Sermon given at Universalist National Memorial Church on 4 Dec 2016
In this Either/Or world of ours, it often seems that the hardest thing is to choose not to take a side. Pollsters, parents, friends, bosses, colleagues, Internet acquaintances – they all expect us to weigh in with our opinion. A Both/And response is not permitted. You are either for us or against us. If you don’t speak out, then obviously you’re condoning the latest outrage.
No wonder so many of us feel exhausted.
No wonder so many feel afraid. When polarization takes over, it brings with it the specter of scarcity, making us uneasy about celebrating each other’s successes, because another’s gain may cause me to think about my own inadequacy or even failure. Or, I may even think that someone else’s success has come at the cost of something that I myself desired – and now cannot obtain. And from that grows fear … and it is fear that is the opposed to love, not just hate, because hate and anger and violence all have their roots in fear.
Make no mistake: There is real grief and real suffering in the world and real fear of those things. At Thanksgiving, as we gathered with family in Texas, my reflection on gratitude included a silent nod toward some of those I know personally who are dealing with heartbreaking situations:
- A young widower whose wife was lost to cancer before her child’s second birthday
- The sudden death of a friend on the brink of a long planned and well earned retirement
- Two families with sons in prison
- Two other families with sons caught in heroin’s horrific net
Is there anyone here who doesn’t know someone who has been without a job for a long period of time – maybe even yourself? Or has wondered how to keep a roof over their head? Or how to get the medical care that a loved one desperately needs?
But there is also a manufactured fear of scarcity, the illusion that I can’t win unless another person loses. Certain arenas always offer a win-lose proposition, of course. Only one team will win the Super Bowl or the World Series, but much of ordinary life off the sports field is lived in a different way.
In the current film “Arrival” – and I think I can talk about it without giving any spoilers -- there is a scene where a girl doing her homework asks her mother for a word to describe an interaction in which both sides get something. When Mom suggests “compromise” or “win-win”, the girl says, “No, something more scientific.” Sometime later, Mom realizes that the best term would be “a non-zero-sum game”.
In a zero-sum game, the gains and losses add up exactly to zero. One side gains, the other loses, in exactly the same proportion. By contrast, most of our everyday interactions are done in a non-zero-sum fashion. Each person exchanges one thing for another thing – and both feel like they’ve benefitted from the deal. In fact, they’ve gained more from making the exchange than they would have from not doing so. Sometimes the exchanges are tangible, sometimes intangible, and sometimes a mixture. But we wouldn’t make those trades if we didn’t feel like we were getting something from them – and wanting the other person also to gain, so that we can keep making beneficial trades.
In other words, Both/And is every bit as natural to us as Either/Or – maybe even more so. Even the last piece of pumpkin pie can be approached with a non-zero-sum attitude: Even if I feel it’s mine to claim – I deserve it! -- I can offer to split it, and, although having a smaller piece myself, I can enjoy watching someone else’s pleasure.
The readings for this second Sunday of Advent seem to me to be inviting us to enter into a Both/And situation. On the one hand, we have the weight of the past and of the roots of tradition:
A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse,
a new shoot will grow from his roots.
So, says the prophet Isaiah. And Paul, centuries later, urges us to pay attention to “whatever was written in earlier times” so that we can persevere and be encouraged.
At the same time, this new shoot is a not a carbon copy of the old, but something radically different, envisioning a world so filled with the knowledge and presence of God that natural enemies, predator and prey can eat together, lie down together, and become friends. The Either/Or scheme of kill or be killed is dissolved, as even a little child can lead the wolf and the lamb, tend the lion and the calf, and play near the snake’s den, for when the mountains themselves echo peace and holiness, no hurt or harm can occur there.
And the one to whose standard all will rally in this ransomed world will bring a new way of judging – not relying on appearances and hearsay, but exerting power through integrity, fairness, wisdom, and understanding. Truth will gird his core. This upright one will see things through, until justice is done.
His perseverance will be rooted in faithfulness. This confidence in God is exactly what Paul means when he prays for the Romans to be able to think in the same way as Jesus and to be assured of God’s promises.
Paul goes even further: He states boldly that the presence and power of God are in the Romans’ midst at this very moment, not in some future peaceable kingdom, and he talks of a “complete confidence” in God that results in “absolutely boundless” hope. No scarcity to be found in his words.
And what do the Romans need to do to take hold of this faith and hope? Paul doesn’t tell them to study the rules of their religion so that they can know how to tell right from wrong. He tells them to take encouragement – not judgement – from the scriptures.
He doesn’t even tell them – as we might expect -- to love one another. Instead, he simply says, “Accept one another in the same way that the Anointed has accepted you.” Accept one another’s successes and suffering, welcome one another’s gifts and frailties – and then rely on God to make things right.
There is more to be done, of course – and we so dearly want to discern what the right action is for us to take. So many issues are crying out for my involvement, but I have only so much time and other resources and don’t want them to be wasted. The possibility of becoming a loser in a zero-sum game can be paralyzing, but standing still is itself an action with consequences.
The urge toward concrete action is at the core of another reading for this second Sunday of Advent, one that we didn’t hear today but is probably familiar, the one that describes John the Baptist in the wilderness. I have a mental image of people in Jerusalem saying to each other, “I really feel I need to do something, to change my life and maybe letting this crazy guy wash me in the river is the right first step."
But I think it’s critical not to skip straight to action, even the most well intentioned action, without a grounding in the right attitude, which is acceptance of each other, in all our imperfections … encouragement from what has gone before … and, in the face of what is yet to come, the same confidence in God that Jesus had … through an awareness of the reality of the divine presence in our midst.
Thus, our hope lies in what we already know and in who we are and how we are to each other. Perhaps we can draw no better lesson from the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline taking place at Standing Rock, where a sunrise ceremony a few hours ago opened today’s interfaith day of prayer, attended by thousands from many tribes, many faiths, and many nations. The Rev. Karen Van Fossan of the Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Congregation is one of the leaders of this prayer event, and instead of meeting for their usual Sunday service and coffee hour, her congregation has already caravanned this morning to the support camp. In her visits there, she has experienced the life of constant prayer, opening the day, at meals, before bed, and on the front lines of the protest – not as actions to be done on a schedule, but a way of being in the world.
The Bismarck-Mandan congregation, which counts the Lakota people as their beloved neighbors, has received many inquiries from around the world asking, “What can we do?” In faith, we can respond here and now from these questions we’ve been considering: In what are we rooted? By what are we encouraged? How do we persevere? What does it mean to accept each other and to have confidence that God will provide what else is needed?
What Rev. Van Fossan asks is that we join together in prayer for the waters, the living waters on which we all depend, and for the water protectors who watch over them – people who are sleeping on earth hard as iron … as frosty wind makes moan over the Dakota plains -- and that we do this today and whenever we are able. I am reminded of a passage in the Hebrew scriptures addressed to the guardians in their high towers, suggesting that when they are tired, they should stand and pray – not take a nap, not check email, not play a game on their phones – but simply stand and pray. And out of the traditions of the Céile Dé spiritual path in which I am honored to be a teacher, I can recall the ancient Celtic monks who would stand in the rivers and lochs to recite their prayers, knowing that the cold waters would keep them attentive and awake, not just physically but spiritually.
And so I invite us all to put aside our own weariness and rise, whether in body or in spirit, to stand and pray with our brothers and sisters in the Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation and with all who have joined the water protectors for this interfaith day of prayer. And let this be a prayer in silence, sending whatever messages arise in the hearts, as we bring our presence into alignment with those who are already in prayer on those shores.
In conclusion, may we affirm, “Water is Life. Thanks be to God.” Amen.
Isaiah 11: 1-10
O Thou All-Present One,
we place ourselves today in your power, peace, and presence.
Protect us by your power. Provide for us with your peace.
Fill our lives with your presence,
and awaken us to the coming of the small child of Bethlehem.
Help us not to be distracted by the clamor around us
but to seek your presence in life's small signs --
the smile of a baby, the loving gestures offered by friends,
and the many lessons tendered by the natural world.
Shield us from shouts and empty promises,
and encourage us with the hope that is rooted in the tree of Jesse.
Give us a zeal to proclaim your love
and to lead lives that will be good examples for others.
Forgive us as we waste your blessings and misuse your gifts.
We pray for rulers and politicians
that they may discover the road that leads to peace
and that they may recognize and accept the peace you offer them,
that the captives may be freed,
the oppressed find relief,
the weary find rest,
the hungry find sustenance, and the homeless ... shelter.
Come among us that our hearts may be opened
to see you in our neighbors, friends, and loved ones,
and to serve you in our service of others. Amen.
May peace endure like the sun and the moon,
and descend like rain on the meadow,
like showers watering the earth,
that every nation shall be blest,
as a little child comes forth to lead them.