Reading: "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
(This is a link to a video of her reading 3 of her poems. "Wild Geese" is the second poem she reads.)
Good morning! It is always such a pleasure to come and be with you to share worship. My family and I thank you for your warm welcome!
I come this morning with a heavy heart with the verdict last night in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and I know that I am not alone. I ask us to take a moment of silence to remember Trayvon, his family, his friends, his community.
This sermon comes from one of my blog posts. I have been blogging off and on for a few years now. I have been blogging more regularly as part of my job search process. While writing has always been something I enjoy doing, blogging regularly requires discipline, creativity and gives me a chance to think out loud with an unknown audience. Job searching too requires discipline, creativity and provides the opportunity to reflect both on one’s self but also the larger world as I have been seeking how my particular gifts and skills can be lived out in service to the world. One of my realizations over the past few months is that we don't accomplish much, particularly a job search, alone and yet we are told over and over again that we are supposed to do it alone.
There is a national mythology of the self-made person, the notion that we are each individually responsible for our success or our failure. It is particularly prevalent when it comes to our politics and economics. The message over and over again is that those who are wealthy got their wealth through hard work, playing by the rules and their own effort and if each of us just did what they did then we would be wealthy too. The same goes for those struggling - if you are unemployed or poor or struggling, it is because you did not play by the rules, you did not work hard and you are solely responsible for your failure, we may on occasion offer a respite to those who suffer a severe medical disability but it better not be because of anything the person could have done differently - eat better, not smoke, not be an addict, etc. We preach a heavy sermon of personal responsibility and with that goes this notion that we are solely responsible for lives.
We can see it in our faith lives as well. Many conservative evangelical communities emphasize salvation as something one earns by living a good life and following the rules (particularly the ones around sex) and that God will reward your efforts with heaven. It might be that your prosperity in this life is a sign of God's favor - this notion dates back to the Puritans who wanted to know if you could tell who had been pre-determined to eternal salvation. The focus is on the individual's behavior and relationship with God, specifically with Jesus - going to church is one of the rules - but in the end it is up to each person on their own to be saved. Here the appeal is that if I play by the rules, even if life is hard, I will get rewarded and those who did not will be punished. The scandal of Unitarianism in this context was the affirmation of the good of the human person and the scandal of Universalism that all would be saved – regardless of merit – thus challenging two prevailing theological assertions that human beings are sinful, unworthy of salvation and that to have any hope of salvation - one must earn it.
This notion is present in liberal communities as well - although it looks a little different. Within Unitarian Universalism it shows up as the responsible search for truth and meaning and the notion that we are solely responsible for our spiritual search and journey. Now on the one hand there is something very appealing about this - freed from the bonds of the rules that conservative faith communities may impose - we can each find the ways that work for us. If it doesn't work for us, that's ok. Yet this hyper individualism around faith means that if our own path isn't working for us, then we are the only ones responsible for that and if it is really working for us, then good job us! Yet where in that is there room for humility, for submission, for other people, for the holy? What is the point of community if we can all just do it on our own? Are our faith communities any more than places that are supposed to meet our own personal spiritual needs - so if I don't like the word God, or meditation, or earth-based spirituality or want no mention of the holy - my faith community needs to not talk about those things because otherwise I will leave because the journey is all about me. It doesn't matter if God, earth-based spirituality or humanism works for someone else. Hence often in liberal faith communities we settle for as much non-offensive language as possible - which often lacks depth.
Robert Bellah is his Ware Lecture in 1998 challenged us to reconsider this. He outright rejected individualism on both sociological and theological grounds. He said, “If we are fundamentally relational creatures, as I think both biology and sociology affirm, then ontological individualism, religious or secular, is simply a mistake, but one with enormous cultural consequences with which Americans in particular will have to deal. … I am forthrightly asking: give up ontological individualism and affirm that human nature is fundamentally social. That would mean making ‘the interdependent web of all existence’ the first of your principles and not the last.” A strong challenge to us!
This tension between the individual and the good of all appeared early in American life and our Unitarian, particularly Transcendentalist forebears, were in the midst of it. Emerson and others uplifted the nobleness of the solitary seeker, going to Walden Pond, the solitary search for meaning within and in nature. Yet not all were sold, there was concern that this focus on the individual could not build the robust common good needed for young America. In the book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Leigh Eric Schmidt, points out that early objections to the Transcendentalists and their quest for the solitary spiritual journey suggested that they might be undermining a strong democracy and civil society. Schmidt writes: “It was seen as one more solvent that corroded civil society and highlighted the danger of new democratic freedoms turning into self-loving vices. The American experiment with freedom and equality, Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his classic commentary Democracy in America (1835–1840), was begetting “a novel expression” of “individualism.” The new democracy, however robust, remained vulnerable; it seemed to throw each citizen “back forever upon himself alone” and “to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” From the vantage point of a fragile republic, solitude appeared the very antithesis of a religiously cohesive nation.”
Yet Unitarian Universalism at its best knows that while we may all be on an individual journey we need each other along the way. We need the wisdom of well-worn paths that can show us the way - particularly if we wish to forge new ones or see new things along the old. We need correction when our journey may become too self-centered, a little too much about me. Community can push one past one's own comfort zone and into places where real transformation happens. One of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism is that there is wisdom to be found in all the world's religions, if so then we are called, we are responsible for not just rejecting something out of hand - rather we called to learn, to listen, to see how it fits or not with our own understanding. At our best we use a variety of religious and spiritual language to speak to the vast array of experience and wisdom available. That is communal, it is an act of learning and leaning on one another. Our opening this morning expresses this beautifully and powerfully.
The reality is that we need each other; we are accountable to each other. We are social beings. We survive because we have formed groups, communities that mean we can work together for food, shelter, companionship, protection. We need each other to make meaning and sense of the world. This has not changed even though our societies are complex and our reliance on each other may not be obvious.
As Bellah drove home in his lecture, we some times see this need for each other as seen as a bad thing. We see it as being needy or dependent – not as an expression of our interdependence – an expression of our fundamental reality of being social beings. We are proud when our toddlers insist on doing it themselves (except those things that will make a big mess). We are dismayed that our young adults are moving home rather than out to live on their own. We eschew common living for individual homes. Asking for help is seen as shameful or less than. Our systems are set up to reward individual achievement or so it seems. For underneath it all, there is a network that the powerful remain so by hiring their own, passing wealth on to their own and even among those not so privileged there is a sticking to who you know versus who you do not. So when we need help, or we can't do it on our own, we are filled with angst, feelings of failure.
At its worst, this isolation and individualism leads to the tragic death of a young man as we saw in Florida. Being isolated and alone, we fear the other. There is no trust, no assumption of best intention, only fear which leads to violence.
It is also why it is such a big deal when someone is the first to do something, the first African American President, the first women senator, the first openly gay congressperson. We know now that the way has been paved for others – that ‘first one’ can open the door for others. Yet still the message that we do it on our own, we are on our own is the story told. So when we ask for help we can sometimes feel like we are imposing, we don't want to bother people.
One of the hardest things I battle in my job search is reaching out to people I know. I don't want to bother them. Yet every single job search book will tell you that it is by reaching out to those you know, by telling people what you are looking for, by asking for their assistance with an introduction or keeping their eye out for possible positions is the best way to find a job. It is not scouring job sites, newspaper ads or filling out endless on-line job applications. So despite all the messages about being self-made people, about doing it all on our own, the single most effective way to find a job is to do what we are told not to do by the culture all the time - we need to reach out, connect with others and be willing to ask for their assistance.
So everyday I have to battle with my fear of reaching out to others and being a bother, a nuisance. I have to recognize every day that I need other people, that I don't have all the resources on my own. The gift is that when I do reach out, I have found people willing and even eager to help. I have been met with such positive feedback. It is always a surprise, always a wonderful gift.
We are connected beings. We need each other and we actually like helping each other out - there is a gift in giving. Yet when we focus so much on having to do it on our own, that it is somehow cheating if we get help, it can be a struggle to let people help, to ask for help. We have a hard time receiving gratefully and gracefully.
Yet as Mary Oliver invites us in her poem – “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” – we can share our struggles, we are not alone “the wild geese call to us announcing our place in the family of things.” We don’t do this alone – we are part of something much larger than ourselves.
What might this look like for our faith communities? Can we be places where we learn to ask for, give and receive help? Can we affirm the individual holding the paradox that we don’t do it alone? That we need each other? Can we both encourage and challenge each other on the journey?
At our best we practice this and yet we can do it better. We can choose to make it a practice in our communities. We can speak the truth that we are connected, that we need each other. In doing so, we discover the joy of giving and receiving. We can practice the love that casts out fear. We can answer the call of the wild geese, calling over and over, announcing our place in the family of things.
I close our service today with one of my favorite UU Benedictions by the Rev. Wayne Arnason:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path
is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another
you are not alone.
May it be so!