May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Sermon: Yes, It's Real.

Yes It's Real, Delivered May 6, 2012 for First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. Service.

      There’s a little nursery rhyme that I remember from when I was young.  I’m not sure if people still tell it, so let me know if you’ve heard it.
“What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, and everything nice.
And what are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.”
       When I was a kid, that left me with a few questions though: What happened to the puppy dogs?  I don’t know!  And why are little boys made out of all sorts of crunchy things?  Why didn’t we get any sugar and spice mixed in?  And I imagine there were some girls thinking, “How come I have to be made of everything nice all the time?  Why can’t the boys be made of everything nice?”
      Here’s another version of the story: [‘free to be’ p.38]
      I think love and care and skin and hair are some better ingredients, because when you think about it, all kids are kind of made out of the same things.  Still, that tells you what you’re made out of, and I think you might be more than just those things.
    How about you kids? What do YOU say you’re made of?


Today’s reading is on The Loss of Certainty, by Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor.  It is an excerpt from the chapter The Postmodern Challenge, in his book Faith Without Certainty. [pp. 64-65]

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge.  It asks questions like “How do we know what we know?” and “What counts as knowing something?”  In the modern period, the emphasis was on finding bedrock foundations for all our knowledge.  People looked for ideas that could be accepted as universal truths, which could provide the foundation on which to build further knowledge.  Descartes’ affirmation of his existence as a thinking being is one kind of epistemological foundation.  The empiricist theory that all knowledge is based on data received by the senses is another. 
            In the postmodern world, these foundations have disappeared.  There is no such thing as certain knowledge or ultimate truth.  Things we once thought gave us firm foundations, such as universal human reason or common experience, turn out to be bounded by language and culture and gender.  Everything is relativized.  What we used to think of as truth is now seen as interpretation.  Because of our cultural limitations, all our interpretations are only partial.  And it’s not just that each of us has only a partial view of some larger truth.  The metaphors we commonly use, such as looking at the same light through different windows or going up the same mountain on different paths, are all challenged in postmodernity.  In the postmodern way of thinking, there is no larger truth.  We are all wandering around on different paths (or lost in the brush) on different mountains.  We each have our own truths and our own knowledge, according to our circumstances. 
            This condition leaves us with more decisions to make but fewer bases for making them.  “As less and less can be taken as given, so more and more responsibility is placed on the individual to account for, and act in, the world.”  This is a social problem as much as an individual one.  As David Lyon recognizes, one of the central postmodern dilemmas is how we can find “authentic post-foundational starting points for social criticism.”
            ....In religious terms, we are left potentially without a deep grounding or even a shared reference point for our prophetic voice.


The year prior to moving to Pittsburgh, I was a chaplain at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in downtown San Francisco.  While I was there, I had the privilege and the honor of meeting people of all walks of life, with stories from all over the map.  In that one hospital, I met people who had rubbed elbows with presidents and dignitaries, and I met people who put their elbows on a double layer of cardboard on the sidewalk as they lay down to sleep each night.  Now, I know my values.  Our first principle refers to the inherent worth and dignity in every person.  That principle comes to mind when I think about the indignity of people sleeping in the streets.  It came to mind when a man freshly released from the hospital approached me trying to scrounge up $14 to make a copay to buy himself some pneumonia medication.  He wanted to wash the windows of my car for $2—the only means of production he owned a rag, a bucket, and soap and water.  And he was working with an active case of pneumonia! 
            This is such a far cry from the fulfillment of any of the principles we hold dear, it is just surreal.  But it's not.  It's real.
            I grew up Christian—Lutheran to be specific.  One text I heard several times was from the book of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?”  This was regarding worrying for your future and well-being, and he seeks to offer comfort saying the Lord provides for the birds, and he will provide for you as well.  But eventually, every one of those birds Jesus was referring to gets to the end of the line and dies, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  The thought was deeply jarring to my theology.  God takes care of you.... until he doesn't.
            The most financially poor among us generally receive poor healthcare and dental care, and sometimes get sick with avoidable diseases and tend to die much younger.  Good people have very bad things happen to them sometimes--whether it's homeless people getting assaulted while they sleep, the far-too-common murder of transgender people (not that any murder rate would be acceptable), state-paid police officers assaulting people protesting for justice, or people driven to end their life when they lose their ability to support themselves and there is no safety net.
            Those are hard facts of life during this epoch of humanity's social evolution.  I don't like those facts.  And I don't like talking about them.  But these facts may be part of the realities of members in this community.  And even if not a reality for those within these walls, these injustices definitely happen to those in the community just beyond.  If there's injustice, a loud bubbling discourse is a good way to bring attention.  Those hard facts may be the “is” of our current situation, but they're not the “ought” of what I want for anyone's future.  To match the values I hold dear, I hope to usher in some serious change.  If God can't be there to take care of us, can't we work it out so that we can be there for each other?  Apparently not as a nation.  Not yet.  An undemocratic mass media pushes dialogs on these injustices to the margins, keeping us up-to-date on the latest distraction stories about Miley Cyrus, Tiger Woods, the “debt ceiling,” or the next videogame platform.  Corporations don't have concern for the poor, or for anyone's well-being except where it affects the purchase their services and products.  Most politicians don't have time for the poor, and pay the most heed to those who can help finance their campaigns.  And many politicians also work for these corporations through revolving doors.  The same people who work as leaders at companies like Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Enron, Pfizer, Exxon and British Petroleum are also the people in government who are supposed to be regulating those companies.  It seems surreal, but it's real. 
            The reality being written is that the taxpayers' budget is going toward things that don't reflect our common values.  And the budget is most definitely a moral issue.  A quick plug: any of you who have the opportunity to come to the UUPLAN action in Harrisburg tomorrow about the governor's drastic General Assistance cuts against our state's poorest residents, please let me know if you want to be part of the carpool.  One of the most surreal budget matters is the hand-in-glove connection between our lawmakers' refusal to end the drug war, and the support for the drug war offered by powerful lobbies such as the private corrections corporations, who are offering to help manage the prison population for the government as long as the government can guarantee that the prisons be kept 90% full.  You heard that right—they want more prisoners, so they can get a greater profit.  And they are more connected with those who make the laws and appropriate the budget money than you and I.  This is creating a reality where Pennsylvania is subtracting large sums of money from the budget for schools and transportation, and increasing the budget for prisons.  To those among us who don't believe in punitive incarceration at all, much less as a replacement for a good education, this seems surreal.  But it's real.
            In your personal life, if you've ever received an errant medical bill, or experienced a crediting mistake on your student loans, or had difficulty proving your eligibility for some type of assistance, you know surreality.  It may seem there's nobody you can call who can actually fix the situation, and the people on the phone seem entirely uncurious--just pushing papers, and shuffling your issue off to somebody else, or saying “It seems fixed on this end.  If you get another bill next month, just give us another call.”  Meanwhile, the reality is that this matter is getting dangerously close to going into collections, but it's their mistake.  That doesn't seem to matter, however, as your soon-to-be-blemished credit rating report will become the reality.
            I can't help thinking that I'm not alone in noticing all these incongruities between that which I witness and what I hear I am witnessing.  And I think to myself that “when we get them out of office, and change the system, we'll be able to fix all this stuff.”  Yet that reminds me of a good learning experience I had while playing high school basketball.  Our team would sometimes be down by 15-20 points at the half.  And there was always this expectation that we would play harder in the second half and catch up.  However, it was rare that the other team didn't just continue to outscore us, and beat us by upwards of 30 points by the final buzzer.  Returning from the analogy, maybe all these bad laws and bad budget decisions aren't going to be fixed.  What if they continue to get worse?  I'll be honest—I don't know.  But that will be real until change happens.  And it will have real effects on our lives and the lives of those we love.
            How did we get to this point?  The postmodernism Paul Rasor was talking about has opened the floodgates, for ill and for good.  As he says, “Everything is relativized.  What we used to think of as truth is now seen as interpretation.”  If everybody is allowed their interpretation, then we are also open to allowing fabrications.  But if we're honest, not all interpretations are equally valid.  And once discovered, whole-cloth fabrications are among the least valid.
            There are falsehoods being told to us on a fundamental level.  And when we are not skeptical, or we do not see the framework within which those falsehoods occur, we incorporate those lies into our own stories.  In the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, and the Muslim tradition, there is a proscription to NOT bear false witness, to NOT testify falsely.  I see two problems at work here.  First, direct fabrications in some forms of advertising and public relations and in government, in which the listener is led to act or decide based on false beliefs.
            So if the first issue is wholesale false witness, the second could perhaps be called “absent witness” where that which we ought bear witness to is left unexamined or neglected.  In leaving that portion of witness out of our understanding, we allow a little damage into our beliefs—we may have the truth, but not the whole truth.  And what's missing from the truth may just be the lion's share of the iceberg.  And as the standard for truth fall, there's an invitation to participate.
            Blogger Greta Christina speaks to this on her blog post “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?”: If we believe things about reality that aren’t true, we’re going to make bad decisions. If we believe that we failed our English test because our teacher has it in for us, we’re not going to study harder for our next test. If we believe that we keep getting stomach-aches because we hate our job, we’re not going to quit having Doritos and Red Bull for breakfast. If we believe that we can turn on the TV by hitting it with a rock, we’re going to miss “America’s Best Dance Crew.” It’s like data processors say: Garbage in, garbage out.
            How does this apply to us here, now, in our lives?  The changes in us begin by and are maintained by working against, playing against, dancing against those huge lies of bent reality and lies of omission thrust upon us.  We can work, play, and dance against them by stepping out of a system where falsehoods are commonplace.  We can insist on getting closer to the truth by developing a broader interpretation.  How can we do this?  By first recognizing that the personal truth we understand is based on our personal framework, built up by a lifetime of experiences, from living within our own social location.  Some things that compose our social location include gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, socioeconomic status, age, and educational level.  Two people with different social locations may experience the same event, but their interpretations may diverge widely.  I know that as a male-appearing, white, Scandinavian-descended, heterosexual, well-educated middle-class person, I am bound to have different expectations and views on the world than somebody in a different social location.
            A second step toward a broader interpretation is to validate it by listening to the stories of others.  To really hear their story, so that you may know them with depth.  And treat it as their truth, which you may allow to become a part of your own.  This is a spiritual practice.  It requires practice to understand each other and ourselves in detail.
            When I was in college, in my free time, I used to listen to a lot of music.  Whether it was Jane's Addiction, Public Enemy, Tracy Chapman, Throwing Muses, or the Clash, I would listen to the music and take it in for the wondrous beauty in the melodies, the rhythms, and the lyrics.  However, in hindsight, I didn't take it in as the artist's actual truth about their lived location.  It was just beautiful and interesting.
I didn't quite get it as real when the Clash sang:
This is a public service announcement,
With guitar
Know your rights, all three of them
Number 1: You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a CRIME!
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat
And Number 2: You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Don't mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers
Number 3: You have the right to free
Speech as long as you're not
Dumb enough to actually try it.
            At the time, I just thought this song was great art, maybe an English thing, or something that happened to outspoken punks who threw molatov cocktails.
            Actually, in hindsight, it seems they had somehow experienced this.  And now I know that police do murder unarmed people at US train stations (and other places) and get away with it.  And the poorest among us who apply for food aid and welfare are harassed to the point of having to pay in advance to take their own drug tests—a policy which actually lost money for the state of Florida, and is being adopted in other states.  And Occupy Wall Street protesters who try to simply stand up to speak freely against injustice find themselves pepper sprayed, beaten and bound.  The Clash were right.  And being witness to these present horrifying injustices wouldn't now seem so surreal if I could have listened to their words with my heart way back when.
            All that I just mentioned though, is on the political level.  What about the spiritual level?  I think that's where this listening really matters.
           [lighting tea-light candles next to pulpit] I will light this first candle to represent my own internal light.  It symbolizes the “me” as a subject, as a sentient being, capable of understanding the world I live in by using my own reasoning, and making my own decisions.  Now here is the second candle, as yet unlit, which represents the “you”, as other than me.  Symbolically for me to light the second candle using the first candle would mean that your light, your awareness, depends on me somehow to come into being, in which I tell your story.  Instead, I will light the second candle separately, to indicate that you also are a subject, that you also are sentient and aware, capable of making decisions and telling your own stories.  Were it possible, I may have used the same match to light both of our candles, which has a symbolism of its own regarding a common origin to our light.  But these matches don't last long enough to do all that while I'm talking, and I'm afraid I would have burned my fingers. 
            These two candles represent an equitable relationship reflected by the Indian phrase “Namaste.”  Namaste can be translated as “the divine spirit within me honors the divine spirit within you.”
            Were I to have lit the second candle from the first, it may have instead symbolized the divine spirit within me honoring the sparse partial image I imagine you to be.  That's not exactly the connection I'm hoping we find in one another. 
            Philosopher Martin Buber explains this as the difference between having an I/it relationship and an I/thou relationship. 
In the I/it relationship we are using or experiencing an object in our life as an extension of our own.  In the I/thou relationship, we move into a connected immersed existence in a relationship without bounds.  Buber tells us that we find our meaning in living relationships.
            This I/thou spirit, or the Namaste spirit asks of us to check our assumptions about the others with whom we are in relationship, so we treat them according to their intrinsic value, not their instrumental value. 
            I will be the first to admit (well perhaps second or third to admit, actually) that sometimes I am guilty of this as well.  People are difficult, some more than others, and it takes so much time.  Time that I don't think I have.  When I was younger, I used to think I could see you and know you pretty well at a glance.  In retrospect, I thought of myself to be like Sherlock Holmes, or the protagonist from that TV show “Lie to Me.”  These fictional characters have such powers of perception that they can know the truth about a situation without having to ask anyone verbally.  Maybe when I was younger, I did have these amazing powers.  But at this phase of my life, I know I need to ask questions in order to affirm, clarify, or dispel what I think I know about others, or I am doing myself and them a disservice.   I may think I'm saving time, but the person who's being shortchanged and misunderstood has every right to step up to me, or step away, and, as American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson sings, “Baby you don't know a thing about me.”
            But if I'm not using my time to build relationships.... Honestly, is there a much better thing in the world one could spend their time on?
            Instead of building our relationships based on the things we imagine may be true for others, I invite you to ask them for their truths, in order to help clarify them for you and possibly for them as well.  Or at the very least, just know that you don't know.  As this practice of asking deeply becomes a habit, you may come to notice more clearly when people's selves are disregarded, or truths are painted over them.
            A clear example of this was last week's kerfuffle on Meet the Press between Rachel Maddow and Alex Castellanos, in which he continually interrupted her as she attempted to point out the present pay discrepancy between men and women, until finally she had to interrupt his interruptions to name them as such, and call his language condescending, and clarify that she is presenting irrefutable facts, contrasted with his opinions. 
            The good side of this postmodernism is that each of us as subjects have truths within.  In authentic relationships, instead of disregarding individual truths for a universal truth as a modern view may choose to do, we bring all truths to the surface.  As more and more truths come to the surface, it creates a culture.  Where modernism would have us all participate in a monoculture, postmodernism provides a larger umbrella of a multi-culture.  A multi-culture that makes space for the voices drown out by injustice, and a multi-culture that makes space to celebrate all kinds of love.
 May it be so.  Blessed be, and amen.

PRAYER: As we prepare for a time of prayer and meditation, I ask that we hold member _____ _____ and his family in our hearts and prayers, while he is doing the uphill work of recovering from a stroke at _____ Hospital.  Also, I want lift up our Methodist siblings in the LGBT community.  After 40 years of ongoing struggle, many walked away from their general convention in Tampa with wounded hearts from the recent vote maintaining a stance against equal rights and inclusion.  May their hearts know and feel our support….
     Spirit of Mystery, Spirit of Love, I offer a prayer today for our connections.  May we prepare ourselves energetically to do the work of knowing one another and our world more deeply.  May we not be satisfied with the stories we’ve been told, or that we’ve told ourselves.  May we be curious to discover the depths that lie within each other, of the people we already believe we know, or of the stranger--the possible friend--in our midst.  May we be prepared for what we find there, understanding that we are not responsible for fixing each other’s brokenness, nor even need we be responsible to celebrate every success.  Our true presence, and our knowing, and the knowledge of being known can be enough.     
     May our wisdom also guide us to recognize when we do understand well enough, so we may conserve our energy, to be ready to put it into action when called upon, or to reserve it to adequately care for our own selves.  In this soft balance, may our connection to what Emerson called the Oversoul help us know each other as like manifestations of the divine in the world.  Amen.

 For the benediction today, I would like to share an adaptation of some popular lyrics from Chuck D, of the music group Public Enemy.  He is a musician, lecturer, author, vegetarian, and is also known as Carlton Douglas Ridenhour.  My hope is that these words will be understood in terms of a struggle for racial justice.  A struggle each of us experience differently.  A struggle none of us can know fully, but that each of us can come to know more clearly by hearing each other.

So many of us in limbo
How to get it on, it's quite simple
3 stones… from the sun
We need a piece of this rock
Our goal -- indestructible soul
Answers to this quizzin'
To the Brothers in the street, Schools and the prisons
History shouldn't be a mystery
Our stories – REAL history
Not HIS story
We’re gonna work it one day
Till we all get paid
The right way in full, no bull
Talkin', no walkin'. Drivin', arrivin' in style.
Soon you'll see what I'm talkin' about
'Cause one day
The brothers are gonna work it out
The brothers are gonna work it out

Let us all--brothers, sisters, and siblings--go forward from this place motivated to work it out.  May we prepare to respect each other by negotiating our understandings, and respect ourselves by expecting authentic understanding.
It’s a good day to go in peace.  Amen.  

chant/prayer/mantra: He who has ears, let him hear his siblings clear.

pax hominibus,
agape to all,

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I have never heard the term "social location" before, and I'm really responding to it. Thank you for bringing that to light!

About what you said about I/thou relationships. I used to think that I was much smarter and faster to act than other people, and I would get angry when they'd act slower than I'd like. Over time I came to realize that nearly every time someone was acting slower than I was, they were also acting more thoughtfully. That was my introduction to trying to fully appreciate another person's perspective.
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