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Robert bid on the “you choose the text, I’ll give a sermon on it” item I offered in last year’s auction at church. His “text” was in fact an experience: his experience of having a sudden, irreversible diminishment of the use of one foot. He wanted to hear about adjusting to a “new normal.” I am so glad he asked. Writing this was a profound experience for me.

I gave the sermon on August 19–with a reflection by Robert, and another by Melissa, both of whom I hope will also make their texts available online–and post it here.

“The New Normal”


Tip of the keyboard to . . . my colleague in Palo Alto, Dan Harper, whose mention of Deep Ecology in a recent post on his blog sent me back to Leopold and prompted my Earth Day topic

. . . and to Prof. Richard R. Niebuhr, who introduced me to A Sand County Almanac in the first place.

The Worship Associate’s reflection was excellent.

Sermon: “Thinking Like the Earth”

Flower Communion is a ritual practiced in many, I would venture most, Unitarian Universalist congregations in the spring. It was instituted by Norbert Capek, a Unitarian minister in Prague, in 1923, and takes a variety of forms. The central element is that each person brings a flower to the service and each takes a different one away. I love this service. Ours will be on May 13 this year.

I came across a Flower Communion liturgy that I wrote in 2002, and may use or revise for this year. The italics are the congregational response. Read the rest of this entry »

My Christmas Eve homily from a few hours ago.

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Yesterday evening’s service was about control and letting go. I played everyone a song by Suzzy Roche about being in a plane in a lightning storm, and repeated my favorite line: “There’s a whole lot, baby, you can’t control, so put your seat back and roll, Mag, roll”–“Mag” is her sister, I’m guessing. (At that point E. said, “Were you thinking about today’s windstorm?” I hadn’t heard about it. Turned out there were 100-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds in Southern California, a historic storm.)

We meditated on the song and on a couple of quotes such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “serenity prayer,” and I led a meditation in which we literally made fists as we envisioned gripping tightly whatever we seek to control, then relaxed and let go so it could float.

The hardest thing I could have chosen would have been my daughter. I focused on something a little easier, but then I got to my final words, introducing a song we often sing in this service, “Ubi Caritas”–

The words of our song mean, “where there is love, there God is.” It doesn’t say holiness lies in control, or certainty, or permanence. It lies in love, which is sometimes about holding on and sometimes about letting go, and usually about both

–and I choked up, and thought of a passage I’d just read, in the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book. He’s speaking of writing the last couple of pages.

And my eyes stung, momentarily. It was then, and only then, that I saw clearly for the first time what I was writing. I had set out to write a book about a childhood–it was Bod’s childhood, and it was in a graveyard, but still, it was a childhood like any other; I was now writing about being a parent, and the fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: that if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away. And they have lives and they have families and they have futures.

It is a happy book, and a happy thought that our daughter will go on to have a life and a family and a future beyond us, but my eyes stung, too, reading this paragraph. It’s hard to imagine that I will be ready when she is.

September 11 was our Water Communion, our Ingathering Sunday, as it was for many Unitarian Universalist congregations: a joyous occasion. It was also, of course, a day of mourning and remembrance. Below is my homily that morning, along with the readings that preceded it. The Water Communion and its attendant readings and blessings followed.

Read the rest of this entry »

A sanitation worker in downtown Lima. Photo by Manfredwinslow (public domain)

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968:

“We are challenged on every hand to work untiringly to achieve excellence in our lifework. Not all men are called to specialized or professional jobs; even fewer rise to the heights of genius in the arts and sciences; many are called to be laborers in factories, fields, and streets. But no work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

My daughter (age 4 1/2), this afternoon, on seeing a street sweeper:

“That man is being good to the earth. He’s picking up the garbage . . . his mind is like our minds. He says the earth is for walking on, not the earth is just a garbage can.”

To a mind free of prejudice, heroes are everywhere.

Our service this week, in honor of Labor Day, is about the dignity of work. Lucy Bunch, our intern minister, and I had a great conversation planning it yesterday, and today I went looking for passages for our centering words. We have a new practice, requested by our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, of including a passage from a religion of the world (or another UU source) in every service. It isn’t necessarily keyed to the theme of the service, but the Talmud has an abundance of opinions about the value of work. For example, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, one of the religious obligations of every parent is to teach their son (let’s make that “child”) a trade.

Then there’s this:

I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also His creature; my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. But you may be tempted to say, “I do great things and he small things!” We have learned that it matters not whether one does much or little, if only he directs his heart to serve the divine purpose. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakot 17a)

And this:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: When the Holy and Blessed One told Adam, “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, but your food shall be the grasses of the field,” Adam began to well up with tears. “Master of the Universe, shall my ass and I both eat at the same trough?” But as soon as God said to him [immediately following]: “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat,” his spirits were soothed.  (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Pesahim 118a)

And, in a modern commentary written for a Haggadah, this:

A man was once sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor, and was shackled to a huge wheel fixed in the wall, which he had to crank during all his waking hours. As he turned the heavy wheel, he would often try to imagine what he might be achieving through his backbreaking work. Perhaps he was turning a millstone that was grinding grain into flour, or perhaps he was bringing water up from a deep well to irrigate a field.

When the long sentence came to an end and the shackles were removed, the first thing this man did, broken in both body and spirit, was to go to the other side of the wall to see just what he had been accomplishing for twenty-five years. How shocked he was to discover that there was nothing there! Just a wheel in the wall, not attached to anything. At this point he broke down in tears. “Twenty-five years of hard work, all for nothing.” The awareness that all his work was of no avail was far worse than the hard labor itself. The Egyptians knew this, and this is how they tortured their slaves.  (From Bondage to Freedom, Passover Haggadah with commentary by Rabbi Abraham Twerksi)

Last Sunday’s sermon. It will shortly be up at the UU Church of Palo Alto, along with a list of resources for further action and inspiration.

August 14, 2011

A few ideas that are in the mix for this Sunday’s service:

Stories of local cases of trafficking and slavery, such as the restaurant in Berkeley that inspired David Batstone’s involvement in the issue, the use of Thai slaves to repair the Bay Bridge, or even closer to home, forced prostitution in San Mateo and Sunnyvale.

Our heritage of Unitarian abolitionists like Theodore Parker and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Universalist abolitionists like Benjamin Rush–and those Unitarians and Universalists who opposed them. The former are important because we honor them and may be inspired to follow in their footsteps, creating the 21st century movement to equal their abolitionism of two centuries earlier. The latter are important because their hesitancy may illuminate what barriers stand between us and action.

Harriet Tubman’s repeated journeys back to slave states, the most dangerous places she could go, in order to free others. Clearly her answer to Kevin Bales’s question, “And if we can’t use our power to bring about the end of slavery, are we truly free?” would have been “No.” The same challenge faces us: we are ostensibly free. Are we willing to venture into troubling territory to bring people out of bondage? That territory, for us, does not carry the risks the South did for Tubman; the risk we run is the discomfort of learning of others’ suffering and having to change.

Videos about human trafficking playing on the patio before and after the services, my technological abilities permitting.

The longing to be a part of a UU abolitionist movement. We don’t have one. We need one. I’m starting it now. Join me to get in on the ground floor.

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