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March 15, 2015: “Working Around Limitations”

Centering Thought: I call upon you to be maladjusted. Well you see, it may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading “The Village with a Hole in the Middle,” adapted from Yassir Chadly

NARR: Imagine a beautiful village, close enough to the ocean to see it and occasionally smell the salt air, but far enough that it was a journey to get there. Most of the village sat on a level bluff.

There was a hole in the middle of the village, right there in between the school and a cluster of houses. Nobody could ever explain why the hole was there, or how long it had been there, but nobody could remember it not being there.

And this hole was big. Big enough that if anybody fell in, which happened with some regularity, they would get hurt. But the villagers liked the hole. It was part of their life.

But suddenly, there was a rash of injuries at the hole. In just a few weeks time, a dozen people had fallen in, and had gotten seriously hurt. So the villagers gathered to figure out what they could do to save people who might fall in.

ONE: I have an idea!

NARR: Said one.

ONE: why don’t we put a nurse – a registered nurse, a real professional – at the bottom of the hole, around the clock, so that when people fall in, the nurse will take care of them.

ANOTHER: That’s a terrible idea!

NARR: Said another.

ONE: No it’s not! Think about it, we’d be preserving the character of our town, and protecting the wildlife that lives in and around it, the locusts and mice. And, we’d be providing jobs for several nurses, valuable professionals, who deserve to work.

NARR: Many of the villagers shook their heads in agreement. It was a good idea, which met many needs.

ANOTHER: No, no, no! We have a hospital filled with good nurses and doctors who will be better equipped to take care of those who have fallen in. Why don’t we put an ambulance right near the hole, staffed with a couple of paramedics who could go down into the hole to retrieve the injured, and take them directly to the hospital.

NARR: Many people shook their heads in agreement. The plans were getting better.

ONE: I like where you’re going with this. But the hospital is so far away. If injuries were bad enough, someone could die in transit. Plus, think of all the fossil fuels that ambulance would burn, making several return trips a week. We should just build a new hospital closer to the hole. Think of all the jobs that would create!

ANOTHER: Stop! What madness! We already have a perfectly fine hospital, with no need for a new one.

NARR: All of the villagers shook their heads. He had a very good point.

ANOTHER: We should just fill in this hole with concrete. That will give us a nice, clean, safe play area near the school, and it will get rid of all those nasty locusts and mice living in the hole.

NARR: Suddenly all of the villagers looked worried. Some were confused. Some were shocked. But they were all confused by so many options.

ONE: But our hole! We are all so fond of our hole. That hole is what sets us apart from other villages. None of us can imagine life without the hole. Plus, even though we may not like the locusts and the mice, our ecosystem depends on them. And what about our doctors and nurses? If people aren’t falling into the hole, who will they help?

ANOTHER: Then let’s just move the hole nearer to the hospital.

NARR: And that is just what they did. They filled the hole with concrete to make a playground, but not until they had dug a new hole one the outskirts of the village, near the hospital. Quickly and carefully, they moved all the mice and locusts. And within a matter of hours of completion of the hole, people started falling in again and getting hurt, just as they always had.

Responsive Reading #465 The Wisdom to Survive

If we have the wisdom to survive, to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place,
    Renewing, enriching it,

If we will make our seasons welcome here, asking not too much of earth or heaven,
    Then a long time after we are dead the lives our lives prepare will live here,

Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
    Fields and gardens rich in the windows. The river will run clear, as we will never know it,

And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
    On the levels of the hills will be green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.

On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
    An old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.

The veins of forgotten springs will have opened. Families will be singing in the fields.
    In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.

They will take nothing from the ground they will not return, whatever the grief at parting.
    Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove, and memory will grow into legend, legend into song, song into sacrament.

The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
    This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.

Stewardship Reflection Liz Madigan

Glenn and I have been members for 10 years now. When we came here ten years ago, Tom was 11 and Leigh was 8. Now, they are both young adults. We came, ostensibly, for them. We wanted a community that shared our values. Glenn did not grow up in a church, I grew up Catholic. When I lived in Columbus I attended the Newman Center on OSU campus where the Marianist priests were always in trouble with the bishop. They were a welcoming community before I knew what that meant. If you are ever in Columbus on a Sunday morning, try it. You will feel surprisingly at home.

However the real reason I came to East Shore was for me. I had a friend who died at age 49 from lung cancer. It was a sudden diagnosis but she had a hard road. Her children were young adults, like mine are now, and there were no health care people in the family. She asked me to be her support and advocate and I gladly did this. I helped her through the course of her illness and made sure, despite some difficult conversations, that she died well at Hospice house on E. 185th. I am a fierce advocate! The other thing I am is very independent. In fact, it’s become a funny story at work because the endowed chair I hold is the Independence Foundation endowed chair. This was not accidental according to my boss. However, at the time that Chris died, I was struggling with the existential. Why her? Why then? Her youngest son’s high school diploma was awarded to him early in her hospice room.

I became a hospice nurse at age 23 so I knew the intellectual part of this. But those of you in the helping professions know that it’s different when it’s personal. I am a researcher-I look for answers. I was not finding them on my own. I had to face my own limitations in understanding, the theme of this week’s service-limitations. For someone in the Independence chair, that is a tall order! But you gave me what I needed-you all helped me make sense of this event. So while we said we started coming for the kids (and that was true and thank you for everything you have contributed to them!), we really started coming for me. And every year, we pledge because we believe in this community, what it stands for and hope that our financial support helps contribute to the community.


From Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong:

“In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. A host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest clearing, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state-building, tugs-of-war, town planning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare.

“Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where “religion” ended and “politics” began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction, but because they wanted to invest everything they did with ultimate value.

“We are meaning-seeking creatures and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives. We find the prospect of our inevitable extinction hard to bear. We are troubled by natural disasters and human cruelty and are acutely aware of our physical and psychological frailty. We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why.

“We also have a great capacity for wonder. Ancient philosophies were entranced by the order of the cosmos; they marveled at the mysterious power that kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits and the seas within their bounds and that ensured that the earth regularly came into life again after the dearth of winter, and they longed to participate in this richer and more permanent existence. “

Sermon “Working Around Limitations,” Rev Denis

In the din of a cavernous but crowded brew pub a couple weeks ago at Beverages and Banter, Clark Waite and I talked about where it is that political Liberals and Conservatives meet.

It probably won’t surprise anybody who knows both of us that Clark and I disagree on a few things political. But the thing that we were both reaching for together was a better understanding of what it is that is missing from so much of the public discourse on divisive political issues. We were both wondering where responsibility is, where the concern for the common good is…in all public debate.

I explained to him how I see the political spectrum: not as a line with left and right at opposite ends, but as a circle.

The right and the left can meet in the much-despised middle, seen as milquetoast and impure of philosophy. But the left and the right can also meet at opposite ends of another, intersecting line with libertarianism at one end and communitarianism at the other end. Those intersecting lines form a circle.

The first sentence of the preamble of the official Libertarian Platform says that the party seeks “a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” Something about that sounds very Unitarian Universalist: “Keep your laws off my body…and don’t tell me what to do or how to think.”

It’s also a place where liberals and conservatives can agree on issues of identity and personal choice.

But the way I see it, a world where no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others is a world where if I don’t value police or pavement because I have a gun and a really great off road vehicle, I shouldn’t have to support emergency services or public roads. It feels like the default of libertarianism is the individual trumps the collective, as if the best a human can strive for is self-protection.

So that’s libertarianism down here on the circle. This is Communitarianism up here. Yes. I’m making a judgment.

I wish I could read from the preamble of the official Communitarian Party Platform, but sadly, that concept is still so little-known, so contrary to the popular opinions of our time, that no such party exists. But I can read to you from the literature of the Communitarian Network at George Washington University:

In the late 1980s, a growing number of academicians and social commentators began to notice a breakdown in the moral fabric of society.

Attributing this condition to an excessive emphasis on individualism in the public sphere, they recognized the need for a social philosophy that at once protected individual rights and attended to corresponding responsibilities to the community. Transcending the stalemate between left and right, this new “responsive communitarian” philosophy articulated a middle way between the politics of radical individualism and excessive statism.

Now, I didn’t have these quotes on me last week, the brew pub was loud, and folks were beginning to leave, so I didn’t get to convey this to Mr. Waite very well. After telling me how fed up he is with some Republicans, he told me he would send me an article, which he did this week. It was an obituary for M. Stanton Evans, who had just died, a reprint from the website of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC. It begins:

In the fall of 1960, some 90 young conservatives met at the Sharon, Connecticut, home of National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr., where they founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) to serve as an organization for young conservative activists. As their statement of principle, the group adopted the Sharon Statement, which was drafted by 26-year-old news�paper editor M. Stanton Evans. Written “at this time of moral and political crisis,” the statement is a succinct summary of the central ideas of modern American conservatism.

If we had the time, I would read you the whole statement, because it is intriguing. It made a lot of points I have to agree with:

Human beings are endowed with free will and moral authority

Political and economic liberty are essential if we and our beloved institutions are to be free

And government must operate within the confines of the constitution…which to me, though it isn’t mentioned, includes the presumption of innocence, upheld in the 5th, 6th and 14th amendments.

Where the statement loses me is at the end, insisting that Communism must be crushed, and that “American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?” With 50 years behind us, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the UUSR and now the easing of the Cuban Blockade, we just aren’t afraid of Communism anymore. Though I am afraid many in US citizens still feel that if you aren’t with us, you’re against us. They just don’t seem to have the bandwidth for understanding the idea that two countries can exist with different needs and not go to war against each other.

Having heard all of this, you can imagine that this week I was dismayed by the open letter from Tom Cotton and 46 other United States Senators, to the leaders of Iran. I’ll admit that I am not as on top of this story as I wish I were. I don’t know all there is to know about the upcoming Israeli elections, and Benyamin Netanyahu’s request that the US government back Israel’s interest in nuclear weapon negotiations with Iran. But a few things are clear to me:

The 47 Senators may have violated the Logan Act of 1799, which forbids any U.S. citizen — acting without official U.S. authority — from influencing “disputes or controversies” involving the U.S. and a foreign government.

Right here in Ohio, after its endorsement of the candidacy of Sen. Rob Portman, one of the signors of Cotton’s letter, The Plain Dealer is being widely quoted as editorializing that “The magnitude of this disgraceful decision shows the degree to which partisanship has gobbled up rationality on foreign policy.”

Some of the neo-conservatives involved blame the gaffe on a green senator in office barely two months as if his inexperience is an excuse for their lack of judgment. Some say it was really meant to be an open letter to President Obama. But the Republicans who were not involved, who saw it as a breach of useful protocol, it seems to me are the old school conservatives.

Basically, this is all a big mess. And my fear is that these 47 Senators are like the villagers in this morning’s story.

My fear is that they believe the best interest of the United States is the only thing that should matter, and that war is inevitable, the only sensible action to protect those interests. My fear is that for those 47 Senators, war is the hole in the center of the village. It’s there, huge… causing pain and claiming lives. But they just can’t imagine life without it. It’s part of the American identity, part of human history, so much so that they see it as good. Good for the economy, good for safety, good for personal liberty.

In times like these, when we are already involved in two seemingly endless wars, while Israel and some of our own legislators here in the US seem to want to get involved in yet another one, I have to ask, “what is our role as religious leaders and a faith community in determining our future? What stance should we take collectively at this juncture?”

Now I know in a congregation like this, founded on the primacy of individual belief, in a fellowship where we know we don’t have to agree – and we don’t – it might be really risky to talk from the pulpit about something to blatantly political.

But I believe in a religious organization like this – an organization in which we bind ourselves together again and again as we strive to make meaning of our lives – our goal is nothing less to call each other to be our best selves, not thinking only of our own interests, but with the common good at the forefront. I believe that our job is to call for a communitarian ideal: to protect individual rights and attended to corresponding responsibilities to the community. Especially when that community is a global community.

When faced with a situation like this letter to Iran, in trying to make meaning of it, I turn to prominent leaders of liberal religion. You might recall that I’ve used Unitarian Universalist Theologian Paul Rasor’s definition to liberal religion: it is oriented toward the present, not the past…beliefs in tune with modern knowledge and modern experience.

One of the most theologically forward-thinking of those liberal religious leaders is Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun Magazine and Rabbi of Synagogue Tikkun Beyt in California.

The names of the synagogue and the magazine come from the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, which means repairing or healing a broken world, and it suggests that humanity has a shared responsibility for transformation. It’s a theologically liberal idea that is completely the opposite of the conservative Christian Evangelical belief that only God can transform the world, and that God is waiting for the right moment to visit upon humanity an apocalypse, human restitution for the acts of the sinful. If you haven’t been paying attention, the sinful would be us…those who don’t go to those churches.

So when Rabbi Lerner writes a letter printed in the New York Times with over 2500 signatories, I pay attention. Especially when they are from some of our greatest colleges, seminaries and universities. The letter said, in part:

It is time to switch from full spectrum dominance to a Strategy of Generosity. The U.S. spent over a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The outcome was a greatly weakened Iraq and ISIL (the “Islamic State”) armed with weapons brought to the region by the U.S. That same trillion dollars could have been used to create a Global Marshall Plan that could have wiped out global and domestic poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate health care-thereby demonstrating to the world a U.S. that cares for the well-being of others.

A Strategy of Generosity engages in negotiations to prevent war and care for the needy. It is not limited by a need to hold onto things long after they’ve outlived their usefulness, concocting all kinds of crazy schemes to preserve that status quo.

A Strategy of Generosity is living like the premoderns, finding the sacred in football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state-building, tugs-of-war, town planning, and commerce but being modern enough, religiously liberal enough to not justify by war by making sacred.

A Strategy of Generosity is walking with people, the way so many of you did with Liz, when they are going through tough times in their lives, not caring what beliefs you share, only caring that you can help the healing.

A Strategy of Generosity is seeing the hole in the middle of the village for what it is: part of the fragile ecosystem, and preserving it in place while doing something radical: tending to people before they fall in. It’s approaching the hole from a different angle, the communitarian response to a problem, a response that asks, “what do you need? What would be best for everyone? And How can I help?”

We have a great capacity for wonder. We are entranced by the order of the cosmos. We marvel at the mysterious power, the natural order that keeps planets in their orbits and the seas within their bounds. We look beyond ourselves and our own needs, as we wish to participate in a richer and more permanent existence.

I believe that’s what our Bond of Union is about: accompanying one another as we find the delicate balance between individual rights and responsibilities to an increasingly global community, even when our needs seem to be in conflict.

I hope that’s why you’re here.