First Unitarian Church of Providence
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"Reflecting on Service, Change and Spirituality"
A sermon by guest speakerSteven G. McCloy, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 27, 2016

We're sorry, no audio is available for this service, but feel free to read the full-text below.

Our readings today are
Summer before last, I gave a summer service talk about what I called "The Life of Service." I started with the volunteer medical work I had done in Guatemala. That talk led me down an unexpected rabbit hole called "Spirituality."

That word (Spirituality) has always given me trouble. I am not a theologian. I never took a course on philosophy. In Religion 101 in college I wrote an essay that even I knew was pathetic in its ignorance and shallowness. Spirituality? I do not know how to talk about spirituality or even what it is. Or what I think it is. Or what he or she may think it is.

This month my head has been reeling from participation in Charlie's "5 Questions" seminar. Charlie is guiding us along the gnarly shores of embracing a personal theology. We talk about your "epistemology" and your "ontology" and your "soteriology." Makes my head hurt. BUT Lurking behind all of those Greek words and concepts is the recognition that I am my own theologian just as are you --- and you ---and you. I have to find my own spirituality. Damn. No easy way, eh? Can't I - like the monk – just chant the "Amita Buddha?" Nope. Not that easy.

In my mind, I had always thought that spirituality was "god talk." When people are doing "god talk" they seem to use words like "ineffable." Or "the ground of all being." Of, the "ens entium (being of beings)." "God talk" in general gave me a headache.

Then I started looking at the word itself. SPIRITUALITY and how it changed over time.
  • Late 14th Century middle English "divine substance" it started relating to religion or religious matters
  • 13th Century, spirit was an alchemical phrase "volatile substance, distillate"
  • mid-13th Century Anglo-French espirit (animating principal in man and animals
  • Latin spiritus breath - not anima/soul though both words derive from the same root, proto- indo-european root "to breathe"
  • Greek pneuma breath/spirit/wind
  • Hebrew rûach רוח spirit of G-d Rûach Elohim, the spirit of G-d moved on the waters
  • Genesis 2:7 "Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
  • Qu'ran (the Creation story is less specific; humankind were created in stages from dirt and a drop of sperm. Perhaps that drop of sperm was seen as the essence of Allah)
The spirituality I am talking here is the spark/the breath/the soul/the spirit that is each and every one of us. If as the physicists and Jone Mitchell tells us "we all come from stardust," maybe the spirit is that piece of cosmic dust that each of us shares. Some traditions will want us to connect our spirit with the Divine. I prefer to look at how to connect my spirit with the spirit of every one around me.

Isn't this the first UUA principal: the inherent worth and dignity of every person not a recognition that we all share this spirit?

Are we not all reflections of the Divine? Whatever that Divine might be-God, the universe, universal Love, Nature, whatever may be your or my Ultimate Reality. We carry that in us. Kahlil Gibran wrote: "One day you will ask me which is more important? My life or yours? I will say mine and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life."

Gibran's words mean to me that we are all spiritually connected ("you are my life). That we naturally have a loving nature. If that is true: that within each and every one is a spark/light/breath that we all share, what do we do about it? How do we share it? How do we enlarge it? How do we grow spiritually. Often we seek that growth in a religious community like this.

UUA Minister Mark Morrison-Reed writes:
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
In responsive reading 580 he writes:
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
The bonds that bind each to all...connectedness...members of a larger community struggling for justice. Were you changed last year when we addressed the myriad issues behind "Black Lives Matter"? Struggling with BLM was way beyond do-good-ism. Way beyond hanging a banner on the side door. It took work, reflection, questioning of so-called values, and change. This is an example of spiritual growth through action.

You recognized in the reading this morning a parallel to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan did a good thing. We know he was a good neighbor. What Luke's gospel does not tell us is whether or not the Samaritan was changed by his experience.

What about Sundar Singh, the center of today's story. He was an Indian Christian Missionary who worked in the Himalayas. He was already established as a SAGE when this story took place. Did this act make him any more SAGE? Probably not: once a sage always a sage. How else might he have changed? Well, on the most basic of levels he was not dead. The effort of carrying that dude changed Singh. His muscles worked, his lungs worked, his body heat rose and he survived. His companion did not. THAT was change.

The story concludes: A disciple once asked Sundar, "What is life's most difficult task?" He answered, "To have no burden to carry!"

What is our life –yours or mine – if we have no burden to carry? Or the way I might put it is: What is my life if it is empty of service to others?

Says Peter Morales, president of UUA: When we serve we become more compassionate, more sensitive, more understanding, and more aware.

We UU's do not have the corner on this idea.

The Shakers motto has been: Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.

In Hebrew, is said Tikkun olam: repair the world

Or Winston Churchill wrote: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

* * *

Last church year, Shirley Dimatteo and I ended our service as Deacons of this church. First U Bylaws limit the terms of Deacons to five years. We had enjoyed our work as deacons and were a little adrift at what to do next. We were offered the opportunity to look at and revitalize our Caring Network and Care Crew.

To clarify: the Caring Network is the skeleton, made from the various groups like PruCom, Deacons, and Alliance that function in our church community. The Care Crew is the muscle. It is all of us who may be called upon to help. In your insert is the detail about who the Caring Network is and some of the services that the Care Crew are called upon to do. Tikkun olam, repair the world starting right here in this caring community.

We have in this loving community a surprising amount of need.
  • We have members of long standing who are shut-ins and need companionship, simple visits, something to break their isolation. They are people perhaps with poor hearing who do fine one- on-one but not so fine in crowded, noisy rooms or with our improved but marginal P-A system. They welcome conversation.
  • We have members who fall down and get hurt. They cannot shop or cook for themselves. This is usually a brief incapacity but it needs help.
  • We have in this community large pools of deep grief that do not get attention. That is why we formed the Mindful Grieving groups.
  • We have members who need a ride to a doctor's appointment.
  • We have the hungry who need food, we have the naked who need clothing, we have people in prison both justly and unjustly who need us.
I believe that every one of you not only is a part of the Care Crew whether you have signed up or not; but I also deeply hope that when you are called upon to serve in the Care Crew you will say "yes."

I believe that service in the community is a uniting principle that brings people together and can expand our spiritual participation and our cohesion as a congregation. Service in the community beckons others who do not know Unitarianism to take a look.

AND, I further believe we do not help one another just because it is a good deed, a mitzvah. Our own soul needs to be of service to others.

When I have brought a meal to someone I did not know, I have connected my spirit with theirs. I have a spirit; so do they. I have seen that spirit and my light has glowed a bit brighter. So has theirs. And I am changed.

All religious traditions understand that each and every moment of each and every day provide opportunities to learn, deepen, and grow. Work devoted to something greater than myself lifts me out of the narrow sphere of my individual concerns, enlarges my perspective, and provides context for the joys and concerns of my own life.

And I am changed.

Being of service in even the simplest way, by say, writing a card to someone facing illness or sorrow or someone healing from knee surgery brings us constantly back to the truth of our UUA Seventh Principle, in which we affirm the interconnected web of all existence.

Charlie Ortman talks about what it means to touch the life of a stranger. Acts of service inevitably cause you to touch the life of a stranger. That stranger may not be a voter on the street or a man at a shelter. It may be a member of this congregation whom you do not know. When you touch the life of a stranger, you change.

I want to tell you a personal story. I am hesitant to tell you this story because of the emotion it evokes is still fresh. Bear with me. On November 8 I voted. I went to my polling place near the Chad Brown Housing Projects. After voting I went to my car to drive to work. Across the street was a stranger, an elderly African American male. He was hesitating to cross the street. His gait was wobbly and unsteady. I got out of my car and walked over to him to offer assistance. He accepted and I helped him cross the street to vote. It was a minor thing. Trivial even. Yet I got choked up and teary. I sat in my car to get back into something called "in control." This isolated touching of a stranger so unsettled me that I had to talk to Charlie about it. He said, "God was there in that moment." In that brief union of this voter's spirit and my spirit, God was there in a moment of concrescence.

When you help another – when you touch a friend or a stranger – you cannot avoid touching your inner self, that spark of light that is in you and everyone. That, my friends, I believe is SPIRITUALITY.

But, be careful: you – will – change.

* * *

Many of our UU congregations recite the following affirmation:

"Love is our doctrine, the quest for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer."

May it be so. May service continue to be our prayer and our spiritual connection.

AMEN, Blessed Be.