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A sermon by Rev James Ishmael Ford preached at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, May 16, 2010

A Meditation on the Work of Justice

All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?

Dhammapada 129-130

Not long ago Jan and I left directly after a three-day intensive Zen meditation retreat in Worcester, I mean our meditation pillows were still warm, and drove an hour to Roxbury in order to attend the installation of Catherine Senghas as senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. The UUUM was originally and legally still is the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian (Universalist) Churches. It was founded just shy of two hundred years ago to serve in different ways both the poor and the privileged of Boston, bringing them together in the spirit of dignity and human worth.

I like the fact the UUUM appears to be the oldest continuous social service agency in the country. I briefly served on their board toward the end of my tenure in Newton. And no doubt there is a soft spot in my heart for them and their work. Also, Catherine had been my ministerial intern, and was someone Jan and I deeply admire and love, so, of course we had to be there. And there we were.

Now, Jan and I had just spent three days in a physically demanding practice of seated meditation, relentlessly engaging the motion and stillness of our minds and hearts. And then out of that, boom! There we were, at the reception and service swept by the surround sound roar of people meeting and talking and bumping up against each other, and then singing and preaching and then more bumping up and celebrating. It was just this side of hallucinatory. Well, actually it was hallucinatory.

Our new denominational president Peter Morales preached the installation sermon. His thesis was simple enough. We need to give attention to our spiritual lives and to attend to the work of justice, both. As the young say, I’m down with that. I think it’s true. Then, I suspect as an aside, I’m not positive it was even in his text, Peter offered how he would love to go on retreat, to get away from it all, a book on the beach sounded delicious to him. But right now he was too busy with that work of justice. He let the relative merits of spiritual whatever and the work of justice hang there, allowing us to decide which really was worthy…

As someone just returned from a retreat that had nothing to do with light reading or beaches, was in fact enormously physically demanding, and mentally distressing, if spiritually compelling, indeed foundational to the work I do, I was a tad taken aback at his superficial understanding of what the spiritual project actually is. Or, okay, as I see it, should be. No doubt there are any number of people who do take a book to the beach as their spiritual project, in my opinion an unfortunate missing of what I consider a pretty important thing.

But, really, I wasn’t all that shocked at Peter’s aside. He has many gifts and I think largely he is doing a very good job in perhaps an impossible enterprise, leading and simultaneously consolidating an institution facing astonishing financial difficulties. But, as far as the spiritual goes, let’s be frank; Peter has a tin ear. And has shown that since he ran for president of our Association. Now, you might say regarding this tin ear attached to the head of a head of a denomination, welcome to Unitarian Universalism. But actually bishops writ large are among the least spiritual of people, at least by my observation. Bishops, heads of religious organizations who are saintly, are notable for their rarity, rather like unicorns. Usually a bishop’s job isn’t to be spiritual, but to get things done. So, in fact, I’m inclined to give Peter a pass on this.

But not us, not our Association, not our congregation, not you, not me. I think this is something too important to ignore. I agree that we need both spirituality and a concern with and engagement in the work of justice. But they are not two things, one which needs attention and the other more or less optional. Rather, they are intimately connected.

I’m pretty sure our deep body call, our profound sense of some need for justice in this world comes out of our common human intuition articulated among us with the insight that as unique and precious as we are in our individuality, at the very same time we are deeply bound up with each other and the world. We are at the very least, one family. What this means, however, is not really all that clear. We’re often not even clear about how close we are as family, much less our actual obligations. And, beyond the lack of clarity about what is good and useful for the family, I’ve witnessed, as have we all, those who wish to do good, often really bungle it. I’ve done that. Perhaps this is true for you, as well. One reason for bungling is how often we get caught up in our ideas of what should be, so often without serious connection to what is actually going on. No matter how noble our intentions, if unconscious forces, or hard ideologies drive us; frankly, only hurt follows.

So, here’s a bottom line. Let me suggest that each and everyone of us who wish to act in this world in a graceful manner, in a way that brings equity and justice to this beautiful and hurt world, we need to attend to who we are. As an illustration, a small story.

Once upon a time, long ago, and far away, there was a lovely little village nestled on the shores of a large river. The people lived simple lives, tending their fields and producing some handicrafts that were traded down the river for small luxuries. Bread and roses is a good mixture in human life, no doubt. They were good and generous people, pretty satisfied with their lot.

And so when that baby was seen floating down the river, it was obvious the very first person to see the baby would leap into the water, swim out, grab the child and carried it back to the safety of shore. The villagers gathered together and checked the baby out, she seemed to be in good condition, other than that thing about floating alone in the river. They decided until someone came along to retrieve the child one of the village families would take the baby in. Frankly, one more would hardly be noticed.

The next day the villagers saw another baby floating down the river. And they saved him. The day after two babies floated down. Again they took the children in. Well, this continued, each day more babies came, until the village had all it could do to keep body and soul together while tending to the many babies that they saved from the river. It became hard and distressing work. Still, they kept to it. But most distressingly, no one ever came to claim the children.

Finally, they agreed they needed to find out what was happening upstream. This is a dangerous moment. The work of saving those babies is astonishing. It is no putting of mere band-aids on problems. It is saving babies. It is seeing the need and taking care of those in need. It is good and holy work without a “but” or an “and.”

There is, however, a, “still.” Perhaps you’re familiar with Dom Helder Camera. He was a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil during the twentieth century. The American Friend’s Service Committee nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize. Anyway, he once observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” That giving food to the poor is saintly. Closer to home I think of the food pantry and know this is the work of God. Period. I’ll go even farther and say it may well be the most important project we engage. And, but, still, at some point we also need to ask why is it that there are poor among us? Why are people hungry and homeless, ill educated and lacking adequate medical attention among us? Why are those babies being thrown into the river?

Asking why is a dangerous moment, no doubt. In this little story the villagers decide they need to know, desperately need to know. They select six of their finest and strongest young people, three men and three women, give them a supply of food, solid walking sticks, good hats and sturdy shoes, and send them off to find out why these babies are being thrown into the river.

Months pass. Finally all six return. There is a full on celebration, well for everyone but one pig. The villagers feeling that if nothing else at least they have their children back. But they do want that report. And they get it. It turns out as the band followed the river upstream after some miles it split into three tributaries. They created teams of two to follow the branches. Each team had its report.

The first team said after some hard, hard traversing they came near the head of the stream and there they found another village. There was something distressing about the people in that village and so they stayed hidden in the woods that ringed it watching and listening.

It quickly became clear what the problem was. Each individual in the village was only looking out for themselves. Among their habits was how they all ate as much as they could at every meal, and never once, at least while they were being watched by the visitors from down stream, shared so much as a bite with anyone. They also stole from each other. They would take anything not nailed down. It seemed they felt anything that wasn’t for them individually was actually morally wrong. Of course babies were too much trouble, and so they just threw them into the river. The young woman who had watched them said, “I’ve never seen such greedy people in all my life.”

The second team had similar difficulties getting to the source of their stream, and they too, when they found the village near its source, felt that sense of unease, so also watched from a hidden vantage in the woods.

It quickly became clear what the problem was. Each individual in the village was either angry with everyone else, or afraid of everyone else. They would slink around, avoiding anyone they could. And when they were forced into an encounter, it almost always ended in violence. Afraid their babies might someday harm them they threw them into the river. The young man who had watched said, “I’ve never seen such hateful people in all my life.”

The third team had the same difficulties, and the same intuitions, and also hid in the woods surrounding the village at the source of that stream.

It quickly became clear what the problem was. Each individual was so certain of their opinions they would listen to no one else. Everything in the village had collapsed as each person refused to deal with anyone, no matter how trivial the question. They each knew everything, and no one believed anyone else. Certain this was right; they threw their babies into the river. The young woman who had watched them said, “I’ve never seen people so certain of everything in all my life.”

Okay, that’s the story. The poisoned source of our human relations, what causes the problems, and which sustain them are constantly arising human inclinations to greed, to hatred and to endless certainties. Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” All economic and political crimes against people and animals and our planet can be traced to one or another, or, usually, some combination of these demonic inclinations. We actually have demons living in us. They are grasping, and aversion and certainty. If we are unaware of this, any hope for justice for equity, for love, is lost.

And this is the place for the spiritual encounter. As we watch our own minds, our own hearts, and see for ourselves how these things arise for us as individuals, our grasping, our aversion, our blinding certainties, then something magical sometimes happens. Our hearts soften, we discover greed becoming generosity, we find hatred become clarity and as our certainties slip away we encounter a life of endless curiosity.

And given these perspectives, I suggest, that work to which we feel in our bones and blood to call us, that work of care, of attention, of serving the one family becomes more graceful, more useful, more authentic.

This is why we who wish to do some good; to bring justice to the world, need to tend to our spiritual lives at the very same time.

The good news is that if we do this, we can address the hurt, we can bind up the broken, the captive will be freed, the oil of gladness will dissolve all mourning, and justice, justice will roll down like waters.

Together, dear ones, with hearts thrown wide open, we can build such a land, such a land of which we dream.