Sunday, January 12, 2014

After the Lights

Many of you have been following my Facebook page over the last couple of days.  For those of you who haven’t or aren’t sure what Facebook is, you should know that I spent the last week in New York at my home near Canada. Some advice: There is no reason to visit this place in winter that is literally over 100 degrees colder than our beautiful home here in Florida. I spent nearly 26 hours trying to get home and as you can see I was successful. I started my journey at 7:30am on Friday morning and touched down on Florida soil late Saturday afternoon. You might expect today’s sermon to describe my adventure. But not today. I assure you, you will hear of it again!

In mid-December, Harlan Lampert, the Chief Operation Officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a poem on his Facebook page. A poem that I’ve been sitting with since.

In our culture there is a buildup to the holiday season. Once we reach the holidays it seems we have peaked and choose not to gradually let ourselves down on the other side. A task I believe that is worthy of our time and attention. You see after the lights are taken down, literally or figuratively, the work that this past season inspires continues.

This brings me to the poem which may help us consider our course of direction for our new year. I am sure you have heard this poem written by educator, theologian and civil rights activist, and minister Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star is in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
   to find the lost,
   to heal the broken,
   to feed the hungry,
   to release the prisoner,
   to rebuild the nations,
   to bring peace among brothers,
   and to make music in the heart.

I always wonder what my first message of each year should and will be. This year I was helped by the service last week, Improvisation, led by Howie Stone. A rich service leading us into the New Year.

The Rev. Jackie Potter helps us understand our work this time of year by breaking down Thurman’s poem and making it relevant to our lives today. She writes, “But Thurman’s poem suggests some work for us to do, a calling which seems to happen naturally when our hearts have been refreshed and reborn in beginning a new year together.”

Regardless of our theology the holiday season that has just passed asked us to consider the paradox of the birth of Jesus, but also that Christians await his return. Waiting doesn’t need to be for us. Gandhi tells us, “we are the one that we are waiting for. I am the one and you.” We are the ones who must open our hearts, reach down and call on that still small voice within each of us which is waiting there. “We are the light which can shine in the darkness” says Potter. Thurman’s poem tells us that the angel's song is over, the shepherds are back on the hills, and the kings are home. He tells us of the work which we are called to do and I wonder if any of this work has meaning or significance to you.

We are to find the lost. Where do we look for the lost? You needn’t go far. They are living under bridges, sleeping on benches and are being turned away from shelter right here in our own community. They are lost, have no home, no security. I am grateful for the organizations that serve them, which we need to support. Our Congregation is a supporting congregation of the organization Family Promise, which provides housing and support to families that are homeless. We are seeking to end homelessness here in Palm Beach County. An awesome undertaking!

What about us? Are we lost? Many of us live with a sense of loneliness, separation and despair brought about, in part, by our highly mobile society. Most of us don't live in one community long enough to develop histories with nearby families, and don't have lots of family around to function as a support and guide. Author Ann Simpkinson, reminds us that in days gone by, when we were rooted in a community which told us who we are, we were not lost. She writes "But times have changed; now we are forced to carve out our own roles as well as develop a set of values, a life purpose, construct an independent personality and a sense of personal worth."  We can lose our way in the busy world and at times feel fraught and lost. “This is a calling for each of us,” says Potter. “We need to slow down and take the time to find ourselves, know who we are, connect with our deepest authentic self, ask for guidance and then listen intently. The heart speaks softly.”

We are to heal the broken. We all know people suffering from broken lives, someone who has been torn open by anxieties brought on by a crisis, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, substance abuse, divorce or depression. I am grateful that over the next two weeks we will launch our lay pastoral care program right here in our Congregation. I will work closely with 4-5 members of our Congregation to better meet the day-to-day needs of our Congregation. This will bring us closer and allow us to help one another. A true calling. This is an opportunity for us to volunteer to be the person who cares, who takes food, provides time to be present and listen.

The listening presence of a friend can be healing. We can all be healers.
We must feed the hungry. Food is necessary for survival. There are people in our own country, in our own community, that are hungry or starving. Most of us have enough to eat and enough to share, which we do. We have a feeding program feeding migrant workers and their families, and we collect food for El Sol. There is another kind of sustenance which we need as well as food. We may have enough to eat, but we may not have enough loving emotional sustenance. It’s important to attend to these needs and practice self-care and nourish ourselves. Pay attention and make time for these things.

We are to release the prisoner. We know there are many people incarcerated who we cannot release. We ourselves are not in institutions of confinement, but again we need to check in with our inner selves. We may be living in prisons of our own making, identifying with roles to which we have adapted, which define us and perhaps confine us. We are much more than our roles and than how we describe ourselves. Potter tells us “The truth is that at any moment these identities can be threatened or taken away and we're left helpless, angry and lost. It's clear that the things the world gives us can never give us lasting security or freedom.”

However, we do support the incarcerated. We will soon host an art show showcasing art created by those incarcerated and did you know that our sexton Albert provides ministry to those in prison several weekends each year? A true inspiration.

Deeper than this lies the prisoner of spirit that we must release to make our world whole. Call it God, spirit, the divine, morality. Call it Unitarian Universalism. It always loves, is accepting, and is peace and gladness. When we are able to lift our thinking out of our own little ego desires and live in this loving realm of the heart, then we will be free and have real security.

We are to rebuild the nations. The world is not as just, not as loving, not as whole as we would like it, or as we know it could be. Our world has become a global village and we live on a small planet. We must learn that we're one humanity and one earth in order to survive. Right now the nations of the world seem to be in terrible turmoil and it can be overwhelming to think what we might do to help. I am just one small person. What could I do, we might ask. I guess being informed is one thing. We have some real activists among us. They are aware of how our taxes pay more for war than for feeding the hungry, how our clothes are made using children. They have a passion for peace and regularly work for that quality to be the reality in our world, beginning with ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr. writes: "When will the dark night end? When we look into our neighbor's face and see it as our own." This is difficult for us to do, but it is a spiritual truth that what we do to the other one, we do to ourselves.

We are to bring peace among brothers. Potter tells us “If we can move from our egos up into our hearts, This is where we are able to experience our humility and vulnerability as a human being and realize that we are all working hard to navigate this earthly existence. We can drop our fear and competition and our hearts can open with love and compassion for our fellow travelers.”  Especially those stranded in airports!!

Jeffrey Miller, an American born lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, asks “if we were able to go inside right now and awaken our sleeping Buddha what would we find?” Tibetan Buddhism says that at the heart of you, I, and every single person there is an inner radiance that reflects our essential nature. They refer to this as inner light, innate luminosity. That's what we would find inside. Jesus said it like this. "You are the Light of the World.” When we get in touch with this light it will guide us to be the compassionate people our faith calls us to be, which the world so profoundly needs.

Thurman gives us an immense calling, for the need is great. It is our work after the lights. Where do we start? How do we decide where we should serve, what we can do? Thurman writes another important poem:

Don't ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.
Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.

What is it that makes you come alive? What is calling you? We are blessed to be a part of this community.

“May you be at peace, may your heart remain open, may you awaken to the light of your own true being, may you be healed and may you be a source of healing to all others.” (Metta prayer of loving kindness)

May it be so.

After the Lights, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Jan 5, 2014.

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