Posterity awareness. An awareness that what I do, what we do, what humanity does affects not merely me, us, and humanity, but future generations as well.
This is actually a rather Biblical perspective. Hebrew Scripture particularly is full of references to posterity awareness, though to be honest usually in a rather nagging, negative way. “The sins of the father” if you will.
In Exodus 34 we are reminded that while God is merciful and gracious … there are limits and, quoting, “…that will by no means clear the guilty: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.” In other words, “Watch it. What you have done will affect not only you, but the future.”
In Amos chapter 4 we are reminded that they who, “oppress the poor, that crush the needy … the Lord God hath sworn … that ye shall be taken away with hooks, and your posterity with fish-hooks.” Ouch!
A sentiment attributed to the Iroquois Confederation puts it rather more positively – that in every action we take, we should consider its effect seven generations ahead. Posterity awareness.
But that’s not really where we are at the moment, today, in the 21st century. There are exceptions, but our culture essentially divides us into one of two camps. There are those who think entirely or almost entirely of themselves. “How will this affect me?” This is personified in the movie Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko informs us that “Greed is good. Greed works.” But there is a second camp that believes in “Love thy neighbor. Help thy neighbor.” Mostly, we consider this second camp the good guys.
I would suggest that however laudable and indeed important “Love thy neighbor” is, and we’ve spoken about its importance here, it leaves out another important and indeed crucial element that as spiritual people should engage us. … Love thy neighbor? Good! But what about thy neighbor’s children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren? Being awake to this question, on a daily basis, is what for me makes up posterity awareness.
Posterity awareness does not in any way suggest that we ignore our own lives. Nor am I suggesting that we ignore the lives of those around us who may be suffering. Those lives must not be ignored. So I am not suggesting “posterity fixation,” but rather suggesting and urging posterity awareness – being aware not only of what effect an action I take will have on me and my neighbors, but how might it affect posterity.
Posterity awareness has some strong American roots. The founders of this country, imperfect as they were … as we all are … got it right. I believe they got it hugely right and codified it in, of all places, our Constitution. Say what?!! Glad you asked.
Not unlike Scripture, a lot of people revere the Constitution, indeed even point to the Constitution as a rationale for their actions, without necessarily reading it.
I’m prone to quoting Article Six, Section Three. I willingly confess that as a minister and Interfaither, it is the most relevant to me. Article Six, Section Three, “… No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It’s worth repeating, “… No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Just this year, a candidate for the U.S. Senate declared that no Muslim, because they are Muslim, no Muslim should be allowed to serve in the Congress. So much for upholding the Constitution.
But today, what I would like us to look at is the Preamble to the Constitution. Really?? Really! I’ll share it with you. It’s one LONG sentence, the second half of which is what will prove to be so crucial to us this morning. And yes, the accentuations are mine.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,” and here we go, “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”
“Common defense.” – not simply the defense of the entitled. “Promote the general welfare.” – not simply the welfare of those of a particular ethnicity or income. And the “blessings of liberty” which are not only for ourselves but our posterity.
Interestingly, while the Constitution can be amended, the preamble cannot. The reason for the Constitution is the common defense and the general welfare. Just parenthetically, you may have noticed that a lot of people seem to have fixated on their own welfare and forgotten about the general welfare. But what I’d like for us not only to think about but to take home this morning is the notion of holding at the same moment, as we move through our lives, both “ourselves and our posterity.”
This is not a call to martyrdom. This is not a call to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our grandchildren. There are times when indeed sacrifice may be called for. But what we are talking about this morning is holding “ourselves and our posterity” both in our hearts and our minds when we act. Day to day, week to week, let us make the spiritual commitment to hold ourselves and our posterity in our hearts and our minds. Ok. How?
One example. It was brought home to me when I had dinner out with friends a few weeks ago. I couldn’t finish my large meal, so I asked for a container to take the remainder home. When I was given a styrofoam container I was moved to consider posterity. Styrofoam is not ecologically friendly. While some of it is indeed recyclable, and should be recycled, most of it ends up in landfills. And it stays there a very long time. I wanted to take the food home, for myself, but not in styrofoam. Posterity awareness.
I knew a few local restaurants, like the Sisters in Everett who used compostable containers for their take-out. So I wondered, is there a compostable container that is available to the public? Is there some kind of eco-friendly container I might bring with me the next time I go out to dinner?
When I got home I went online and it turns out that there is! It’s made of compostable wheatgrass. So I ordered some. They are made by “Earth’s Natural Alternative.” I’ve brought enough with me this morning for ten of us to take home five containers each. My suggestion: take a few with you when you go out for dinner – or if you get “take-out” from a fast food place that uses styrofoam, try them out. If you find them as useful as I do, order some. They cost about $0.30 each. For that thirty cents you can get take home or get take out in a container that can be composted instead of contributing yet more packaging to our dumps. Holding in mind ourselves and our posterity, we can still have the convenience of take out, or leftovers from a restaurant, while keeping the future in mind. Yes, it’s simple. That’s the point.
Ourselves and our posterity. The two are not incompatible. That’s really what we want to keep in our hearts and minds. It’s not, not that we should make our own lives miserable in the name of posterity. But rather – what as spiritual beings, as caring humans can we do to keep posterity in mind as we enjoy life?
“For ourselves and our posterity.” As we enjoy our lives, and we should, we also want posterity to be able enjoy theirs. It is these twin concerns that I believe needs to inform what we do. And while it is as old as the Constitution, indeed as old as Hebrew Scripture, I believe the time has come to renew that commitment.
At a time when it is hard for our leaders to think seven minutes ahead, let alone seven years, let alone as the Iroquois Confederation might ask, seven generations, it is time for us to act with intention to keep posterity in our hearts and in our minds.
Let’s be clear, posterity awareness can be complex, and we cannot possibly even begin to examine all of its implications this morning. As but one important example, how we treat a people today can come back to haunt generations to come. We are living with the reality of that right now, and yet so many seem to have learned so little from it. So my purpose today is not the impossible task of exploring every avenue of posterity awareness that we would do well to keep in mind, but rather to get us to think about it and, as we can, to integrate it into how we live. So this morning, just one, bite-sized aspect.
We are, as I’m sure everyone in this room knows, trashing our earth as humans have never trashed it before. Our dumpsites are overflowing. We have turned our oceans and even our air into dumpsites. We are creating and leaving behind for posterity an uninhabitable earth. What to do?
I would suggest that a major building block is remembering to call and write our representatives asking, perhaps even demanding that they think of posterity as well as today before they build, as but one example, yet another oil pipeline. Another major building block is calling and writing our mega corporations, asking, perhaps even demanding that they think of posterity as they seek bonuses for their CEO’s and dividends for their shareholders. But a third building block is seeking out actions we can do ourselves in service to posterity as we enjoy life.
That is the spirit with which we are sharing compostable food containers this morning. It’s a small something, a simple something, as is using bamboo instead of wood pulp for toilet paper. Believe me, I know that. But if we will do it, and talk about it, share it perhaps on Facebook, maybe we can get others to join with us. And if we empower others through our example to act for themselves and for posterity, little acts can take on a life, indeed an important life of their own.
There is a saying from our Christian brothers and sisters: “Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given you.”
What I’d suggest this morning is we become more posterity aware. If we will act as if we believe in the future of posterity, posterity will indeed have a full and good future.
Yes, we need major action from our leaders – from governments and corporations.
But individually, we don’t need grand acts, we need little acts. Little acts, every day for ourselves and our posterity. We can do that. We can. I pray that we will.
All sharings are by their nature personal. But I do want to let you know up front that this morning’s sharing is deeply personal. I want to share with you this morning not so much how Chanukah is celebrated, but how I as a Jew hope and want to see it celebrated; how I got there and why. Seatbelts fastened?
December is certainly a huge month for holidays. And to start things off I have perhaps an odd question to ask, particularly of the “big two”. What is it that we are celebrating? This question is perhaps amplified by the fact that Christmas and Chanukah are indeed celebrated as holidays – Christmas Day is a national holiday. Banks are closed.
Now, you may know that the single word “holiday” was in fact derived by combining two words, holy day, into one. And as with so much of language, meaning changes over time. Holy day and holiday, while still sounding similar, don’t mean the same thing in today’s English. This is something I’d really like us to grapple with this morning. And so this December as we celebrate the holidays of Chanukah and Christmas once again I would ask the question: what is it that we are celebrating?
At Christmas, we say we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace. Yet 2000 years after that birth, while we spend billions on Christmas gifts every year, we spend billions more on the latest and greatest weaponry to blow each other up.
At Chanukah, we say we are celebrating the regaining of religious freedom for the Children of Israel. Yet over the years that followed that victory came the Roman occupation of Judea, the burning of the Temple, the Diaspora, the invention of ghettos, and Hitler’s “final solution”… just to hit the major trials. Today, some 22oo years later, the right to pray openly and without fear, not only for Jews but all of us, is under relentless attack virtually everywhere we look.
So yet again I keep wondering: what is it that we feel we are celebrating?
Chanukah. Many would say we are celebrating the victory of the Maccabees reestablishing by force of arms the right of the Jews in Judea to practice their spiritual path without fear or interference. That’s certainly a cause for celebration, but as we’ve already seen, that right to practice our spiritual path didn’t last very long. The victory of the Maccabees was quickly undone by the power of Rome.
The Hebrew word “Chanukah” means rededication. Many would say Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple – a temple that had been looted and had sacrilege upon sacrilege piled upon its altars and holy books. Happily, the Temple was cleansed and rededicated thanks to the victory of the Maccabees – only to be burned to the ground by Rome some two hundred years later.
So again, what is it that we as Jews are celebrating when we celebrate Chanukah?
Some would say we celebrate that oil that only should have lasted one night lasted for eight – a miracle! … But the truth is, this story actually came later – much later. It’s a beautiful story, but as we’ll see it was added to Chanukah hundreds of years after the fact.
So yet again, the question remains and I can’t escape it: what are we celebrating? Are we celebrating a military victory that occurred 2200 years ago? Are we celebrating the rededication of a temple that would be burned to the ground some 200 years later? Are we celebrating a miracle story that was added to Chanukah generations later? Or are we by chance celebrating the opportunity to compete with our Christian brothers and sisters in helping the economy by buying massive numbers of gifts?
It may surprise you to learn that traditional Judaism treats Chanukah as one of the minor holy days on the Jewish calendar. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur: these are the biggies. Chanukah is minor stuff. So the question I would now like to ask is, when I and other Jews celebrate Chanukah, are we celebrating a holy day or a holiday?
This is a question that, if we choose to, all of us may ask of the celebrations within our own paths. This morning, I am specifically asking it of mine.
I would like this morning to be an advocate for change. I think Chanukah should indeed be considered a major holy day – a deeply sacred day. What are we celebrating? For me we are celebrating the right of every human being, the birthright of every human being to pray as he or she is called.
At Passover, we say, “If one be slave, then none of us is truly free.” At Chanukah I would ask us to say and embrace “If one of us is not free to pray as she or he is called, then none of us is truly free.” A day for the celebration and embrace of the human birthright to pray or not as we are called would truly be a holy day. But as you may have noticed, we’re not there yet.
So how did we get to where we are? To answer that, let’s peel back the onion that is Chanukah. Around 200 BCE, Antiochus the Great of Syria conquered Judea – rescuing its Jewish population from the not particularly loving hands of Egypt. When he died, Antiochus the Great was succeeded by his son, perhaps best called Antiochus the not so great, but usually called Antiochus IV or Antiochus Epiphanes. He forbade the Jews of Judea to practice their religion. To drive the point home, the Temple, the very center of Jewish practice, was desecrated. A revolt was led by a priest whose name was Mattathias, marking the first time in recorded history that a people revolted over their right to pray. When Mattathias died, his son Judah took command. He was such an effective general that he quickly became known as Judah the Hammer or Maccabee. The revolt succeeded, and the Syrians left Judea. The temple was cleaned up and then rededicated. Chanukah. Rededication.
But ritual created a small problem for people wanting to celebrate this great event. The menorah that you see here, the seven flamed menorah, the menorah that symbolizes Judaism to this day, was the Temple menorah.
Ritual demanded that no Jew of that era be allowed to possess one. So a new menorah was created with eight flames, not seven, plus a ninth flame, called the Shamash, to be used to light the others. That’s the menorah we recreated in our joys and sorrows area. It’s called the Chanukiah.
But, you may recall, we said earlier that Chanukah is considered a minor holy day. How minor? The story of the Maccabees is not to be found in Hebrew Scripture. Indeed, the only time it is found in Scripture is in the Catholic version of what became called the “Old” Testament. Now the story in its essence is found in the work of the Roman historian Josephus writing some two hundred years after the fact, and a more embellished version may be found in the Talmud, considered by many in Judaism as “the oral Torah” written some five hundred years later. And it is indeed in the Talmud that the miracle of Chanukah, where oil meant to last for one day lasted for eight, is first mentioned.
Thus time and tradition made Chanukah first into a holy day and then in more modern times a holiday – a fun holiday, with fun food, and dreidels, and songs, and gifts – not to mention LOTS of candles.
For me, a part of reclaiming our holy days goes to how we approach our rituals. This can be a complex subject; but just briefly, rituals can be beautiful. Rituals can help us to focus. But when we lift our rituals too high, I believe they cease to serve the holy day and instead overwhelm and indeed rule it.
As one example, when we dutifully light our candles but don’t become bearers of light and justice ourselves, ritual has conquered holiness.
For me, the so-called “War on Chanukah” or, for that matter, the “War on Christmas” does not come from people saying “Happy Holidays.” It comes from Christmas and Chanukah becoming holidays.
But here for me is the challenge, and I believe it to be a challenge for all of us, not just Jews. Holidays are fun. Holidays are FUN! We shouldn’t have to lose that. I, for one, don’t want to lose that. Indeed, I would strongly urge that we be careful not to lose that! Ok. But if we seek to regain the distinction between holidays and holy days, without losing the fun of holidays, how do we go about that? That’s not a small question.
As an Interfaither, I would like to see holidays and holy days co-exist: peacefully and joyfully. But what I would also like to see is for us to develop the ability to separate holiday from holy day.
And if I as practicing Jew would like to see Chanukah move from only a holiday to also be a holy day and indeed one of Judaism’s major holy days: we return to the foundational question for this morning. What would I be celebrating during the eight holy days of Chanukah?
I would hope that we could take the symbol of the rededication of the Temple as a time to rededicate ourselves – specifically to rededicate ourselves to spiritual freedom for ourselves and all our brothers and sisters. And in the words of the Prophet Micah, that we shall sit, every man and woman, under their fig-tree; “And none shall make them afraid.” All of humanity free to worship as they will, and none shall make them afraid. That for me is a holy day well worth lifting high and celebrating.
May we move to holidays as fun sacred reminders, not sacred days to be observed briefly and then filed away until next year. And let our holy days become a part of our lives, year-long and not just for a day, and inspire us to live, to truly live that which we hold as sacred.
In the words of the hymn we will shortly finish singing … “What is the memory that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame? What’s the commitment to those who have died, when we cry out they’ve not died in vain? We have come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail. This is the burden, and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail. Don’t let the light go out.”
Fair warning. As I wrote this I began to realize that the title should have been “Reclaiming Love Thy Neighbor.” So there we are.
Two weeks ago we talked about reclaiming “us” and the habit of “theming” that has so overtaken our culture. We saw how this is a spiritual problem, not a political problem one, and reviewed how our diverse spiritual paths have urged, demanded, even begged us to love our neighbor – and how it seems to have gone in one ear and out the other, over and over and over again.
But what has made it so easy for humanity to ignore its greatest prophets, spiritual leaders and Scriptures? In a word: tribalism.
It’s as old as humanity. My tribe. Your tribe. I belong to “us.” You’re one of “them.” Our Scriptures have grappled with it. Hebrew Scripture talks of how we were all one once, but because of the arrogance of humanity building the tower of Babel, we got divided into … “tribes.” The Qur’an tries to put a more positive spin on it, telling us that while we were all one to begin with, there’s a trend here, we were divided into tribes so that we might better get to know each other. Bottom line, we are divided. We are divided into tribes.
But while spiritual tribalism gets most of the press, it’s so much broader than that. Tribalism is how we create “other”. “Those people” are not like “us”, so we feel free to treat them … differently. “Those people” may refer to division by what we call race, or gender, or people who live on the other side of a line we’ve drawn in the soil, or people whose politics doesn’t agree with ours. And tragically, that’s just the beginning. And every time we create “those people” we lose “love thy neighbor.”
So it’s not a Muslim problem, it’s not a Christian problem, it’s not a Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, Hindu, UU, or Humanist problem. It’s a human problem. Today we’ll try at least to begin to discern why tribalism has had such staying power, and more importantly, how we might …might… at last begin to move away from it in a positive, loving way.
I can’t help but feel that fear of “other” and tribalism go as far back as the time we first dared to drop down from the trees and are related to if not indeed a crucial part of what’s been called our reptilian brain. Fear of “other” is primal.
Our reptilian brain is often cited as responsible for aggression, dominance, territoriality, and our fight or flight response. Like our reptilian brain, tribalism was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as we evolved on a seemingly hostile planet. We counted on our tribe for protection, for shelter, for food. So tribes are not inherently bad.
But I would submit that like our reptilian brain, tribalism may have outlived its positive usefulness and indeed I believe is the single most profound obstacle to the love, compassion and community we seek as members of our diverse spiritual paths and traditions. Particularly now, as the world convulses, if we can’t at last get away from “theming” there may be no hope for us. But can we at last start moving away? I hope so.
I believe the first step in moving away is to try to understand why it remains so powerful and influential in our lives. We need to take the time to understand it because I believe tribalism and theming are not a conscious actions. It’s a reflex. Our desire to belong to a tribe comes without thinking about it. This is what makes it so easy for the unscrupulous to tap into it.
Tribalism helps us to feel stronger. We are indeed stronger as a part of a tribe than by ourselves. Tribalism helps us to feel safer. We don’t feel as vulnerable in a group as we do when we are all by our lonesome. Tribalism gives us a home, a place to belong. We feel more certain, less fearful and less lost when we have a place to belong – a place where we belong, just us – not them. That’s makes us not only more secure but superior. Tempting. If we are not aware and careful, much too tempting.
Thus the need to belong is a deeply human need: we all need to belong to something. The question is to what? And crucially, how might we hold both our needed sense of belonging and the call to love thy neighbor?
This is not an easy question. For one thing, as with so much in the world, there is no one “right” answer.
I was in High School I think when something was shared with me that has stayed with me to this day. It was at some kind of youth conclave. Someone I hadn’t met before had expressed a prejudice he had about some people, I believe it may have been people of color but I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember was that he knew it was wrong. I asked him why, since he knew it was wrong, why he couldn’t put his prejudice aside. And he told me with great anguish but also great passion. “I can’t. I have to be better than somebody.” “I have to be better than somebody.” Let’s be with that.
Self-worth. If we are to deal with tribalism we need to deal our human need for self-worth. We have a culture, we have nurtured a culture based on telling people how horrible they are and then offering them, or more likely offering to sell them something to help them feel more important, more attractive, more worthy. I believe a crucial aspect of taking “love thy neighbor” out of the realm of platitudes and into a way of living is moving forward with intent to respect and honor our neighbor’s self-worth.
Another aspect of tribalism is fear. The more fearful we are, the more fear-filled we are, the more quickly we retreat from love thy neighbor and take refuge in tribes. Fear, of course, comes in many flavors. We usually talk about fear of death, but I believe we are mostly governed by other fears. Fear of irrelevance – that’s a potent fear. The fear of being unimportant. It can make joining a tribe not only seem attractive but imperative. In this world, with everything that is happening, how can I possibly lead a life that has any meaning? – by joining a tribe.
By joining a tribe I become more than just me. And we need to remember that once I join that tribe to gain some measure of meaning I dare not leave it … even if I believe the tribe is doing something wrong, even something horrible. If I leave I lose my relevance. My self-worth disappears. So I’m stuck with my tribe. Right now, right now across the country, we are watching a whole lot of people stuck in their tribe. Even as they are disgusted or horrified, they cannot leave. So most I think dare not admit that they are horrified, even to themselves.
I believe, then, that another crucial aspect of taking “love thy neighbor” out of the realm of platitudes and into a way of living is moving forward with intent, to listen to and respect each other’s fears – even if they are not shared fears. The more powerless we feel, the more quickly we retreat to a tribe. The more fearful we are, the more quickly we retreat to a tribe. If we will not listen to each other’s fears, without judging, we will never succeed in putting those fears behind us.
Still another aspect of tribalism is the pursuit of power over one another. I believe this is tied in with self-worth – or the lack of it. A bloated, grasping need to find ways for me to strut and proclaim I’m better than you is a primary motivator to grab at power. And tribalism can give us that power.
It’s wrong. We accept that it’s wrong across all our diverse spiritual paths, even as we steadfastly ignore it.
If we are truly to reclaim and embrace love thy neighbor, we are going to have to start putting the universal “we” ahead of the tribal “me.” Ok. Fine. How? We’ve been trying for thousands of years. What on earth can we do differently?
The first thing we can do is what we’ve been doing today – to actually look at it, to stare tribalism in the face and state that tribalism and love thy neighbor are incompatible. Tribalism and love thy neighbor are incompatible. That’s the truth of it. We must, therefore, choose. And if we would choose “love thy neighbor,” then we must not only choose, but then act on our choice.
I deeply believe that to truly embrace love thy neighbor, to truly embrace that there is no them, there is only us, we must accept and then take to heart that love thy neighbor ranks among the most revolutionary thoughts in human history. Now clearly, the revolution started centuries, millennia ago. It’s not our revolution to start. But we can make it our revolution to nurture.
I believe that the day we begin to listen to and respect each other, the day we are at last able to see that our self-worth and loving our neighbor are inextricably intertwined is the day we shall at last see hurtful tribalism take its place in the dustbin of history.
Particularly as Interfaithers, we can nurture love thy neighbor by doing what we do, both here and outside of this room.
Let us declare that we will not be divided. We refuse to be divided. We will not be divided by race. We will not be divided by gender. We will not be divided by spiritual path. Our tribe is humanity. Yes, we have a need to belong. And we belong to the human race.
I feel a short preface should precede today’s message. Today was going to be our Veterans Day service. After all, today is Veterans Day. But life has intervened. Instead, we’ll be discussing two huge spiritual conundrums – two! – in one small sharing. Hate, intolerance and violence seem to be crescendoing into a pandemic. What can we do? And at the same moment, our country and the people who lead it seem unwilling or unable to grasp the environmental nightmare headed straight for us. What can we do?
So I thought we might share about how we might better frame and discuss the hate and division that so haunts us, as well as some thoughts on how we might stay engaged as we struggle to leave a living planet for our children. And these conundrums are related how? I believe that for both, the first step, not the last but the first step is to reclaim a sense of “us.” Us, the human family. Not proclaim it, we’ve done that, but move to reclaim it.
So buckle up. None of this is easy. This is a beginning, not an ending, how might we start reclaiming “us.”
I couldn’t help but notice that a violent man killing more than 50 people in Vegas just last month, didn’t scare us as a nation. It saddened us, but it didn’t scare us. Even more recently 26 people were killed by a violent man in Sutherland Springs, but that didn’t scare us. It saddened us, but it didn’t scare us. Yet when 8 people were killed by a violent man in New York the country panicked. The newspapers screamed terrorism and the president cited this as an example of why immigrants are a threat.
Why? There’s no one answer, but I believe a large part of it to be that most of America saw the murderer in New York as “one of them”. A mentally ill “one of us” is one thing. But a violent “one of them” is truly frightening.
“Those people.” We hear that expression all the time these days – usually followed by a list of the transgressions “those people” have committed. We’ll want to talk about this today, but we’ll want to do more than talk. Talk, as they say, is cheap. It’s important, I believe, to have some manageable, realistic ideas concerning what we might do about it.
For one thing, we can name the problem. With all due lack of modesty, I will confess I have invented a word to describe it. I believe we are suffering an epidemic of “theming”. There’s “us” and there’s “them”. Those people. Almost every day it seems we’re creating new categories of “those people.” That’s “theming.” Those people. Them, not us. And, of course, once we create “them” it gives us permission to oppress, to discriminate, and to hate.
In its essence, “theming” gives us our rationale for hatred. And while many, particularly these days, are talking about it in political terms, I believe this is not a political issue. Hate is a deeply, indeed profoundly spiritual issue.
All of our spiritual paths have tried to teach us to love one another.
Some 2,700 years ago, the Hebrew Prophets tried to teach us to love our neighbor.
Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha tried to teach us to love our neighbor.
Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus tried to teach us to love our neighbor.
Some 1,500 years ago, Muhammad tried to teach us to love our neighbor.
And this is the short list.
But the truth of it is: they all failed. All of them! All of our spiritual paths, be they theistic, atheistic, or agnostic, have tried to show us that we are but one family: the human family. But we haven’t listened. Instead, we not only split ourselves apart, but much too often actually use our spiritual paths to justify splitting ourselves apart.
I submit to you that any person who hates in the name of Judaism, be he or she an American or the Prime Minister of Israel, defames Judaism.
Any person who hates in the name of the Buddha, be he or she a Canadian or a leader in Myanmar, defames Buddhism.
Any person who hates in the name of Jesus, be he or she a Mexican or the President of the United States, defames Christianity.
Any person who hates in the name of Muhammad, be he or she an Indonesian or a leader of Daesh, defames Islam.
We need to be talking about this more.
The crucial truth of it is, whether or not we love our neighbor isn’t up to Jesus. It isn’t up to the Buddha, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah, or any other prophet. They can point the way, but whether or not we love our neighbor is up to us, each of us, not as a Hindu, or UU, or Sikh, or any other path, but as an individual. Loving our neighbor isn’t a slogan, it’s a lifelong commitment, and we haven’t be willing to make it. We have been and we remain too concerned about ourselves. “Me first, my neighbor second” is how most of the best of us live. “Me first, screw my neighbor” is how far too many of us still live.
All right. We can name it. “Theming.” What more can we do … not, what should someone else do, not even what should we do, but what can we do about it? We have become a nation of “those people.” How might we begin to share the understanding that we are “those people”? How can we begin to reclaim the “us” that is humanity? And how do we make it sustainable?
I believe our actions will always speak louder than our words. It is not what we proclaim that matters, it is what we do. And again, let us not get caught up in the impossible task of trying to solve “love thy neighbor” by tomorrow noon, or next week, or next month, or even in our lifetimes. Let us instead set about nibbling at the problem – day, after day, after day.
What I would seek to suggest this morning is not by any stretch of the wildest imagination “the answer” or “the solution.” Would I would like to suggest are a few ideas for sustainable nibbling. Nibbling that we can not only do today, tomorrow and next week, but nibbling that we can make a part of our lives and, by making it a part of our lives, model for others to it make a part of theirs. This, I believe is our real chance to make a difference. And it’s a huge world out there folks. These are just a few concrete proposals for sustainable nibbling. Enter the environment.
One area of reclaiming “us” is recognizing the very real environmental Armageddon our human family is facing. Global warming, climate change, is bringing great storms and famine. Right now – in Bangladesh as well as Puerto Rico. These people are a part of “us”, not “them”. Now, it’s true, nothing you or I can do will by itself halt climate change. But we can begin to nibble at it. Besides shaking our heads in dismay, and perhaps shaking some political trees, there is some sustainable nibbling available to us.
Realistically, not all of us can afford solar panels or electric cars, but all of us can afford bamboo toilet paper. … What!? Do you know how much tp we use and how much wood it takes to make it? Bamboo grows quickly, needs no fertilizer or pesticides, removes climate changing carbon dioxide, and provides roughly 35% more oxygen to the atmosphere than a comparable amount of trees.
But bamboo? Am I serious? Yes. I have brought with me today bags with rolls from two different manufacturers of bamboo tp, Caboo and Silk’n Soft – each bag has one roll of each for you to take home and try out. Try it out. Let’s face it, we use tp every day. This is a simple, sustainable something all of us can do. I have yet to try bamboo “paper” towels for the kitchen, but that’s next on my list. Nibbling. Sustainable nibbling!
What’s another sustainable thing we can do for each other? In the past I’ve handed out copies of “The Better World Shopping Guide.” There is an updated edition available. I’ve brought one to give away to one of us who has never heard of it before – by now most of us have. The bottom line of “The Better World Shopping Guide” is that we don’t live in a vacuum. What I purchase, every day, affects not only me but “us” – the human family. Buying something on the cheap may come at the cost of slave labor – as can be the case with chocolate; or from horrific working conditions – as with some of our cheap clothes. The food we buy and where we buy it matters. We are connected. We are a world family. “The Better World Shopping Guide” helps to remind us that everything we do has a ripple effect.
Another sustainable thing we can do is to keep bringing food for the food bank and, during these cold months, donations to the cold weather shelter. For again, the hungry and the homeless are not them. They are a part of us.
Yet another sustainable thing we can do is risk putting ourselves out there for our brothers and sisters who have become victims of “theming.” I will admit, it can indeed be a risk. For those who have made “theming” a habit are quite likely to push back. And as I found out just this past week from a Facebook post I made. By my pushing back at the thought of “theming” I became one of “them” and subject to some pretty vile language.
Even so, I would share with you now that any phrase, any phrase that begins, “All Muslims,” or “All Hispanics” or “All Black People” or “All White People” that doesn’t end with “are part of the human family” is a part of “theming” and needs to be resisted. But it needs to be resisted without resorting to “theming” of our own and, I would hope, without expletives.
What can we do to help reclaim “us”? We can openly live our lives as a part of the world family.
I need to share at this point that this really isn’t a one sermon topic … though you may have guessed that. So we’ll continue this discussion in two weeks when we ponder “The Need to Belong” and how this very human need has been used against our human family … and what we might do. But that’s for next time.
For now what I’d like to close with is the need for us to speak up and speak out when we hear “theming” – whether it comes from people around us or from our own lips. “Theming” is contagious. If we are not intentional about ourselves and how we think and speak, we too become part of the problem.
And in the meantime, in the meantime with all that is flying at us, let us remember sustainable nibbling … let us seek out things that we can do, every day, that can help to connect us, that can help us to lift each other up, that can help take us from fear of “them” to love of all. It’s a long road. Let us walk it. And as we do, we might just help save the planet. Amen.
Welcome. Welcome back. Welcome for the first time. Here we have indeed gathered side by side. And today, today the ever-broadening circle of kinship that we seek has never been more needed nor in all honesty seemed more distant. A true circle of kinship, where we embrace each other as human beings, without regard to race, gender, politics, nationality, spirituality: how on earth do we help people to get there? In these times of such stress, how do we stay on course ourselves?
So much is happening, so much flying at us all at once from so many directions, it can be overwhelming. Politics. Racism. Rampant hatred and fear. Hurricanes one after another. The western third of the U.S. on fire. Southeast Asia suffering monster monsoons with thousands dead and millions, millions homeless. So many need help. Too many. What do we do? What can we do? What’s possible? A circle of kinship? It seems so distant.
There is always the turtle approach, and right now I must admit it can be pretty tempting. Just pull our heads in and try to wait it all out. But if we want to stay engaged, if we believe in staying engaged … where do we turn?
We can search for answers, but frankly I don’t think there are any. Certainly there is no one silver bullet that will solve everything. For me then, our quest should be for guidance, not answers. Guidance. If we can’t solve this mess, this spiritually debilitating mess, then perhaps, with guidance, we can at least find a way to navigate this storm. That’s what I’d like us to consider this morning. A guiding star. Not answers, but a guiding star. Justice.
Certainly our varying spiritual paths have repeatedly pointed us toward justice. Just a few examples:
From the Baha’i: “Justice is not limited, it is a universal quality. Its operation must be carried out in all classes, from the highest to the lowest. Justice must be sacred, and the rights of all the people must be considered.”
From Islam: “Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin … and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do.”
And from the Judeo/Christian tradition: “Thus saith the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor he who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood.”
So. Is justice an end? Should justice be our goal? If so, in this much too human world, can we ever truly achieve it?
But what if we look at justice not a goal but as a guide? What would life look like if we let justice guide us in our decisions as we live our lives? I think this is what our varying spiritual paths have been trying to share with us over the centuries … indeed over the millennia.
Justice as a guiding star, a course heading. What might that look like? Let’s do some imagining.
While I haven’t seen this summer’s blockbuster “Dunkirk,” I remember well learning of it as a child. In short, well over 300,000 Allied troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and about to be wiped out by Hitler’s advancing forces. The British navy had no way to evacuate the soldiers. And yet, they were evacuated because people in yachts, sailboats, tugboats, rowboats, anyone on anything that could float was sent across the English Channel to aid them. And while many died on the beaches of Dunkirk, most of the over 300,000 soldiers were saved, brought back to England to fight another day.
Now imagine this. Imagine a huge argument taking place on the English shores, not at Dunkirk, but in England, before the ships are ever launched into the channel. Imagine the people in tugboats telling the people in rowboats, “You’re the wrong size. You don’t even have a motor. You’re worthless. Go home.” Then imagine the people in yachts telling those in tugboats, “Your boats are too ugly. You can’t even serve cocktails to the people you rescue. You’re worthless. Go home.” Then imagine people in motor boats telling the people in yachts, “You upper class snobs! What do you know about saving anyone? You’re worthless. Go home.” Imagine no one being rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk because everyone stayed in England arguing over who had the right boats?
I hope this sounds insane, but I mention it because much too often it seems to me this is precisely what we do when we discuss our spiritual paths, let alone our ideology – doctrine becomes our course heading instead of justice. Thus, getting back to the question of “What can we do?” it seems to me that a huge part of our job as Interfaithers is to remind others, and ourselves, that it’s not the boat that counts. It’s not the size of the boat, how attractive the boat is, or whether it moves by wind-power, paddle-power, or engine-power. What counts is getting there, and to get “there” we have to set a course.
Wait a minute, you might ask, “where is ‘there?’” Now this is just one sermon, and I want to admit we’ll be discussing merely one “there” out of many life-goal possibilities. But the “there” I want to talk about is the one that so deeply concerns us as human beings: a meaningful life.
And so we are back to the question we began with: how do we get there? For me, I believe our spiritual paths have from the beginning been trying to point us to a star that can guide us to a meaningful life; a star that can guide us even in the stormiest of times, times like those we face today. No matter how black or bleak the night, seek the star of justice.
Now again, this isn’t the only star in the heavens. Love is there. Compassion. Humility. But today I would ask us to focus on justice as a guiding star. Seek, if you will, a life of love, guided by the star of justice.
Ok. Do justice. Be just. Sounds good. So why isn’t justice our goal? I see justice as a star because I look to justice to guide my actions. I believe that as we pursue our varying goals in life, we are best guided by that star. And if our goal, whatever it may be, takes us away from that guiding star of justice, I believe we are headed for the rocks – even if the goal seems beautiful and desired. Without justice we are heading for the rocks. I believe this to be every bit as true for a country, a people, a spiritual path as it is for each of us as individual human beings.
And if the star of justice cannot guide us to the goal we seek, perhaps we need to reconsider our goals.
And there is another important aspect to this metaphor of justice as our guiding star. As you may have noticed, it’s hard to escape it, we’re all human. All of us! As human beings, the question is not will we make mistakes. The question is never will we make mistakes. The crucial question is, when we make a mistake: what then?
I believe that like the mariners of old who after a storm that has blown them way off course look to the stars to figure out how to get back on course, we can look to the star of justice. For a meaningful life, seek the guiding star of justice. That to me is the great life-lesson: to steer our lives by the star of justice as we search for the kinship we so desire. And when, not if but when we are blown off course by circumstance or our own fallibility, to seek out the star of justice and let it guide us back.
Which brings us back to Dunkirk, if you will. Ask not the size or the color of the boat. Your boat may be that of the Baha’i, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Humanism, or Paganism, or Judaism, or Christianity; your boat may be that of Syria, or Yemen, of France, or Germany, or the United States, or Russia, or China, or Japan; your boat may be a yacht, or an ocean liner, or a kayak, or a creaky old raft. What counts is that we stop staying on the shore, arguing over whose boat is best, but launch our boat, whatever boat we may have and then … and then brothers and sisters, steer by the star of justice.
I hope this makes sense. I very much wanted to talk about it today because in these intensely stormy times, both metaphorically and literally, the stars of fear and hate and doctrine seem to be guiding far too many of us.
Again paraphrasing the words of the Rabbi we quoted earlier: On these three things the world stands. On justice, truth and peace.
What then are we seeking to establish here at Living Interfaith? A safe harbor in stormy times. A circle of kinship that others might emulate if they wish. How do we propose to stay on this course we have set? By following the star of justice. Let us continue to follow that star, even in the storm. Let us be an example of calm in that storm. Let us help each other. Let us be there for each other, as we are there for others in our community.
This we can do.
This service marks the end of seven years together (actually eight, but that first year was pretty informal). Come September, we will begin year eight (actually nine, but … whatever). Still, I have to share with you that it doesn’t really seem like seven or eight years. Sometimes it feels like it’s been seventy or eighty years. And sometimes it feels like just yesterday.
Whichever, I’d like to spend some time this morning on who we are, what we’ve done, where we might be going, and why I believe this small congregation is so flaming important.
Some lessons. I was reminded recently of how difficult it can be to process who we are. A fine person, a good human being and tireless advocate for interfaith dialogue, someone I’ve known for several years and correspond with, sent me a challenging e-mail passionately rejecting Living Interfaith just a few weeks ago He wrote that one thing the world does not need is a new religion.
He’s read both of my books, but still doesn’t get it. Living Interfaith does not ask anyone to embrace a new religion. We practice Interfaith as a faith, not as a religion. Faith is an unprovable spiritual belief. All of our spiritual paths contain faith. But none are solely faith. Faith alone, without Scripture or ritual, will not tell us how to walk our spiritual path, let alone which path might be the most helpful for us to walk. So a faith cannot replace a religion. Nor can it replace a spiritual path that is not a religion, such as Humanism. Our faith, here at Living Interfaith, is the unshakeable but admittedly unprovable spiritual belief that there are MANY, indeed innumerable good and righteous paths. We establish no hierarchy of spiritual paths and indeed we celebrate each other’s spiritual traditions. This is new. Seven years later this is still new, and that can be a problem.
It came up again just last week, at the burrito roll, when I sat opposite a person who was very open to interfaith dialogue but became increasingly uncomfortable as he asked me about Living Interfaith and I explained. At last he told me, “I need one path. One right way.” The subtext was that the full on respect of any other path was a challenge to his need for one path; one right way. What is important for us to understand and respect is that he is not alone. Indeed, he speaks for a cultural norm. It’s the norm today and has been for centuries. It’s how our culture works.
I first experienced an aspect of this several years ago on my first book tour, when “The Interfaith Alternative” faced some of its steepest opposition from loving, compassionate people who had dedicated their lives to interfaith dialogue. Now they saw me as redefining Interfaith and it made them hugely uncomfortable. They saw it the way our culture tends to see things: as either/or. Either interfaith is dialogue or it is a faith. It can’t be both. If one is right, the other is wrong – and thus they saw me as challenging the validity their life’s work – their important life’s work. Little wonder they were so negative.
Sometimes some of us, and I include myself, ask, “It’s been seven years. Why are we still so small?” It’s been seven whole years! 🙂
The truth of it is, that we are new. And in terms culture, little if anything in the way of change ever started out big. And for good reason.
We get used to a way of doing something. It becomes the norm, and change becomes a threat. It becomes a threat because that’s how our culture looks at things: either/or. Most of us have seen this in action, people who try to suggest “both/and” rather than “either/or” are considered at best well-meaning and wrong, and at worst malevolent and wrong. But whichever: wrong.
And then, here comes Living Interfaith. We acknowledge that we are different, while rejecting the cultural norm that different must mean either better or worse. Indeed, everything about who we are is a rejection of that either/or cultural norm.
We respect Christianity and Islam without asking, “Well, who’s right?” We respect Judaism and Buddhism without asking, “Well, who is right?” We respect Baha’i, Humanists, and Pagans without asking, “Well, who is right?” Nor do we ask, “Which is better?” That too can become a roadblock.
For it means to some that all religions, all spiritual paths are the same. I’ve talked to some who think Interfaith means putting all approaches to the sacred in a blender and making a syncretic spiritual smoothie. But I think all of us have experienced that that’s not us either.
For us, the important thing always is to respect our differences, not ignore them. Acknowledge them. Discuss them. Share them. And always, always respect them.
Interfaith as a faith, takes as its primary article of faith that there are many, many ways to be a better, more loving, and compassionate human being in community with each other. What is important, what is important to all of us, whatever our spiritual path, is that we become better, more loving, and compassionate human beings in community with each other. As we’ve said before, it is not the path we walk, but how we walk our path that is so important.
So how have we walked our path? We are close this year … I don’t yet know if we’ll make it but our small church is close to donating 1000 pounds of food to the food bank. That’s walking the path of love. We donate a part of what we collect in dollars every year to those in need: to a church that had been burned, to a mosque that had been defaced, to the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, to the Interfaith Shelter in Everett and many others. We have created, our small church has created part one of what will be a four part Interfaith curriculum, and we’ve posted it on our website, available for free, so that people of good will might teach their children how to learn about, discus, respect and share our differing spiritual paths. In the few months it has been available, that curriculum has been downloaded not only across the United States but in Canada, Austria, and India. Our little church.
But to me, for all of that and more, our most important and significant accomplishment is that for seven years we have met, twice a month, ten months a year. We have LIVED our Interfaith. We have celebrated Ramadan, Easter, Passover, the Ascension of Bahaullah, the Solstice, Flower Communion, Earth Day and so many others – all with joy, sometimes with wonder, and always with respect.
Why do I believe this so important? At a moment in human history when so many are throwing up their hands in frustration at how divided we are, how fearful we are, and how full of rage so many have become – and saying “There’s nothing I can do,” this small group of loving souls continues to meet, and continues to embrace our diversity rather than be threatened by it. This is huge.
And it is so thrilling that in a few years we’ll have a sister church in Vancouver, BC. And there are at least two other people, one I think in New York and the other in North Carolina, who have entered seminary with the idea of starting their own Living Interfaith churches.
That is our great hope for the future of Interfaith.
But again, change takes time. Change takes patience. And change also takes work.
I’d like to close with some reminders that in fact the change we seek lies at the core of all of our spiritual paths. Our species has stubbornly ignored this core, but there it stands. Just a few quotes to share. And they are if you will, but the tip of our common, loving iceberg.
From Hinduism: “Let us have concord with our own people, and concord with people who are strangers to us.”
From Buddhism: “So what of all these titles, names, and races? They are mere worldly conventions.”
From Judaism: “…Whether Jew or Gentile, whether man or woman… all are equal in this: that the Holy Spirit rests upon them in accordance with their deeds.” Notice that it is a person’s deeds, not gender or beliefs that count.
Another chip from that same loving iceberg. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” A message from Paul to the Corinthians. As different as we are, not only are we all connected but, gasp, we need each other.
Yet another chip, this one from the Qur’an. “O humanity! … We made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know each other.” What a thought. We are diverse so that we might get to know one another.
So despite the disquieting fact that not getting along with one another has become our cultural norm, that we really ought to get along is not a new idea. Rather it’s that we keep forgetting it!
From Baha’u’llah: “O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces toward unity and let the radiance of its light shine upon you.”
But frequently, even the idea of unity scares us. Fear pushes us apart, as it does right now, in the United States and around the world. Hiawatha might have been speaking to all of us when he said, “My children, war, fear and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself.” Sound familiar? Hiawatha continues, “My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all.”
There are so many other quotations, from so many other spiritual paths, all trying to remind us of this sacred core common to us all that we all keep trying to forget. But I’ll close with this quote, my personal favorite. It’s an Akan proverb from Ghana. “It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that two antelopes walk together.” All of us being antelopes, or humans if you choose, what matters is not our gender or our beliefs but that we walk together so that we may blow the dust from each other’s eyes.
This is the example we would offer. Let us walk with each other: fearlessly, lovingly, compassionately – blowing the dust from each other’s eyes so that we may revel and take comfort in our diversity.
This is Interfaith – not a religion but an abiding faith in our diversity and the importance of blowing the dust from each other’s eyes. These are the lessons I take from our seven years, and the hopes I hold for our future.
As a kid growing up Jewish, Shavuot never did much for me. The one thing it had going for it was that it came fifty days after Passover … my favorite holiday. That’s how we marked Shavuot. Why fifty days?
Scripture mentions seven weeks. But that’s forty-nine days! Wait seven weeks. The day after, celebrate Shavuot. Fifty days. In Greek: pentecost.
Christianity also celebrates Pentecost. But it’s Pentecost with a capital “P” and not the same holiday. Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, Pentecost fifty days after Easter. What makes things exciting is that with Judaism based on the lunar calendar and Christianity on the solar calendar, on any given year when Jews celebrate pentecost, Shavuot, it can be wildly different from when Christians celebrate it.
I was taught as a child that Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah to the Children of Israel. That’s a beautiful gift. The first five books of Jewish Scripture: the Torah. Some Jewish scholars believe this, the acceptance of Torah, marks the beginning of Judaism.
It was only when I was much older that I learned just how holy this time is that surrounds the giving of the Torah. In Christianity, Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon the disciples and other followers of Jesus when they were celebrating, hello, Shavuot in Jerusalem. Some Christian scholars believe this to mark the beginning of the Christian church. Not on the same date, but near enough to be fascinating to me, Muslims celebrate what our friend Sameer spoke of a month ago when we anticipated Ramadan and especially Laylat al Qadr or the Night of Power. It marks the time that God gave to Muhammad the Holy Qur’an.
So in the same month, though very different centuries, Moses received the Torah, the pillar of Judaism, the Disciples received the Holy Spirit, completing the Trinity, and Muhammad received the Qur’an the pillar of Islam.
We’ll be speaking about Shavuot this morning, and, frankly, some troubles I’ve had relating to it over the years. But I wanted to share how remarkable it is to me how this one month is so holy and special and foundational for all of the Abrahamic traditions. This year our calendars aligned! The first day of Shavuot was June 1st. Pentecost was June 4th. The Night of Power will be June 18th, 21st or 22nd depending on different ways of counting. That’s just amazing. Let’s take a moment and breathe that in.
Ok. Shavuot. One of the traditions about Shavuot that bothered me growing up was that the Torah is so flaming repetitive. If it was indeed handed over to Moses in one piece by God, good grief, I wondered, was God really this disorganized? And there were parts of the Torah in conflict with each other (perhaps most famously, two different creation stories). Couldn’t God get the facts straight? For me, this meant that however holy, Torah was the work of humanity, not the divine.
This was one of the things that pushed me away from Judaism, as, I think, the literal reading of sacred texts has pushed many away. But other things in Torah pulled me back to Judaism. I think I’ve spoken of this before – the peril of aging is that you’re never really sure – but even if I have, for me it was so foundational to why I stayed Jewish even as a doubting youth, and have remained Jewish even as I became an Interfaith minister that I want to risk repeating it.
Torah teaches us that when Abraham is told by God to fetch Lot and his wife because God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham doesn’t say, “Yes, God. Whatever you say God.” Torah teaches that Abraham said, and yes, I’m paraphrasing, “Wait a minute. Ok. You’re mad at Sodom and Gomorrah and want to destroy them. I get that. But what if there are fifty good people? Will you destroy them too in your anger? A just God doesn’t act this way!”
God doesn’t zap Abraham for what many might call blasphemy. Instead, God relents and says if there are fifty good people, the cities won’t be destroyed. Well, Abraham now has his foot in the door. What if there are forty, what if there are thirty? And finally, what if there are ten? Ok!! Well, there aren’t ten and the cities are destroyed. But I really liked Abraham’s example. It spoke to me.
Something very similar happens again in Torah, this time in the Book of Exodus. While Moses is atop Sinai, getting not only Torah but very specifically the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from God, the Children of Israel waiting below lose patience and make a golden calf. They begin worshiping the golden calf and God’s reaction is to lose it. God is going to destroy them all but Moses says No! A just God doesn’t act this way. Moses instructs God … I repeat, Moses instructs God, quoting from the translation I have of Scripture, “Turn from Thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against Thy people.” Moses tells God to repent!
And again, God doesn’t zap Moses for insubordination. Instead, God relents. I never took this as a lesson about God. I took it as a lesson about justice.
I mean, if Torah teaches us that we can talk back to God if we feel an injustice is being done, it seemed to me that we are being told not only that we can but that we have an obligation to stand up to anyone acting unjustly. We are being told that above all, above ALL, even our loyalty to God, is to act with justice. What a lesson! This teaching from the Torah, the gift we celebrate on Shavuot, is what touched my innermost self and kept me Jewish.
Not that there weren’t a few bumps. For one thing, I learned as I studied that the Hebrews were farmers, long before they became Jews. Judaism was a religion of farmers. Indeed, most Jewish holy days were and still are centered around farming. Sowing, reaping.
In fact Shavuot began as an agricultural holiday. The late spring harvest. Indeed, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot was and is called “Counting the Omer.” Omer means sheaves.
I’ll confess, as a city boy this was of no interest to me. And how an agricultural holiday could morph into the day we received the Torah seemed to me a stretch. Quite frankly, I didn’t given Shavuot another thought until this year.
But what am I celebrating?
I know from my studies that the Torah comes from at least four different sources. They are usually referred to as the Yahwist, the Eloist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist sources. They are not only different sources but from different centuries. So no, I cannot celebrate Shavuot as the moment God gave Moses the Torah.
Nor does Shavuot the agricultural holy day call to me. Holy days that are crucial to a struggling and oppressed ancient agricultural community, may not have a lot of meaning for the posterity of that community some three thousand years later.
For me, the Torah has two fascinating but differing aspects and I believe this is important. One aspect is as a vessel for holding sacred truths – a guiding light by which we may steer our lives – this never grows old and never loses relevance. The other aspect of Torah is as a repository of ethnic history – not laws for today, but insight into the lives of our ancestors yesterday.
The truth of it is that for me the ethnicity of Scripture, however fascinating, ceases to be relevant. I had to look up what sheaves are, I don’t carry shekels, and I haven’t sacrificed a ram in years!
So why this year has Shavuot not only taken on new meaning but a new urgency? It is because Torah holds sacred truths passed down to me from my ancestors. Most especially here, today, I look to a sacred truth that came both from Abraham and from Moses. The call to justice: to be just and to reject injustice. This call is consistent throughout Scripture. From the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters.” And the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord ask of you? Only this: to act justly.”
But most especially, at Shavuot, as we celebrate the living Torah in our lives, I hear the call of justice from the work of Abraham and of Moses.
It is pivotal to me that we are called not only to act with justice but to stand up to injustice. Stand up to injustice, not just complain. Abraham did not go home and complain to Sarah, “Oh darling, you can’t believe how unjust God is about to be. But what could I do? It’s God!” No, the lesson I took from Torah was that Abraham spoke up, even to God, to say, “You can’t do this. It’s not just.” For Moses it was the same conundrum answered in the same way. The lesson again, is injustice is injustice, no matter from where or how high it may come.
At this sacred moment, at this sacred time when we celebrate Torah, the Holy Spirit, and the Qur’an, and at this time that injustice has come into our cities and our homes draped in the raiment of fear, and hate in order encourage our smallness and our acquiescence, let us remember our call to justice and our call to stand up to injustice. All injustice. We must demand justice. We must demand justice. We must demand justice.
It is not justice for me. It is not justice for our small group. It is justice for all. Our Black friends, our Latino friends, our Muslim friends, our LGBTQ friends.
Let justice roll down like waters. Let us act with justice and demand justice: no matter who is looking, no matter from where the injustice comes. No matter how powerful the perpetrator of injustice may be. As we celebrate Shavuot and throughout the year let us honor our sacred books and our sacred traditions by taking up the mantle of justice and not giving ground.
Let justice roll down like waters.
May we stand firmly against injustice. Remembering that we are taught by all of our traditions that an injustice against the stranger is an injustice against ourselves. In this time of such stress and fear, let justice roll down like waters.
In 1970, in 19 flaming 70 Alvin Toffler wrote a book called “Future Shock.” Mr. Toffler didn’t coin the phrase “information overload” but he certainly popularized it. And 1970 was pre-internet. Today we have information overload by the bucket.
Just the past few days we’ve had murder motivated by bigotry labelled as terrorism when the murderer was Muslim, but simply murder by some nut when the murderer was a Christian White Supremacist. There was the battle over repealing the Affordable Care Act. There’s a Supreme Court nominee who is, shall we say: controversial. There’s the extent of the Putin-Trump connection. And, by the way, there’s widespread famine being predicted in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Not to mention a multitude of wars and, oh yeah, the polar ice cap melting. And that’s just the surface … this … past … week.
It seems to be flying at us from all sides. So much, and so massively huge that we tend to fixate on what we can’t do. There’s so much that we can’t do! I mean, good grief the ice cap is melting!
I’ve watched some friends flame out by caring too deeply about too much. I’ve watched other friends simply turnoff and tune out to protect themselves from going mad. So much is wrong. So much needs changing. Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Sikh, Hindu … what’s our response? What are we supposed to do? Oh hell, maybe the ostrich is right! Where’s a hole I can stick my head in? … Maybe not.
If you know me, you know that consistent with my Interfaither beliefs, I support remaining engaged without flaming out or tuning out. I strongly concur with 1st century Rabbi Tarfon, who told us that our obligation is not to complete the work, but neither are we free to abstain from it. Perhaps someday, after I’ve long departed, I’ll be remembered … by someone … as a proponent of the never-ending nibble approach. Eat. Sleep. Work. Play. And nibble at what needs changing. Whatever the problem is, keeping nibbling. If it’s really, really dark, let us light a candle … and then keep nibbling.
Which brings us to our sermon topic today: Our Earth – What We Can Do. The first thing to notice is that we are not asking “What can we do??” That’s the question a person asks who’s on overload, ready either to burn out or tune out. What can we do? Instead we take the nibbler’s position. Ok, big problem. Here’s some things we can do – things we can do. Right now.
Tonight there will be a worldwide honoring of Earth Hour, in support of action on Climate Change. The Space Needle will go dark for an hour tonight, starting at 8:30. Climate Change, Global Warming, is huge – literally earth-changing. But again, let us not be distracted by “What Can We Do?” Instead, we want to speak a little about what we can do. Or, if you will, practical nibbling. Maybe I’ll write that someday as a companion to Practical Interfaith.
Voting is, of course, critically important. Politics is critically important. I of course, I hope “of course,” encourage all of us to be informed and not only to vote wisely but first and foremost to vote! But this is a spiritual gathering. Let’s deal with matters spiritual and personal. For aside from politics there remains much for each of us to nibble at.
First, let’s clear the spiritual air. There’s a passage in Hebrew Scripture that must be addressed. It’s Genesis 1:28. “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’” Some have taken this as license for humanity to do whatever we want to the earth and all that dwell here. Not unlike the spoiled child, the comment is, “Well God gave it to us. We can do what we want.” And we have acted as spoiled children. This is not the time to go into a lengthy discussion of how Genesis was put together. Instead, I’ll simply offer that, assuming for the moment there is a God and God said this. Having dominion, it seems to me, carries some responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to leave behind us when we exit a habitable, thriving world for all creatures great and small – not to mention for our children and grandchildren.
I rather like a teaching from Taoism. “Both the horse and cow have four feet. That is Nature. Place a halter on the horse or a string through the cow’s nose and that is man. It is therefore said, ‘Let not man destroy Nature. Do not let cleverness destroy what should be.’ ”
Right now, much of humanity’s “cleverness” is threatening to destroy our home, our planet. Or to put it in terms of Genesis, we are horrifically failing our responsibilities as the ones who have dominion over this Earth. The problem is huge. We aren’t. But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and cry, “What can we do?” So let’s look at some things we can do.
One of the things I could do was go to Standing Rock to support our Sioux brothers and sisters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. A month ago, when I wanted to go back, my health wasn’t good enough. Ok. So I couldn’t go back to Standing Rock and march, but I could organize a march here in Lynnwood. So I did. I was joined by thirty-five other concerned citizens and we not only marched to City Hall but presented the City of Lynnwood with a letter of petition and a proposed resolution of Support – so the City of Lynnwood could go on record supporting the right of our Sioux brothers and sisters. That resolution is now scheduled to come to a vote on Monday, April 10th. These were things I could do. Each of us, according to our own lives and abilities have things we can do. You may be able to do things that I couldn’t and can’t. But what I would like to propose now are a few things we can all do. And we can do them today. Right now. It’s nibbling at the problem. I know that. But I also know that the more of us who nibble, the more we can accomplish.
Nibble number one. I think most of us are aware that our use of plastics has gone way overboard. We have a throwaway society and we throw away mountains of plastic – plastic that will not decompose, plastic that kills and pollutes. Like most of us, my recycle bin is fuller every week than my trash bin. If I don’t have a bag with me when I shop, if I’m asked “paper or plastic” I choose paper. But most of the time I bring a bag. We don’t need plastic bags. You may have noticed that we have plastic utensils that we use during the social hour. We don’t throw that plastic out. We take the plastic home, wash it and bring it back. That’s one thing, along with recycling in our homes, we are already doing.
But speaking of recycling, did you know that computer plastics, of all things, are now being recycled into pens. There is no longer any excuse to have pens that aren’t made from reused plastic. In fact, I have brought three boxes of recycled plastic pens with me so that everyone here can try a pen out. And there’s enough so anyone who wishes may take a second pen home for a significant other to try. Every nibble counts!
And what about electricity? I think we are all aware of the effect our oil-driven culture has had on Global Warming. Some of us are in a position to do more than others. But there is at least one thing we can all do today to reduce our consumption of electricity and thus our reliance on oil and gas, even as we turn more and more to renewable sources of energy. We can transition not only from incandescent light bulbs but also compact fluorescent bulbs. We have here today ten boxes of LED light bulbs. Two bulbs to a box. Everyone is welcome and indeed encouraged to take a box home. And if there are boxes left over, please feel free to take two boxes. I’ve transitioned from a house with fluorescent lighting to LED light. It has worked beautifully for me … and yes, my energy use has gone down.
These first two were pretty easy. This last one is more difficult. It will take real intention and persistence. We can start today, but it’s only a start. It’s changing how we shop. I’ll warn you, it takes time. I’m still working at it. It takes time because from the moment we were born it was drummed into our heads to seek “bargains.” Whether it’s food, or clothes or appliances or anything else we shop for, we have been taught to search out the “best deal.” Yet we’ve been taught to seek the best deal with one crucial element missing. The best deal for whom? Well for us, of course. What else matters? It’s thinking like that that is the primary force behind Global Warming and Climate Change.
But what if we change our worldview and decide that if a bargain for me means someone else lives in slavery or is paid poverty wages, it’s a false bargain. If a bargain for me means that the production of the appliance I’m buying contributes to the destruction of the planet, it’s a false bargain.
So how do we navigate these false bargains?
There’s a book that can really help. It was introduced to me some ten years ago by our own Rebecca Alder. And I know I’ve introduced several of us to it over the years. So I only have four copies with me here to hand out to anyone who may not yet know about “The Better World Shopping Guide.” In short, the book rates products and companies A to F – not according to how little something costs, or even how good it tastes or works or how long it lasts. The products and companies are rated A to F on how good or toxic they are for our planet. I use it almost every day. I know some of you keep it in your cars so it’s handy. It’s purposely a small book, so that you can keep it in your pocket or purse.
And so we are back to thinking about what we can do. These are things we can do … today. And I hope we will share the knowledge. If you feel like passing this forward, perhaps consider having a “Things We Can Do” party and invite some friends. Pass out some light bulbs and some pens made of recycled plastic. Talk about recycling in general, or suggest some other earth-friendly things that we can do that I haven’t mentioned. And you might have your own copy of “The Better World Shopping Guide,” available for people to thumb through.
Let us stay active. Let us stay engaged. Let us not wonder “What can we do?” but instead commit ourselves to what we can do. And let us relentlessly nibble! Maybe not today, but in the near future, many of us can replace throw-away batteries in our homes with rechargeable batteries. When we shop, we can seek out packaging that uses minimal or no plastic. This is a way to keep our spirit whole.
Let us not let the enormity of our task dispirit or discourage us. In celebrating our Earth and in committing ourselves to reclaiming the garden that it can be, let us remember to nibble and, when chance gives us the opportunity, encourage others to nibble as well.
We are about to exit the flu season for this year, for which anyone who has had the flu may well be exceedingly grateful. And we may all be grateful that the worldwide flu pandemic which many dread every year, and some feel is only a matter of time, didn’t visit us. Not this year. But flu is not the only dangerous and indeed deadly pathogen that threatens us. At the moment we appear to be in the middle of an onslaught of hate: deadly, destructive hate that does not seem to be limited to any season.
Indeed, we seem to be suffering from a worldwide pandemic of hatred: screaming, angry vindictive and often deadly hate. It is perhaps most evident to us right now in the United States because we happen to live here. And it’s not just national, it’s local. A Redmond mosque was defaced, repaired and defaced again. Just this week a Kent man, a Sikh, was shot outside his own home after being told to “go back to your own country.” Yesterday a Jewish Temple in Seattle was defaced.
Given comfort and cover by the Hater in Chief, bigots appear to be climbing out of the woodwork. Muslims are targets. Hispanics are targets. Sikhs are targets. Jews are targets. Women are targets. People of differing orientations are targets. And the list keeps getting larger. And as horrific as this is, it is not illogical that the list continues to grow. There is a reason. Hate … is … contagious. We saw it spread in the UK after the Brexit vote. We see it in France. And that’s just Europe. The madness is worldwide.
So what do we do about it? How do we react? For me this is a crucial and paramount question, because I strongly believe that hate is indeed a pathogen. I believe to my core that if we do not take steps to build up our own immune systems that hate will infect us. Not “them” whomever we are calling “them” at the moment; but us. Hate will infect us. You and me. So what I want to be speaking about this morning are some thoughts not only on how we might begin to stem this pandemic, but also how to build up our own resistance to that highly contagious pathogen: hate.
Oh come on, is that really a problem? Is it? We are such compassionate, loving people here, and I’m not joking! This is a wonderful group. Are we all really in danger of being infected? I believe the answer is an emphatic yes. And I believe it is when we think of hate and its co-pathogens fear and intolerance as weaknesses, something “those people” suffer from, that not only our country but we ourselves are the most at risk.
So let’s do some digging. That’s what I’ve been doing this past week and a half. And that’s what got me into a bit of trouble.
I tend to use the words hate and fear almost interchangeably because I believe them to be siblings: blood relatives. Even so, it’s important to note that they are different. Indeed, it is the way that they are different that became more and more apparent to me as I pondered it this past week. As I see it, fear and hate are like cause and effect. Yes, related; but different. So to have any hope of coming to grips with hate, we must also at the very same moment tackle fear.
I believe that for the most part, for the most part, fear drives hate. It’s not the other way around. Hate does not drive fear. We do not become fearful because we hate. We become infected with hate because we are filled with fear. Both, then, are dangerous – but fear is the driving danger.
As an obscure and aging Interfaith minister once said, “Whether we are consumed by hate or consumed by fear, in the end we are someone else’s dinner.” Or, to put it in different words, one of the surest ways to surrender our freedom is to be ruled by fear and driven by hate.
Demagogues have long known this. To a control a people: fill them with fear, nurture their hate, and then point at “the enemy.” “It’s their fault.”
It goes in that order. I would suggest that one reason for this is that fear is socially unacceptable. Fear is seen as a sign of weakness. People may call hatred horrible or disgusting, but how many call it weak? How many see hate as a sign of weakness? Thus hate is fear given a culturally acceptable form. Then, all we have to do is rationalize it. “We hate because” … easy as pie.
No one is immune. No one. This is a pathogen that knows no political favorites. Trump, Cruz and the rest of the Republicans got all the press. But go back and read what so many of the Clinton people said about Sanders people, and what so many of the Sanders people said about Clinton people.
And still do. It’s hateful stuff. Hate is contagious. Contempt and intolerance are contagious. And remember, it begins with fear. The breeding ground is fear.
So the first step, if you will, in vaccinating ourselves against becoming hate-filled and intolerant is to recognize and guard against our own fears.
I’m remembering some words my father said to me a long, long time ago. Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things, but in this I thought him quite wise. “Be fearless,” he told me. “Don’t be stupid, but be fearless.”
I would suggest this: that a person filled with hate, however strong he or she may appear to be, is in fact desperately afraid. And if we hope to turn down the hate we must deal with the fear behind it. Thus, despite the title of this sermon, if we are even to begin to deal with any success with the pandemic of hate, and the intolerance and rage that stem from it, we must realize that hate is in point of fact the symptom … the symptom, not the disease. If we would deal with the disease we must deal with fear – our own fear, and the fears of those around us.
Dr. King famously said that “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” I believe he was right and that a basic reason he was right is that the only way to successfully address another person’s fear is with love. Not shouting. Not anger. Love.
As we read together earlier, the Dhammapada of Buddhism agrees, saying, “Never does hatred cease by hating in return; only through love can hatred come to an end.”
Now this is not to say that there aren’t people who preach hate and fear to further their personal power and their own agenda. We know there are. We hear them, almost daily, preaching fear. But we make, I believe, a huge mistake when we treat the people they reach as hateful. I do not believe they are hateful. I believe they are fearful. It is the fear, it is always the fear that we must address – including the fear within our own hearts and minds. And that can only be done with love.
Love. Some will see this as weakness. Indeed, there was a time when I did. But not now.
When I was a child, and indeed when I was a young man. Ok. Even when I was a middle-aged man I was baffled by something that Jesus is reported to have said. “Love your enemies.” What the heck? “Pray for those who persecute you.” Oh sure. That’ll help. Not!
These days I feel I understand it better. For me it is “Love your enemies, lest you become them. For fear and hate are contagious and deadly.”
Love your enemies, lest you become them. Loving your enemy is being proactive, not passive. Fear feeds on fear. Hate feeds on hate. It’s time to put both hate and fear on a diet! – a loving diet.
The power of love over fear and hate is something that Martin Luther King Jr. showed us. It is something Mohandas Gandhi showed us.
And we can follow in that example. Even today. Indeed, as we face a decidedly difficult future, I feel we must follow that example – not only to overcome those who hate, but lest we become hate-filled and lose ourselves.
One small thing that happened recently gave me some optimism and I’d like to share it. Many of you may know that I recently organized and led a gathering and march, right here in Lynnwood, in support of our Sioux brothers and sisters at Standing Rock. I was deeply concerned because, just a few weeks before, a friend had led a march in Seattle in support of refugees and it had been overwhelmed with bad feelings and hateful speech. We live in an angry, angry time.
Now to be fair, much of the time there is justification for that anger. In my opinion the government and the police in North Dakota have acted outrageously. Once again, to advance the profits of the white elite, our indigenous peoples are being kicked to the side of the road … at gunpoint. Angry? Yes. Give in to the anger? No.
The Seattle City Council, bless them, had taken a stand. But I don’t live in Seattle. I put together the march so that we might present to the Lynnwood City Council a proposed proclamation of support for Standing Rock.
But could we do that in this day? Amidst so much anger, could we gather and march lawfully, peacefully and, if you will, lovingly? Could we do it?
The answer is yes. Thirty-five people got together and marched in peace and with love. I share this with you because it fills my heart to brimming. We can do this. We can.
The Lynnwood City Council will consider our request. I don’t know what their answer will be, though I will by the next time we meet. But this much I can say. We had a cause about which all of us were and are deeply passionate. We marched for justice, with signs and with purpose … and with love.
How do we move forward in the difficult times ahead? We move forward with love – with determination and passion … and love.
How do we fight fear? Not with anger and not with hate: but with love.
Jesus mentioned that we should turn the other cheek. But I would note that he does not talk about retreating. Turning the other cheek does not involve standing down. Turning the other cheek does not involve giving up or giving in.
Gandhi did not stand down either. He marched. He too turned the other cheek. He never lifted his arms in anger, but neither did he stop marching for justice. He marched with love and without violence, but he marched.
A few hundred years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “These are the times that try men’s souls.” I believe we have reached such times again.
Evil must be resisted. Hate and the fear that spawns it must be resisted. That said, we need to recognize that it won’t be easy and it won’t be swift. It will take time. It will take effort, persistence and dedication and yes, boundless love. And yes, there will be setbacks. Yet I believe they can be overcome. But if we would be successful in resisting hatred and fear in others, we must guard against it in ourselves. The vaccine is love. The vaccine is love.