It Takes Two Hands
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 18, 2015
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is from the Christian Scripture, the Book of Mark, Chapter 12:
When they came to Him, they said, "Teacher, we know that you are true and [that you are] swayed by no man. For you... truthfully teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay, or should we not pay?"
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why test me? Bring me a [coin] that I may see it." They brought it, and he said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"
They said, "Caesar's."
Then Jesus answered them, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
Our second reading is from an interview with Matthew Fox by Mary Nurrie Stearns. Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessing is one of the leading process theologians of our day. Mary Nurrie Stearns is a Social Worker, Yoga teacher and spiritual guide. Matthew Fox speaks to her here of work:
Work needs to be an occasion for our own and for others' spirits to prosper. There needs to be joy in work; the joy that we experience in it and the joy that others experience from our work, which also increases our joy, because to contribute to other people's joy is part of what makes one happy. Another important dimension of work is healing. Not only is joy a part of the human heart, so is grief and suffering. You could ask, "How does my work bring joy to myself and others?" and "How does my work relieve the suffering of others?" Are you creating something useful that people need that relieves their suffering? Work being the relief of suffering is a part of prospering because we have obstacles to prospering to being healthy and well and alive in spirit and so removing these obstacles is what our work is meant to do...
At times in our lives we feel called to work at this more than that, to respond to this need in society and to let go of what we have been working at... but work is why we are here in the universe... Work is something we feel called to do; it is that which speaks to our hearts in terms of joy and commitment.
This morning I want to look at the relationship between spirituality and the work of social justice, both on a personal and on a congregational level. What's important to me is why I feel the way I do, why you might feel the way you do, about this question of balance. Last week Beth Armstrong gave an inspiring sermon entitled, "Standing for Something," in which she talked about a need, that I've heard expressed by many of you for this congregation to focus on service to some meaningful issue beyond the congregation. I want to start out this morning by stepping back for a bit and laying a theological foundation for such an endeavor. And then I want to end by stepping forward with the possibility of a vision that the congregation might want to uphold.
To the relationship between spirituality and the work of social justice... When I think of the balance between social justice work and religious work, I often think of an experience from my childhood. When folks ask me if I find it appropriate to mix politics and religion, this story often comes to mind.
Oddly enough, it's a sports analogy. As a youngster, I can remember the never-ending admonitions of my father to use two hands to catch the ball. It didn't matter whether it was a football or a baseball or any other kind of ball. Every time I would drop a ball, quite regularly, I could count on hearing my father from somewhere off in the distance, "It takes two hands."
So now we flash forward to my first year of high school and a lovely Saturday afternoon. My brother and I had finished our chore of raking leaves, and then each of us invited a friend over to play a little football. My brother, Bill, is slightly older than I, but when it came sports, he was always light years ahead of me. To make the teams fair, my brother's friend Pat, who was something of a sports celebrity in our high school, and I made up one team. My friend Joe and my brother made up the other. The game was played in a large field just beyond our own backyard.
I don't remember who won the game. The important part though, and what I will always remember from that afternoon, was one particular pass play. Upon Pat's instruction, I hiked him the ball. Then I began running down the field. I've never been a particularly fast runner, not then and not now. But there I was running downfield just as far and as fast as I could.
My friend Joe was hot on my heels. Then from way back behind us, I heard Pat yelling, "Charlie, just put your arms out in front of you." So, without turning around or slowing down or even looking, I just stretched both hands out as far as I could at unexpectedly... the exact instant that the ball floated into them. I seized that ball and pulled it in close, and then triumphantly strode the few remaining yards across our imaginary goal line. It was perhaps the most perfectly executed Hail Mary pass in the entire history of football. It was a magical moment in my life. My father had been right all along; it took two hands.
This story provides a metaphor that speaks to me, and I hope to you, of balance, a balance between two hands working together towards some purpose or benefit. For me, it's a very religious metaphor. It's about the balance of that which is inward, what we might think of as personal spirituality on one hand and that which is outward, what we might think of as social or worldly spirituality on the other. Those two hands, the inward and the outward of spiritual life, working toward the purpose of growing a soul, and also of growing a planet.
As you'll likely hear me mention several times throughout this year, our own Ralph Waldo Emerson commended the Harvard Divinity School graduates of 1838 to preach by raising up the issues of their day so that those issues might be better viewed through the lenses of religious sensibility. To what end? That the congregation might better relate to those issues in intentional, religious, transformational ways.
Emerson didn't suggest that the preacher ought to direct what the response from the pew should be. The suggestion is only that it is essential within the spiritual/religious quest to ground our religiosity in this real world around us and to lift up this real world, this one in which we currently live, with the deference and esteem that we might more typically think of preserving for matters of the divine, recognizing that those two concerns are somehow elements of the very same thing: the real world and the divine... as one. It is the preacher's responsibility, Emerson said, to invite the gathered congregation to consider who they are in relationship to the events of the day, so that the faithful might choose their own course of relationship and response with those events.
I take Emerson's charge to heart. My attempt this morning, and whenever I am in your pulpit, will be to hold before you the very worldly happenings of this our time in an attempt to invite you to view our generation's relationship with these events in ways that might help make our lives more intentionally religious, more intentionally spiritual, more intentionally ethical, more intentionally transformational, as a result of being better connected with our world. I do not presume, nor want you to think that I ever will presume, what your response to those events ought to be. Your response is about your integrity, not mine. My job will be to provide an invitation; yours will be to determine how you will respond to that invitation. It takes two hands...
Now, in moving our theme from the personal towards the corporate, I'd like to draw your attention to a quote by Tara Brach. Tara is a renowned author and teacher in the American Buddhist tradition. She leads a large Buddhist following in the Washington DC area and is on the faculty of the Omega Institute. She is also a Unitarian Universalist whom I know well and whose teachings I respect. In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara wrote:
The spiritual path is not a solo endeavor. In fact, the very notion of a self who is trying to free her/himself is a delusion. We are in it together and the company of spiritual friends helps us to realize our interconnectedness.
Matthew Fox, another of my favorite contemporary theologians, takes this thought a step further. In his book, Original Blessing, Fox presents a theological perspective that he calls Creation Spirituality. He reverses the notion of humanity's fall in the Garden of Eden. The acquisition of knowledge and self-knowledge, which is traditionally recognized as Original Sin, is recast by Fox in the light of a new paradigm. The act of choosing knowledge results in humanity's ascendancy into awareness and self-awareness. As such, it is a blessing and not in any way a sin or a fall. As a result of that blessing, Matthew Fox writes:
Compassion is the essence of Jesus' teaching, and indeed of the teaching of all great spiritual figures from Mohammed to Isaiah, from Lao Tzu to Chief Seattle. Yet compassion has been sentimentalized and severed from its relationship to justice-making and celebration. Creation Spirituality links the struggle for justice with the yearning for mysticism. (The world and that which is divine... are one.)
As we move beyond our personal experience, we begin to recognize and to realize that — in our spiritual quest — while we do indeed have self-consciousness we are never in this alone. We are always in relationship — with those around us, with those all the way around on the other side of the world, with the world itself. Despite any inclination we may have to the contrary, we are not isolated beings. We are always in relationship.
Spiritual integrity, soulful durability, requires that we see beyond our own self-consciousness in order to embrace the other. Ethical, moral living requires that we be, not only in relationship with the other, but that we be in right relationship. What is right relationship? I have to believe that it is relationship based in compassion; relationship that is marked by accountability for our actions and for our inactions; relationship that is always in search of and promoting justice.
That is what Jesus said, what Gandhi, King, Mother Teresa and all the other great religious leaders have said all along. The prophet Micah said it well in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. "Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God." I leave it to you to define who or what your God is, but... just the same, if we listen carefully, I believe we are called by life, itself, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk with the humility that comes from knowing that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves.
It takes two hands. To be religious is not to live in isolation but to live in community, and to do so with integrity, attention and intention. We are not called upon to be navel gazers but instead to be our brothers', our sisters', our neighbors' keepers.
I don't want to be UU-boastful, but we are an intelligent lot here. We know that we can tend to our own needs and more — we can tend to the needs of our neighbors best when we are organized. Together we can accomplish what none of us can do individually.
This congregation recognizes the need of and the strength from acting towards and for the larger good. That's why so many of you are involved in our Social Justice Ministries. That's why you participate in our Community Food Pantry, the Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the Girl Effect, the Peace Flag Project, Standing on the Side of Love and more.
Organized effort has a name within our democratic society, and that name is politics. This congregation has committed to engagement in the political process by banding together with other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the formation and continuation of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Rhode Island, the UULMRI. If we are going to take seriously the admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves, and if we are going to do that in as effective a way as possible, it is impossible for us to do so without being organized, or without engaging in the public square, engaging in politics. I would encourage you to talk with Bob Cox about what the UULMRI does, and could what it could do even better with your support.
A principle that we hold as Unitarian Universalists is that we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process - in our congregations and in society at large. This is precisely about the inward and the outward, individual conscience and corporate (cooperative) democracy. Beyond the integrity of our personal journeys in growing our souls, our religious tradition is deeply rooted in the expression of the democratic impulse. Unitarianism tells us that all is one, that we are one. Universalism tells us that we are all saved; that we all have value; that we are — all together — capable of determining a shared destiny. That's one heck of a statement of faith.
As Unitarian Universalists, our perspective tends to be that faith alone can never be enough. Our faith requires action. Our faith in democracy requires that the arena for our action includes the public square, includes politics. We can choose to engage politically as individuals, and we should. And even more effectively, we can choose to engage within the concert of this community. We can join together to promote our ideals of the beloved community, acting together within the political sphere.
One caveat I feel compelled to address is that, while we do tend to share many political values here, there is no reason — in fact, there is great spiritual danger — in assuming that we all hold the same political perspectives. Our deeply held religious beliefs will not always bring us to the same political conclusions. That should make us humble and sensitive towards one another, but not timid in expressing our experiences of truth — either from the pulpit or in our discussions of them in the pew. We are called to explore and to express truth as we find it, so that we might be more soulfully emboldened to act for justice and for sustainability.
This is a liberal religious congregation — we are not a liberal political community. Still though, as a liberal religious community seeking transformation in our hearts, our homes, our community and our world, we might well recognize that it takes two hands to accomplish such transformation. The religious process, as I believe we commonly see it, requires spiritual maturity that is both personal and worldly; it strives for both inward and outward attention and growth, reflection and action.
In the book of Mark, Jesus responds to the trick question about loyalties by saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Jesus' response was not different from what we are considering here this morning. He did not say that we should be schizoid, dividing our personalities, affections and duties, trying to make them separate from one another. What he said was that we need to be in right relationship, within all of our relationships, giving them their just due, in an accountable way.
What he was saying is — don't just think about what might be right; act upon what you find to be right. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. What is the relationship — if, in fact, there ought to be one — between politics and religion? It is one in which we recognize our religious values in the events of the world around us; one that ought to be interdependent, both individual and corporate; one that ought to be blessed with kindness, consecrated with humility and ever in the pursuit of justice for all.
What might such a relationship look like? It might look like one that requires two hands, both hands, all of our hands, working together, always reaching towards the purpose of growing each soul, the purpose of growing a just and loving world.
And now from theological underpinnings to the possibility of taking a step forward...
You undoubtedly noticed the Standing on the Side of Love/Black Lives matter logo on the cover of our Order of Service today. I want to address that issue specifically now.
It seems that it's impossible these days to be anywhere that the Black Lives Matter movement is not being discussed, from donut shops to boardrooms. It also seems to me that that's exactly how it should be. It's not that all of a sudden Black Americans are being shot and killed by all manner of perpetrators — white, Black, or otherwise — in numbers that are far, far beyond their demographic proportion. It's not that all of a sudden Black children in our inner-city schools are being labeled as deficient and incorrigible, and that, as a result, they are being marginalized and often bounced from our schools, also in drastic proportion. It's not that all of a sudden Black and Brown men — and women, too — are being held captive in prisons of mass incarceration, in numbers so great that they justify calling this an age of New Jim Crow.
These offenses and many more have long-standing status in the foundation and structures of our cities, states and nation. So, why so much attention in the public square today? I daresay, it is in response to the slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Lennon Lacy, the nine Bible Study participants in Charleston, South Carolina, and the nearly uncountable number of other Blacks who have been similarly victimized. It is because, finally, Black activists and white allies are banding together to say — enough is enough! Surely there are many Blacks who have managed, against odds, to somehow cross the barriers of the "color line," but far too many others have been excluded and dismissed by the laws, the policies and practices of this country. And so finally a cry has gone out that... Black Lives Matter.
This is in no way to say that other lives do not matter. Of course they do. But we don't need to hold up what is already afloat; we do need to be there to help those who are sinking.
This is in no way a wanton attack on the police of our cities, as those who are afraid of this movement would have us believe. It is to say that as a country which prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave, our Black brothers and sisters have been systematically and disproportionately excluded from the privileges of freedom and punished severely for attempts at demonstrating bravery.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not against anyone. It is for the recognition and the expression of value for those who have been marginalized. It is about true liberty and justice for Black folks so that there might finally be a real chance at promoting liberty and justice for all. In a very significant way Black Lives Matter is a movement for the benefit and the betterment of all America.
This is an issue I bring before you today. It is yours to determine your response. I have asked the Prudential Committee to stand with me on the side of love for Black Lives Matter and now the Pru Com has a message for all of you.
From President Cynthia Rosengard, standing with the Prudential Committee, in the balcony while unveiling the Black Lives Matter banner:
Thank you Charlie and thank you to everyone for your attention. The Prudential Committee is pleased to put forth, for your consideration, the possibility of our standing up for something that is so very present for our community...if you will, a way for us to "love the hell out of" our world...to stand on the side of love in affirmation of the Black Lives Matter movement (unveil banner).
An Article of Immediate Witness from this summer's General Assembly in Portland encourages member congregations to "to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice with recognition of the interconnected nature of racism coupled with systems of oppression that impact people based on class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability and language." For those of us who believe that it is time for us to take a stand, we believe that having such discussions under the banner of Black Lives Matter will allow us to take on issues of education reform, justice reform, police reform and gun violence, among others. It is our intention to have a special meeting of the congregation on November 1st, immediately following services, for voting members of the congregation to decide if we are prepared to vote for a public statement of our support for the Black Lives Matter movement - through displaying our banner and through social justice, Standing on the Side of Love, and legislative ministry work. We look forward to the conversation and action. Thank you!
You can learn more about the Black Lives Matter Movement and about our Unitarian Universalist involvement in the movement:
Action of Immediate Witness at UUA General Assembly 2015:
Op/Ed Piece by UU Minister, Rev Jake Morrill of Oakridge UU Church:
UUWorld article on banner responses:
An Excellent presentation of the values and goals of the Black Lives Matter organization: