Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Matter of Practice

I want to talk about maps. Imagine looking at a map of the world. Recognize the many different colors of the countries and  take notice of the bold lines that separate these countries. Now imagine looking at a topographical map. There are no colors identifying boundaries. There are no bold lines creating separateness. Some of you may be sci-fi fans. You might wonder if the people of another planet, millions and millions miles away, might now be on a mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and civilizations. If they came here, what would they see?  No lines between this spot of land and another miles away. Just a blue-green sphere, with clouds spinning in the light of the sun. And when they met the people, they would surely regard us all as one people. One species of earthlings.

They would probably be astonished to learn about the imaginary lines. They might be confused when people within these lines are suffering from a famine, while the people within the other lines over there have so much food that they are throwing it away. They might ask “Why don’t you redistribute food to where it is needed?” We’d try to explain.

Our explanations may make some kind of sense when you see the lines on a map. It doesn’t make much sense if you look at the lines on the faces. A philosopher named Emmanuel Lavinas said that “most philosophy began with the wrong question.”  It started with Who am I? But he said  “that wasn’t the first question at all. Where we begin, as we make our way through life, is by seeing another’s face and recognizing in it one’s own. More basic than the question Who Am I? is What is the relationship between me and this other, this face I behold?” It’s several months before newborn babies are interested in mirrors. But well before that, they are fascinated by other people’s faces. Sometimes even before they can focus their eyes. It is as if we know from birth that our connections to other people shape us, make us, and are us.

What is the relationship between these faces -- the faces of our guests -- and our own? Looking into another’s face, I can see laughter, age, youth, interest, anxiety, and curiosity. Take a moment to contemplate the faces. Look at the people steadily with open eyes and open hearts. To look into another’s face is to recognize the essential absurdity of those lines on the map. What does it mean that some of these faces dwell within some of those lines? What significance can it have, in comparison with all that is within those eyes and those smiles?

When Lavinas counsels us to begin with the face, he is asserting something very simple that we know to be true: we are all connected. Anything that tells us otherwise is an illusion. There is a word for the illusion that we are not connected: alienation.  Meaning someone who is foreign, someone who is a stranger, someone who is not part of the community. When we experience alienation we feel totally separate not affected by others, having no effect on them.

When we forget our interconnectedness, we separate ourselves from our community. We feel alienated, a sad and destructive feeling. One opposite of alienation is connection. Another opposite is Unitarian Universalism. Knowing that we are all unified, in unity, is part of being Unitarian. Knowing that we are universally connected and intertwined is part of our being Universalist. 

Love is the antidote for alienation. Love is the cure. The kind of love we are talking about is the kind Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not about being in love with your neighbor, being fond of your neighbor, liking your neighbor, It’s not about feeling at all. It’s about knowing that we are not separate. The fact of our being neighbors, of our sharing this planet, of being parts of the same interdependent web, makes us one. Love is knowing that and acting upon that knowledge.  Love is also about honoring each person’s fundamental rights. And doing what we can to ensure that every person has access to those rights and harness their power to live thriving, fulfilled lives. That kind of love transcends borders and leaps over boundaries.

Our task today is to embrace the Guest at Your table program offered by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The UU Service Committee is an organization that certainly deserves our support; they have been active on the front lines of world wide social justice issues since the days of Nazi Germany. The work of the UUSC isn’t charity. It isn’t crisis relief. The fundamental task is to show that each of us are all connected. That the barriers we erect between us are fiction and that we must work together toward our mutual liberation.

By celebrating Guest at Your Table, you are helping nurture a spirit of gratitude and "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." Guest at Your Table fosters understanding and awareness of UUSC's human rights work. Guest at Your Table is an annual tradition in which congregation members learn about several people with whom UUSC is working. This year, we are featuring people who have empowered others to realize their human rights. These people are your “guests,” and we ask you to share your blessings with them to support our shared mission.

We're hoping that as many of you as possible will support them by becoming a member have offered you what you need to participate in creating wholeness and removing unnecessary barriers. I want to tell you about one specific table. My childhood kitchen table was routinely graced by people with disabilities, in emotional distress, hungry, homeless, struggling with addiction, or gay and lesbian folk all challenged by an inhospitable world. I watched my family welcome everyone to the table and as folks sat a while they were treated with dignity and were offered support, fellowship, and love. I witnessed compassion for others, generosity, understanding, acceptance of differences, and giving voice to the “underdog” through the behaviors of my parents and family. I easily learned to adopt these behaviors which have become expressions of my faith today and my love for and belief in Unitarian Universalism as a saving faith.

This personal reflection will help you understand why I feel I am among friends here in this Congregation. I easily identify with the culture of this Congregation that allows us to look beyond ourselves. I’ve witnessed a Haitian minister pick up donated clothing for his ministry here and in Haiti; we collect food for El Sol; we package food for hungry immigrant families; we stand beside Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists to create change in our communities; we are beginning a program that allow us to be faithful stewards of the earth; and we will soon begin our work with families that are homeless in our community.   As your minister, typically my words are a call to action, to challenge us, but today my words are to remind this Congregation that it has set the welcome table and you have welcomed and fed countless individuals and families who do not look like us, worship like us, but are connected to us. Yes our work shall continue and grow. But you should know you already understand how to reach across boundaries, how to look in the face of another and see yourself and most importantly you have the will and recognize the moral imperative to respond. I don’t doubt for a second that you won’t continue to reach and join the Unitarian Universalist service committee in widening our circle of support, of love, of courage.

I bring you a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh:

 Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
Peace is all around us
in the world and in nature -
and within us -
in our bodies and our spirits.
Once we learn to touch this peace,
we will be healed and transformed.
It is not a matter of faith;
it is a matter of practice.

I chose these words from Thich Nhat Hanh because I love how he points out that mindfully taking the time to touch that place of connection -- that place of peace -- is both healing and transformative. And, he goes on to tell us, it is not really a matter of faith so much as it is a matter of practice! Let us look in the faces of our brothers and sisters and with the outstretched hand of human fellowship and practice and practice. Let us share our blessings.

May it be so.

A Matter of Practice, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 3, 2013.

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