Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part I – the Self

This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us. 

We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.

Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries.  So hear these words –

“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”

Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?

Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.

We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet?  Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.

We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.

And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.

Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.

But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?

(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)

Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.

As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right?  – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.

And I went ‘Hunh.’

Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.

And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.

So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.

For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.

But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.

We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.

Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.

All time is sacred time.

Can you see it that way?

Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.

Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.

Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.

When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.

We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.

I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.

One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.

The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.

It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.

Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.

We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.

Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it

So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.

Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.

Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.

Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true.  We hold them in tension.

What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:

creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.  You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.

But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

 

 

 

 

Sample Interfaith Statements of Affirmation and Welcome

In preparation for a recent conference, I assembled some sample statements of affirmation and welcome from various faith groups around the country. While the conference focused on faith and LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion, most of these statements are much broader – and wisely so.

The challenge to us as people of faith and ethics is to create ways to ensure that all people – across all categories of difference – are not only welcomed in each of our communities, but included in its full life and leadership. An explicit statement to that effect, backed up by in-kind actions and behavior, makes a difference.

These statements offer some examples. I am always interested in collecting more, so feel to send others my way.

John Street Church (UMC), New York City –  Learning from 250 years of ministry, and following Jesus Christ today, John Street United Methodist Church invites into its fellowship all persons seeking to live in the Christian environment of the Church, and to receive its nurture and assistance throughout the course of their lives. This invitation is extended without regard to one’s economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political beliefs, ethnic origin, or the present state of their spiritual journey. We publicly affirm that we welcome all persons to participate fully in the worship, fellowship, educational, and service life of our church.

Open Table UCC, Mobile, AL   From its beginning, Open Table has been a radically welcoming faith community. Following the radical message of Jesus, we affirm the worth and dignity of every human being, and we extend extravagant welcome to all persons. We affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, and acknowledge the suffering they have endured in the context of the larger society. Not only do we welcome them into our congregation, but into the full life, leadership, and ministry of our congregation. As we grow in our understanding of God’s good gifts of human sexuality, gender, and relationships, we stand firm in the Biblical message that all people are created in God’s image and thus are loved and blessed equally by God.

Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, MA  –  We think of our community as a diverse shtetl, a modern incarnation of those vibrant Old World villages, towns and centers of learning which nurtured and evolved our Jewish heritage. Today, our shtetl is populated by an extraordinary mix of passionate people, including singles and those on single-life paths, alongside newly-married and longtime couples; college students; families with young children; single parents; elders; spiritual seekers; GLBT Jews; Jews by choice; and interfaith and multi-cultural families.  Our members come from a wide variety of spiritual- and life-paths. Some of us were raised in observant families. For others, TBZ is the first shul we have ever joined. Our weekly services are populated by former twice-a-year-Jews — men and women who, after b’nai mitzvah, attended services only on the High Holy Days. . . until they discovered Temple Beth Zion. Others among us had regularly attended synagogues, dutifully (if passively) following along in the prayer books, reading responsively and standing when asked, only to discover that something — anything; everything! — was missing. But at TBZ, as one of our members has noted, “I have found connection, authenticity, home. . . .”

The Abbey (Episcopal), Birmingham, AL – Who can come? And what should I wear? Anyone. Seriously, anyone and everyone. Kids, teenagers, young adults, adults. Everyone is welcome at The Abbey, regardless of race, ethnicity, faith tradition, class, age, political party, education, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Our service is a relaxed environment. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and invite anyone you think would be interested.

Zen Center of New York City –  In the Mountains & Rivers Order, we endeavor to foster a welcoming atmosphere free of prejudice that is open to all people sincerely interested in exploring and practicing the Buddhadharma. We are committed to co-creating a practice environment in which all individuals are recognized as possessing a fundamental dignity, and are therefore treated with respect without regard to their ethnicity, skin color, language, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, political views, or economic circumstances.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA –  From the pastor: I’m glad you’re here and hope to meet you in person. Since 1885, Gethsemane has welcomed people for worship, community time, service, and learning. All these years later, we remain a downtown church committed to connecting to our neighborhood. We are a progressive, GLBTQ-affirming congregation that welcomes all: people who have been to church (any church) their whole lives, as well as those who never have been or have been away for a while; people filled with doubts or questions and those whose faith and hope run deep; people longing to find a community of belonging and anyone who may simply be “passing by”… This is a place open to you wherever you are in your spiritual journey.

Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, AL –  Baptist Church of the Covenant was established in 1970 to be a racially inclusive congregation. Since that time, it has ordained women to the ministry and affirmed openness to sexual orientation and gender identity. As Christ accepts all who believe, we do likewise. All are welcomed.

Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Los Angeles, CA –  Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society was founded by Noah Levine, author of Dharma PunxAgainst the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery to make the teachings of the Buddha available to all who are interested. We wish to create and sustain communities of healthy, accountable, wise and compassionate people from every walk of life. We welcome people from all racial, economic, sexual, social, political and religious backgrounds and believe that the path of awakening is attainable by all and should be available to all. We strive to create a safe environment for all who come to practice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA – Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is made up of children and elders, families and singles, straight and gay people, lifelong Christians, interfaith couples, converts and seekers. We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’ Table.

St Junia United Methodist Church, Birmingham, AL – Becoming a diverse community:  Our goal is to become as diverse as the Kingdom itself. Since God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6), and since all people are made in the image of God, our desire is to become a community in which black, white, and Latino, gay and straight, old and young, rich and poor, male and female are welcome to the table and invited to use their diverse gifts for worship and ministry. We want to be a witness to Birmingham and to the world that the Good News is for all people.

On Observance

We are staying over the long weekend in a neighborhood that’s home to a substantial population of Orthodox Jews. In addition to the Christian celebration of Pentecost and the national holiday Memorial Day, this year the weekend also marks the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses and to the gathered Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

From the beginning of the Sabbath all through the weekend, we’ve noticed groups of men in suits and yarmulkes striding, women in soft hats and long dresses pushing strollers and carriages, attentive fathers listening to stories and answering questions from their small children, and older couples, accompanied by caregivers, making their way deliberately along the sidewalk. These assorted groupings of well dressed, carefully covered men, women, and children have repeatedly made their way back and forth from home to one of the several synagogues scattered around the area.

One memorable grouping was led by a father and an older daughter swinging a younger daughter by the hands as she jumped her way to morning services. They were trailed by the mother pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The older woman’s husband walked alongside. This latter trio looked quite austere until the older man, dressed in a sharp navy suit and fedora, broke into a huge smile and complimented my dog for waiting so patiently for them to pass through a narrow passage of sidewalk.

The term ‘observant’ is applied to Jews who follow the careful prescriptions of Talmudic teachings. I heard a young Christian friend say recently that Jews had it easy because all they had to follow was the Ten Commandments. This woman was unaware of the vast scope of Jewish scholarship and prescriptive law that governs the behavior of the faithful. Observant Jews must pay attention throughout daily life and on the Sabbath to a range of guidelines that immerse them in a faithful life.

While their traditions differ from my own, I appreciate the idea of being ‘observant’. In doing this work, I’ve made reference to the sacrament of the everyday, to the acknowledgement of the sacred that permeates daily routines and encounters. We all have the potential to live lives suffused with holiness and justice and mercy . We can be observant in our daily practice of living with one another and in our connection to God.

It is not casual, but it can become habitual, our accustomed way to engaging with the world around us. We all have the potential to be observant. I thank those attentively observing Shavuot this weekend for the steady reminder.

For Timbuktu

Religious thugs destroy ancient Sufi texts.
Centuries of prayers up in flames.
A millennium of scholars’ ghosts gasp
at such senseless loss.

I hope the scoundrels breathed the smoke,
that fragments of blessings
blossom in their lungs.
Poetry leaks into their blood.
Infected by art.
Septic with learning.
Culture convulses the body.
So they weep text
given by God.

A Postscript
I first heard of the city of Timbuktu when I was little and reading the Disney’s “The Aristocats”. In that story, bad-guy Edgar the butler attempts to send the feline protagonists to Timbuktu, but instead gets mailed there himself (does that need a spoiler alert?).

As a kid, I figured Timbuktu must be the farthest, most exotic place imaginable for it to have played such a role in the story. The presence of Edgar notwithstanding, I wanted to go there. As an adult who has learned of its incredible history and cultural richness, I still do. Unfortunately (especially for its inhabitants), it remains a risky place to travel because of a continuing jihadist threat.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago after reports surfaced of fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb destroying ancient texts in Timbuktu. The joyful epilogue is that the careful and quiet work of local scholars such as Dr. Abdul Kader Haidara actually saved many of Timbuktu’s manuscript treasures – and today restoration and preservation efforts continue anew. More of that story can be found in this PBS Newshour story: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rescuing-the-priceless-manuscripts-of-timbuktu/ and this Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/23/book-rustlers-timbuktu-mali-ancient-manuscripts-saved

This poem came to mind in the last couple of weeks as news surfaced of the Islamic State’s destruction of ancient cultural artifacts in the cities of Ninevah, Nimrud, and Hatra. It’s an incalculable loss and permanent tragedy for the people of Iraq and for the citizens of the globe. City Metric has a good article with more details – http://www.citymetric.com/skylines/isis-bulldozing-some-worlds-first-cities-here-s-what-were-losing-840

I offer this poem and my prayers today to  in the same spirit that I did to Timbuktu in January 2013.