in Washington of both parties and saw an entrenched, entitled class feathering its own nest, but doing little to change their lives. So, in walked brash and boisterous Donald Trump, promising to upset that cozy applecart and “make America great.”

This story is, of course, a trope as old as our republic – the outsider who pledges to turn things around as “a man of the people.” Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with history knows to be wary of such assurances, and what we see of the actions of Trump and his lieutenants so far shows us why. Still, that’s the work of politics, and as citizens it is our charge to attend to it, raise our voices and make our case for the nation’s future.

But how about us as a religious body? Where do we fit in? It’s here that I invite us to return to the parable of the sower that you heard earlier. The metaphor in this parable is pretty clear: if we want to be fed, we’re going to have to plant seed that will give us a crop. And we better be careful where we plant it: Scatter it on the path and birds will eat it up, toss it into poor soil and it won’t grow well, plant it near thorns and they’ll crowd it out, but scatter it in good soil and you’ll get a harvest.

Simple, right? As agricultural wisdom it’s kind of a no-brainer. But there’s something more here, a learning that isn’t as obvious. So, in a month when our worship theme is “Story,” let’s see what this simple story might offer us.

I think that one experience we have had of this election is that it leaves us hungry – hungry for connection, for integrity, for a life-giving way to be that serves us, each other and the world. Feeding that hunger is likely to take more than just scavenging in the landscape. We’re going to have to do something intentional to give us nourishment.

The parable suggests we’ll find it in seed, gathered from a good and trusted place. Then, we must find a fertile place in the world to plant it, then tend it, cultivate it and bring it to harvest. The story doesn’t indicate where we might find the seed, though I have an idea. Our UU tradition suggests that we don’t need to go searching for it. There is ample seed for this life-giving crop among us, and we locate it in our own experiences, in those moments of clarity that we each have had that tell us who we are.

These are moments that glow in our memory, but we don’t often grasp that within them are seeds of ever-renewing hope and possibility that can center and ground us.

And as it happens, we in this congregation are currently involved in a process of gathering that seed. Our Board of Trustees is inviting us to meet in groups where we share experiences of clarity that illuminate those values that are most important to us. We call them “Experiences of the Holy.”

We’ve had several of these hour-long gatherings so far, and there’s another one coming just after our 11:15 service today. I’ve attended a couple of these, and I have to say I find the experience amazing. To center down on our moments of clarity opens us. We clear away the clutter and can find the clearest, most hopeful part of ourselves.

In this process I have heard experiences of gratefulness, vulnerability, awe-inspiring beauty, compassion, and much more. Once done gathering these seeds, your board will sort through them to identify those that seem to hold the key values of the congregation and share them with you.

It will then be our work to give them good soil, plant them and see them flourish. Because the point of this process is not just to gather nice words; it is to help us nourish a life-giving way of being in the world. What we gather won’t be wholly original with us, but it will embody that which fuels the fires, which feeds the hunger in our own lives, and, we hope, take us deeper and root us more firmly in the soil of our being.

All the disruption surrounding this election is a reminder of how hard it is to stay grounded, of all the ways that despair and confusion can distract us from how we need to be. Let us take the time, then, to get clear on our center. Let us winnow and gather our strength and then, as Miguel de Unamuno urges, begin the work of bringing the values we proclaim into being and then throw ourselves into the fields of our endeavor.

Let us, like that Lakota girl on the Pine Ridge Reservation’s girls basketball team, employ the genius of our grounding and offer our shawl dance to the world.

I don’t know what shape this will take, but I know it won’t all come to fruition at once. It will take time and tending to accomplish with each of us dedicating ourselves to what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”

That means living by little acts love and giving ourselves to the challenging task of truth telling, being clear about who we are at our center, resisting and defying that which diminishes us, and beckoning each other to do the same.

We must be ready for disappointment, occasional failure and indignities, but if we are well rooted, if we have planted and tended well we will hold fast.

(And here I introduced and sang Holly Near’s song “I Am Willing”)

As we close, I turn once again to Marge Piercy’s words: Connections are made slowly, sometimes where we can’t see where they go. So we need to keep at it while living a life we can endure, a life that is loving and resilient and strong.

Then, after a long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.