Climate Change … and You … and Us

On the left a hand holding smoke stacks spewing fumes. On the right a hand holding wind turbines, both against the background of a strip of grass under a blue, mostly cloudless skiy.

Which way forward for our energy future?

Do you remember the movie An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore? It came out ten years ago. Do you remember how scary the predictions were? Things haven’t gotten better.

I got my Science News Magazine last week and the lead article on this tenth anniversary was titled, “More Truths, Still Inconvenient.” None of the threats Al Gore talked about in the movie have abated.  Most continue to get worse.

The average global temperature continues to rise.  On Wednesday, the Times Union reported we’ve set records for temperature eleven months in a row – a record all of its own.  March was 2.2 degrees warmer than the average temperature for the 20th century, partly due to El Nino.  Still, it has been 99 years since a global cold record has been set.

The effect of these rising temperatures may or may not show up in daily fluctuations in each part of the globe.  They become obvious as glaciers recede.  The Science News update noted that 90% of the world’s glaciers are retreating right now.  Their mass has been decreasing rapidly since the 1970’s.  If you want to see one (so you can tell your grandchildren about it) I wouldn’t wait too long.

Global warming is also dramatically shrinking the Artic sea ice, ironically opening up opportunities for prospectors to look for new oil reserves.  The Antarctic Ice Sheet is carefully watched because it stores an enormous amount of water.  The loss of just a few ice shelves in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could destabilize the whole region.  That destabilization could trigger a chain reaction of melting that could not be stopped.

After Antarctica, the second great reserve of ice is Greenland. It too is melting.  Many scientists who study ice melt in Greenland think it will only take a 3-5 degree rise in surface temperature to cause the whole thing to melt.  If that were to happen, sea level is estimated to rise about twenty four feet.  That would submerge most of Florida.

Scary as that is, what frightens me even more is the acidification of the oceans.  About a third of all the carbon dioxide we put in the air dissolves in the oceans.  That process acidifies the ocean.  It may already be contributing to the bleaching of corals and interfering with baby sea-life creating their shells. (note that spraying sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere to block out the sun and cool the earth will not stop this problem)

Another effect of climate change we’ve had a little breather from here is increases in hurricanes and strong storms.  But other places are suffering even if we currently aren’t.  The downpour in Houston this past week is just one example.  With warmer temperatures, air can hold more water increasing the amount of rain and the severity of storms.

One very unexpected result, over the past ten years, has been the rapid increase in the denial of these observations.  The climate change deniers have taken over the Republican Party and a vast swath of the American public. Their unwillingness to face the reality of climate change has undermined our government’s ability to respond with forward looking, progressive change.

And yet, the pressures for radical change haven’t let up, they only increase.  Not only do they increase, they become urgent as we better understand the terrifying forces we are amplifying by dumping ton upon ton of carbon into our atmosphere.

Last Sunday, our guest speaker at our joint service, the Rev. Fred Small, made a plea for radical hope. I certainly enjoyed and appreciated his message and his powerful presentation. Yet, I struggle mightily with being hopeful about our future.  Remember the 350 challenge? Stop the growth of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million? That limit is now in the rear view mirror as we have surpassed 400 parts per million and zooming up exponentially.

Rev. Small said we are past the point when small personal changes like taking the bus to work, putting solar panels on your roof and recycling soda cans are going to make much of a difference. We need those changes AND big changes that are driven by government policy and corporate practices. We need changes at the level of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to deal with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation. It was adopted in December and signed on Friday. Much as this agreement was celebrated at the time, it doesn’t have binding commitments.

The problem with trying to stop climate change is those changes threaten the foundations of developed civilization itself. Our way of life is built on extractivism. If we are to save developed civilization, we will need to find a way to stop being extractivists and convert to regenerativists.

I’m indebted to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, for her insights into extractivism and its harmful results. I already knew it was a problem. We can’t keep drilling oil wells forever. And it takes more energy to extract the hard-to-get fossil fuels.  At some point you cross the bar when it takes more energy to extract the fossil fuel than you get from burning it and you are done.

Klein points out what really shook everything up was the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the eighteenth century. That one change, changed everything. Before that time, energy came from renewable sources. The fabric and flour mills were run by water power. Ships crossed the ocean using wind power. Animals hauled cargo and people. There were natural limits to how much power could be harnessed by their technologies.

The steam engine changed that by decoupling the production of power to natural processes.  Engines could provide power by consuming fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are not naturally occurring.  They must be extracted from the ground. They are banked energy stored away over millions and millions of years that can be recovered, until they are used up. But in the eighteenth century, that was a long, long time in the future.

Take a little fuel out of the ground, there isn’t a lot of disruption to the eco-system. Take out a lot and you get the kind of devastation we see in Alberta with tar sands mining: mile upon mile of open pits and toxic tailing lakes in which nothing can live. Fracking risks water and air contamination. Coal and metal strip mining are notoriously destructive. These locations are called sacrifice zones. The privileged willingly sacrifice poor, rural and indigenous people’s land to extract the resource they want in exchange for dollars. And when that resource is gone, they move on to the next sacrifice zone, often leaving a mess for someone else to clean up.

Sadly monocultural farming has been done in this same way for many years. The rows of crops extract nutrients from the soil that must be replaced with chemical fertilizers that are mined from the earth. Caging animals for meat, eggs and milk depends on extractive agriculture and generates toxic concentrated waste that cannot easily be absorbed back into the ecosystem.

Basically, much of our modern way of life is built on extractivism. And a civilization based on extraction cannot be sustainable on a finite planet. To have any hope of decreasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and regulating our climate, we need to renounce extractivism.  We need to return again to renewable sources of energy our ancestors used, the wind, the sun, and the water as our sources of power.

But is this possible? Can a civilization like ours that is so energy intensive stop extracting fossil fuels from the ground?  We’ve seen the folly of turning corn into ethanol that drives up food prices. Damming waterways has all sorts of problems as is seen with salmon runs disturbed. Wind turbines have not been kind to migrating birds in their flyways. Ending extractivism will have far reaching effects. And there are those, like the military, that depend of gasoline and jet fuel to power their machines of destruction that they are very unlikely to want to give up. I don’t expect our military to give up their machine guns and helicopters and go back to bows and arrows and horses any time soon.

But resistance may come from other places.  Resistance to extractivism may come from the sites of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. Resistance to fracking here in New York State was intense. If the governor hadn’t stopped it, we’d be embroiled in a major battle against drilling with massive civil disobedience and people getting arrested. We’ve seen here how resistance to the natural gas pipeline near Burden Lake as energized fierce opposition. Once the sacrifice zones begin to get close to rich, white people, they wake up and realize they don’t want to pay the price required of living an extractivist lifestyle. One of the reasons China is willing to consider curbing coal burning power plants is the terrible smog choking their cities. Chinese citizens are no longer willing to sacrifice the health of their children for economic growth.

And when enough people mobilize in sustained opposition, that changes everything.

Still, the pressures to keep extracting and keep sacrificing the earth to maintain our status quo are very, very powerful. That force of consumption has been systematized into the publicly held corporation.  The corporation is extractivist to the core. It must extract resources then transform them and sell them at a profit, getting bigger and bigger every year, or decline and die. Shareholders will not accept the shrinking of the value of energy corporations. They cannot write off all the reserves of fossil fuel they use to value their company. This kind of corporate wealth creation system that depends on endless growth cannot thrive in an economic model that prizes sustainability.

I’m sad to say, I don’t know how we’re going to end extractivism. I only know we have no realistic other choice.  I also know many people are enthusiastically exploring all kinds of alternative renewable energy sources and sustainable regenerative farming practices that will be the foundation for a new civilization in the future.

I do know one important component of the change that is very relevant to our congregation. We don’t need to know the solution to climate change. We do need to know what is wrong with the current system and demand an end to unjust and immoral practices.

We already know extractive energy companies have been poisoning the air, water and soil around their wells and all over the world. The Alberta tar sand mining and the drilling in the Niger delta have been horrific environmental catastrophes. Rather than respond to protests and requests for redress, extractive corporations and their police forces have suppressed opposition brutally.

We know if we want to move away from extractivism, we don’t need any more fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to gradually dismantle it as renewable power takes its place. We don’t need to put communities like ours at risk with the bomb trains rolling through the city on a daily basis. We don’t need another natural gas or oil pipeline ever.

If we want countries in less developed parts of the world to keep their carbon underground, we have a moral obligation to offer them support to build a non-fossil fuel based economy. This is a fairness issue because Western nations have been pumping our carbon into the air for hundreds of years. We have already far exceeded our allotment of carbon dioxide pollution.  We have taken away the less developed countries’ opportunity to develop using fossil fuels the way we have. Thus, we are morally obligated to pay developing countries to keep their fossil fuels in the ground, so argues Naomi Klein and leaders in the Southern Hemisphere.

These moral issues are clear and present ways to work to slow down climate change. Yet they will not be enough. Personal changes to reduce our demands for fossil fuels are important too. Yet they will not be enough. Curbing militarism and wars around the planet that are intense consumers of fossil fuels would be very helpful. Yet that will not be enough.

We are dealing with a problem that many of us will not experience the full effects in our lifetimes. We are worrying about a problem that will afflict the children and grandchildren of those who have yet to be born most severely. And preventing a good number of those births would go a long way to mitigating climate change.

What we can be confident of is each part per million of increase in carbon dioxide in the air will make things worse. And one of those increases might trigger a catastrophic event that will make things horribly worse. We just don’t know when or what will happen.

What we can do today is work to interrupt the process of fossil fuel extraction by using moral arguments. As a religious organization, this is one of the powerful tools we have to contribute to the movement toward a sustainable and renewable future.

Let us stop sacrificing people, the earth, and the future of children yet to be born, to the god of endless profit. The time to stop is now. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The tide is rising and so are we. This is where we are called to be.

Closing Song

“The Tide is Rising” by Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter

The tide is rising, and so are we! (3x)
This is where we are called to be, (2x)
Verses: The task is mighty…,  The land is holy…, The storm is raging…
The sun is shining…, The world is ready..

Benediction

Let us close with these sober and inspired words of Martin Luther King in his speech against the Vietnam War in 1967:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing oriented society’ to a ‘person oriented society.’ When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

That mission of a person oriented society is ours too.

Reading
from This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

After slogging through a lot of very depressing chapters, when I finally got to the conclusion, there was this glowing section of text that offers a sliver of hope.  Please savor it with me now:

In December 2012, Brad Werner, a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression made his way through a throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco… [The title of his talk was] “Is Earth F**ked?”…

Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations, and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is Earth f**ked” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance”—movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people—along the lines of the abolition movement and the civil rights movement—represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.

This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.”

Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer.

If that happens, well, It changes everything.

To that I’ll add: That change can be us!

Liberation through Sacrifice

An African Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the enthusiasm of the crowdI wonder what really happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He can’t have had that many followers traveling with him from Galilee. He might have had some followers in Jerusalem but I’d expect their numbers to be small as he wasn’t a regular visitor or teacher there. For him to stage an impressive entrance into Jerusalem with big crowds of people seems unlikely.

There may have been a large crowd of people there for Passover. That crowd may have been drawn to the spectacle. I wonder if maybe a crowd had gathered to honor another dignitary.  Maybe Jesus got there first riding on his borrowed donkey.  If so, he might have excited the people near the gates with his parody of a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem of a warrior-king on a magnificent steed.  Whatever happened, it makes for a good story with a meaningful message.

What the gospels agree about is Jesus appeared in Jerusalem to criticize the powerful. Clearly, Jesus wanted to announce his presence to the authorities. What scholars tell us is Jesus’ behavior is modeled on the tradition of Jewish Prophets. He most likely came to Jerusalem to announce the coming Kingdom or Realm of God on earth. In the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, Jesus was painfully aware of the betrayal of the Jewish people, especially the poor, by the Jewish leaders and by the Roman overlords. In Jesus’ eyes, they had broken their covenant with God.  They needed to be called back to restore that Covenant.  The center of the Jewish universe was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The holy days of Passover were a time when the many Jews would be there.  It would have been an excellent time to be in Jerusalem to speak prophetically to the powerful.

So what was Jesus’ Prophetic message? We find it stated right at the beginning of Luke as Jesus worships in his home town of Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

These words describe the mission to which Jesus was called, called to announce the Realm of God to be established on Earth.  Jesus announced this message not just to recommend this way of being as a hypothetical. He was right there saying it was going to happen very, very soon; within the lifetimes of those hearing his voice. God was sick and tired of the way things were and was going to do something about it.  Jesus was, in effect, saying, “Get ready for some big changes folks!”

Jesus knew who was hungry to hear this message. Jesus had been meeting and healing those who were excluded from the Temple by their illnesses that made them unclean. Roman oppression meant that people were being unfairly imprisoned. Jesus knew people who had lost their inherited family land due to being unable to pay heavy Roman and Temple taxes. Farmers couldn’t support themselves or their families without any land to grow food.  They didn’t have progressive income tax nor did they have earned income credit. Pay your taxes … or perish. A year of Jubilee would forgive all these debts and burdens, allowing people to have a second chance.

So Jesus was on a prophetic mission from God proclaiming an immanent reversal.  The high and mighty will brought low and the low shall be lifted up.  This reversal will be a blessing to the poor in spirit, to the meek and gentle, to those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who hunger and thirst for uprightness and righteousness.  The merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers will get the recognition they deserve.

And sooner or later, Jesus was going to have to go to Jerusalem to speak this truth to power, maybe even triggering the reversal itself.  Yes, he taught and healed as he traveled from town to town, but his primary mission was to proclaim this good news.

So, given his passion for this mission, the question arises, did Jesus go to Jerusalem to do his prophetic duty for the benefit of the suffering Jewish people or did he go anticipating he would be killed then rise again and sit on the right hand of God ready for the last judgement after the apocalypse?

Two of my favorite Biblical scholars think he had hoped to continue his ministry and mission. They think he probably wanted a triumphant exit as well as an entrance from Jerusalem after Passover was complete. Sure, he must have known he was taking great risks by what he was doing, especially turning over the tables of the money changers. Maybe he hoped for and expected a change of heart by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, as happened when Jonah went to confront Nineveh and all the people repented.

Liberal Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan notes that Jesus was protected by a crowd who came with him from Galilee but also by “others who had invited him to bring his message of God’s Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover.” Every night Jesus would withdraw out of Jerusalem to the relative safety of an area of supporters on the Mount of Olives and Bethany.  Crossan sees in these precautions that:

Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it — until Thursday. (source: link)

Scholar Bart Erhman agrees with Crossan, not expecting that Jesus came to Jerusalem to get killed. The problem was, Jesus wasn’t just criticizing the Roman rule.  He had some harsh words for:

the Jewish aristocracy and the priests running the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Jesus saw them not as the representatives of God on earth, but as God’s enemies. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that God would destroy the Temple and wipe out those who were in control of it (the power players in Jerusalem: the high priest, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees) (source: link)

I think we can be confident that this didn’t make the Jewish authorities friendly to him.  They would be happy to hand him over to the Roman authorities for execution if they got the chance. Pilate would have surely seen him as a problem and it takes no stretch of imagination to expect him to crucify Jesus “as a public example of what happens to those who stir up animosity to the ruling authorities.”

At some point during Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, he must have realized the authorities were planning to capture and kill him. What we have is a story of him in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing over the cup of poison that was being handed to him. He could have gone back to Galilee and escaped. He didn’t. Whether or not he came to Jerusalem expecting to die, at the moment he allows Judas to kiss him and betray him, he chooses to sacrifice himself for his hoped for liberation of the Jewish people.

Jesus is hardly unique during this period of time putting his life on the line. There were a number of other prophets who appeared and were killed or banished. Jesus was different. Jesus either survived the ordeal (which is highly unlikely), or somehow his spirit or presence or message was able to survive his death that led to the reconstituting of his community that preserved and carried on his mission.  Whether or not he physically returns from the dead after three days, his prophecy does not die with his body.

While most Unitarian Universalists embrace the ethical teachings of Jesus, we are suspicious of the idea that Jesus sacrificed his life, the way Jews slaughtered animals in the Temple during those days, to atone for sins. We resist the idea that God can only be reconciled with sinful humanity if Jesus offers his own life up as an atoning sacrifice. Some of us find that kind of an ancient God appeased by the shedding of human blood repugnant.

Here is another way to hear the story of Jesus’ sacrifice in the context of the sacrifice of his life for his prophetic mission rather than our personal redemption. Jesus puts his life on the line to show his commitment to that mission. It is a mission that can only go so far during his lifetime, given the Roman occupation of Palestine. But, if his mission outlives him and is taken up again by his disciples and followers, then his death will not be in vain. His hope for the liberation of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, continues.

So when we recognize and honor Jesus’ sacrifice, when we align with Jesus’ prophetic mission, he can live again in us and in our actions. We become part of his sacrifice for the liberation of humanity, work far from complete.

That work of liberation remains undone partly because Jesus was wrong.  He expected the Realm of God would be established during the lifetime of his disciples. That part of his prophecy is clearly wrong, even disastrously wrong. In the lifetimes of his disciples, things go from bad to worse with the eventual destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  God doesn’t reverse anything and the Jews suffer even more not less afterwards. Jesus’ message probably would have disappeared too, except for Saul from Tarsus who stopped persecuting Christians after having Jesus appear to him and question him about that persecution. So much of the Christianity we have today is colored by St. Paul’s Romanizing influences to make Christianity attractive to them. (Especially removing the requirement for circumcision)

But his followers didn’t give up on the idea that the Realm of God was coming. Christians have been expecting the second coming to be imminent for the last two thousand years.  Thanks to Wikipedia, here are some of the more entertaining predictions that haven’t come to pass:

  • Irenaeus believed Jesus would return in the year 500. One prediction was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark.
  • Pope Sylvester II expected the Millennium Apocalypse at the end of the Christian Millennium, January 1, 1000. Various Christian clerics predicted the end of the world on this date.
  • Mathematician Michael Stifel calculated the Judgement Day to arrive on October 19, 1533 at 8am.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg thought it had actually happened during his lifetime in 1757 except that it had happened in the spiritual world. He also believed he had daily visions of Jesus over the course of 30 years.  Jesus’ return was not in the flesh, but in His Holy Spirit.
  • The most recent failed expectation was September 28, 2015 by Mark Biltz when there was a lunar eclipse. This comes from the Blood Moon Prophecy of John Hagee.

If you’d like to mark your calendar for the next prediction, psychic Jeane Dixon thinks it could happen as early as 2020.

I say, don’t bother. Jesus was wrong about predicting the coming Realm of God as a moment in time. What Jesus might not be wrong about is he participated in initiating a change in consciousness about how people should treat each other that is gradually changing the world.

Unitarian Universalist values as written into our Principles align well with the essentials of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God.  Jesus’ radical and uncompromising love we express in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Jesus’ demand for justice we express in our call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Jesus’ vision of world transformation we show through our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

These values are not just found in Unitarian Universalism but also today in contemporary Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other world religions as well as earth centered traditions.

And still the work of liberation initiated by Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t done.

So as this holy week begins, may we reflect on how Jesus’ prophetic mission has touched our lives and moved us. If we are so moved by him, may we align with the good news he claimed from fellow prophet Isaiah. I’ll close by repeating the verses:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

Benediction

Go out with these words by Dag Hammarskjöld,

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you, in turn, must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.”

Reflections on Middle East: Not Making It Worse

Recently I’ve been reading many expressions of fear and anxiety in the social media universe. I’ve read reports that Americans are more on edge than they have been since 9/11.  Although the media seems to have become desensitized to having a mass shooting at least once a day, the attack in San Bernardino has touched a nerve.

The site of the attack is what I think is so disturbing.  The target, a social service organization having a Christmas party, has a randomness to it.  A potential next attack could be almost any target.  I read messages expressing a new awareness that if people are in a movie theater, the mall, in a big box outlet or a grocery store, they are in a space that could be a target. We are starting to get a taste of what it is like in many parts of the world where a trip to a public marketplace could mean encountering a suicide bomber and death.

This anxiety is increasing our attention to what is happening in the Middle-East.  ISIS is no longer focused on attacks in just that region. Now that they have attacked the French, they have declared their intention to come after Americans as well.  Suicide bombings and indiscriminant mass violence mean their followers are willing to die for a cause many of us don’t understand or appreciate.

So, what do the people who form the leadership of ISIS really want?  They declare they are creating an Islamic state that will encompass all Muslims worldwide (except Shia Muslims they consider rejecters or “rafida”). To do this, they are planning the overthrow of all the existing governments in the area and establish a “caliphate.”

This isn’t a new idea, one called the Abbasid caliphate existed from 750 to 1258 C.E. Khaled Diab in an op-ed piece in the New York Times described this as a time of relative diversity in the region, as well as dramatic advances in science and mathematics – in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent fundamentalist version of their own imagination of a caliphate.

Diab thinks the appearance of ISIS is the result of many failures of European diplomacy that started with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago.  These failures cleared the way for the emergence of a nihilistic fundamentalism.  They rejected the sinful ways of the Western unbelievers, and corrupt, oppressive Arab states.  They advocated a return to a vision of a pure Islamic state as outlined by the Prophet himself.

As Muslims have not rallied behind them in the last year, and they have come under heavy military resistance from the West, ISIS has become more radical, and more extreme, further isolating them from the international community … which might explain their increasing focus on end times thinking.

ISIS believes a meadow outside a small village in Dabiq, Syria, will be the site of a decisive battle described in a prophecy attributed to Muhammad.  The prediction they revere describes that meadow as the place Muslims will defeat Rome and trigger the Day of Judgment.  If you can’t defeat your enemy militarily, then, at least you can set up the circumstances for God to be recruited to do the work for you.

Part of me wants to just dismiss this kind of crazy talk.  Why would this insignificant bit of real estate matter that much in the grand scheme of things except to the hapless people who live there?  Sadly, this kind of apocalyptic thinking is hardly unusual in world religions.  It even has a name: eschatology, the description of the end of history when the Day of Judgment comes, the righteous finally triumph over evil, and God evens up all the scores. In these prophecies there is likely to be a place identified where an epic battle takes place and finally brings history to an end.

A few signs in the Quran that the Judgment Day is coming include: the Splitting of the Moon, a time when honesty is lost, when a wicked member of a tribe becomes a ruler, and the sun rises in the West. I expect most of us are aware of Christianity’s version of this that happens after the second coming of Christ.  There is a whole book of the Bible called Revelations that outlines some of the disturbing events that will happen when the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to begin the battle.  Both Christianity and Islam find their thinking rooted in Jewish tradition.  Jews also wait for the Messiah to come, fight that final battle, set things right again and end all oppression.

Because eschatological thinking can be found in just about every religion, I wonder if it is baked into our genetic code somehow.  When times are tough and injustice and oppression reign, I wonder if it is deep human urge to want to project the resolution to suffering out to some glorious time in the future when the wicked will be punished and the righteous shall be victorious.

I wonder if this kind of thinking got world leaders to a place they would be willing to unanimously commit to the Paris Climate Accord.  This is really a landmark moment in dealing with humanity’s impact on the environment to celebrate.

But dangers still loom ahead as we are already in dangerous territory with the current level of carbon dioxide in the air.  The effects at 400 parts per million may not follow linearly at 450 or 500.  They be far worse or may not be linear at all.  What we can be fairly sure of is things will be different than they are today.  And buying real estate in Florida is a risky long term investment.

We’re even seeing this kind of end-times thinking in the high tech world with talk of a “technological singularity.”  This singularity, that could happen in the lifetime of some younger people here this morning, might happen when intelligent machines develop recursive self-improvement methods, that surpass human intelligence.  Google is on the fast track that direction right now with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana in hot pursuit.  Machine intelligence could then outstrip our intellectual capacity as it continually improves maybe at an exponential rate.  These super-intelligent machines may then decide they don’t need us anymore and eliminate humanity as a troublesome artifact.

So far, Unitarian Universalists haven’t indulged much in eschatological thinking.  We certainly are not going to take the Abrahamic religion’s sacred texts literally.  We are hardly immune to gloom and doom thinking however.  The second half of the twentieth century after the first atom bomb explosion was terrifying.>>>

As the Soviet Union and the United States built more and more nuclear missiles and had B-52s on constant alert, World War Three seemed just around the corner with a full exchange of thousands of these bombs almost inevitable.  Anyone remember the discussion of Nuclear Winter that might result from such an exchange?  (Possible solution to climate change?  Maybe not …).

Thankfully the seventh principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, has become our frame for envisioning the future.  Rather than seeing ourselves dominators and domesticators of nature as our ancestors did when they encountered wilderness, more and more, we see ourselves as moving toward the future as one interdependent part of a healthy ecosystem, without which we cannot survive.

We also have a vision of the world we want to create that is in our Purposes and Principles: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.  Rather than seeing one civilization triumphing over all the others and being blessed by God with a millennium of peace and prosperity, our vision is of a pluralistic world of diverse people worshipping many different Gods or none at all living together in peace with mutual respect and appreciation sharing in harmony the bounty of our planet without taking more than is sustainable.

I’m happy to report that this same vision can also be found in other religious traditions as well.  There are Evangelical Christians to take seriously being stewards of the Earth.  Liberal Protestant Christians also take sustainability seriously as a goal as we build the Beloved Community on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change is a rich source of interfaith work. There are many values we share to be found in that document. I would dearly like to make common cause with the Catholics to work on Climate Change as they are a mighty force who might be able to change hearts and minds in places of power around the world.

In the Islamic world we have many potential partners for building a sustainable world. Allah commands human beings to avoid doing mischief and wasting resources. These acts cause degradation of the environment. Muslims believe the privilege to exploit natural resources was given to humanity on a guardianship basis.  This implies the right to use another person’s property, collectively viewed as God’s property, on the promise that it will not be damaged or destroyed… According to the Qur’an, environmental conservation is a religious duty as well as social obligation, and not an optional matter. The exploitation of a particular natural resource is directly related to accountability and maintenance of the resource. (source: http://www.ecomena.org/sustainability-islam/)

Judaism also is a rich source for sustainable thinking and action. Mirele Goldsmith expresses this eloquently, when she writes:

Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective…

Jewish text and teachings implore [them] to:

work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by living out the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), derekh eretz(civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others. (both quotes – source: http://jpeoplehood.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/peoplehood14.pdf)

Cultures under stress and experiencing oppression are much more likely to retrench in their eschatology. Without a vision of redressing the grievances of today and finding a better life in the here and now, they are more likely to project hope for resolution of injustice into the future. And that abandonment of a better life today makes people more willing to sacrifice their lives in a ball of fire.

The real enemy is disrespect, marginalization, and hopelessness. So much of Western policy in the last 100 years has created the situation we find ourselves in.  The partitioning of the Middle-East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then the creation of the state of Israel, laudable and reasonable as it has been to the rest of the world, was imposed on these areas against their will. Many of the problems there have their roots in politics rather than religious differences. Religious extremism can arise as a struggle for meaning and hope where other avenues have been cut off.

What can we do now? We certainly can’t condone ISIS’ extremism that has no respect for universal human rights.  The oppression of minorities and women goes against all that we hold dear in the charter of the United Nations and our vision of world community. The nations of the world are obligated to resist them and assist the development of a more just and tolerant form of governance to replace them in the region.

And that also goes for what is happening in Palestine too. There is a lack of respect and appreciation of human rights in that conflict as well.  While the issues are deep and complicated, the nations of the world cannot accept the status quo there either. Both sides must be driven to continue a peace and resolution process that results in a solution that respects the human rights of all people involved and brings about a solution both sides can live with.  We can’t know what that solution will be, but we can know that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable either.

Most important of all we need to be clear that we care about the people first, their security and health concerns, and a fundamental respect for their religious values and beliefs. Most of the people in the region, I believe, do have an appreciation that a level of religious tolerance is critical to any solution in the region.

We must energetically support our evolving eco-centric sustainable vision of the world because it will address the security concerns of every nation through a focus on sustainability rather than exploitation.  Just that change of commitment could change everything about the way nations relate to each other, if we see ourselves as part of a whole rather than as a self-interested region. The religious vision we are incubating in our congregation is a vision of how the world might be able to create a viable future.

And, thankfully, it is one way forward that probably will do the least harm, and not make things worse.

Meditation for December Holiday Stress

 

A Meditation for December Holiday Stress

May we let go, if only for this moment, of mentally juggling our to-do lists.
May we put aside, just right now, any obsessions with planning and preparing.
May we also hold back desires and expectations, fears and anxieties,
and just be present to this moment right now.

While the holiday preparations and festivities may be keeping us busy,
they need not occupy all of our lives,
to the point of threatening our well-being.
Let this moment be one of rest, release and relaxation.

As we enjoy the escape, for the moment, from snow and ice,
and delight in spring-like temperatures,
while the West Coast gets some of the rain and snow they need,
May we connect to the spirit of the holidays within.
May we remember that spending and consuming is secondary.
May family, friends, co-workers and the renewal of relationships
be as important as the decorating, shopping and wrapping.

In the coming silence:

Let us rest, just for a moment,.
Let us honor the pregnant emptiness before creative emergence.
Let us discover the peace and ease that are already here.

Rescued by Love

Good Samaritan holding injured manJudging from the morose Facebook posts I’ve seen, I’m sensing more than a few here today are still hurting from the election results Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.  As a liberal Democrat myself, I could only stomach a little of the chatter Tuesday night and had to turn it off.  With Republican controlled Senates in Washington DC and in Albany, I doubt Interfaith Impact will be able to move the living wage and women’s reproductive rights initiatives many of us support.

Now, I also want to recognize the Republicans in the congregation who are celebrating getting control of both houses in Washington and one here in New York.  I do hope we can work together on  social issues that really shouldn’t be Democrat or Republican issues anyway.  They are at root freedom and fairness issues before they are partisan issues.  And I dearly hope we can move forward on preventing climate change getting any worse than we know it will be.

Be that as it may, a reversal of political fortunes and access to power pale before the death of a child.   You may have read in the paper about the death of 21 year-old Benjamin Van Zandt in solitary confinement.  I ended up leading his memorial service at the request of his parents on Friday afternoon.  Sitting with their grief in my office Wednesday afternoon temporarily erased my worries about politics.  My heart goes out to them for their loss and I hope the service provided them with some comfort for the long grieving road ahead.  The death of a child is at the top of the grief list for most difficult losses.

Bereavement like theirs can be a significant test of any theology of grace.  Where was grace in their loss?  Ben took his own life.  Why didn’t God reach out and lift his spirits, stay his hand?

And what about the election?  Where was grace in that?  I may not have an answer for Ben but I do have an answer about the election.  Anne Savage was elected to the School Board!  I hope both Democrat and Republican can celebrate the election of one of our members to office.

Another answer to the “Where was Grace?” question I’d like to consider this morning is, grace might have been there but the message wasn’t received.

ABC news did an interesting experiment a few years ago.  They hired several seven year old child actors to stand on a New York City street corner looking very distressed to see who would stop and help.  They were careful to have plain clothed police officers observing the scene and their parents watching from a remote viewing station.  Being actors they did a wonderful job of looking very distressed, but almost no one stopped to ask what was wrong.  Out of 1600 or so people who walked by about 50 stopped to help.

I bet if they ran that experiment here, more people would stop.  I’m sure many of us have walked the busy streets in New York City.  People mind their own business, and don’t pay attention to each other, hardened by being scammed by creative beggars and con-artists.  Still, it is a sad commentary that so few stopped.

ABC news asked people who didn’t stop if they noticed the actors.  Many said they did notice the child, sensed their distress but decided it wasn’t a situation they felt comfortable addressing themselves.  A few stopped a nearby police officer and pointed the child out to them.  Still most chose to ignore the inner urge to respond.

As we know from the story, the Samaritan did respond to the injured man on the road.  The order of service cover gives you an artistic rendering of that encounter.  Alyssa finds great art for the cover doesn’t she?  When we read or hear this story, we mostly think about the Samaritan as a model for us rather than the two who pass by and don’t want to get involved.  Today, just for a moment, I encourage you to take the perspective of the robbed and injured man on the road.

Lying naked and wounded, half dead, he is probably thinking he just might die from exposure and his injuries.  If anyone needs saving, it would be him.  When the Samaritan stops to help him, his prayers are answered many times over.  I’d argue for him, the Samaritan is an agent of God’s grace.  Compassion moved the Samaritan to take the risk of robbers still lurking ready to attack him as well.  That compassion might have moved the other two to act … but it didn’t.  Why one rather than the others?  Chance?  Conditioning?  Fellow feeling and appreciation?  Much to ponder that remains unanswered in the story.

Now for a completely different kind of grace story that almost seems too ordinary to qualify.  But I wonder if it does.

Some of you may know I tried a different dental group a couple of years ago.  The hygienist shrank in horror looking at my mouth as I have some gum recession and bone loss from a time in my life I deeply regret when I wasn’t taking proper care of my teeth.  She got me to do my first deep cleaning to see if my gums might attach a little better.  It wasn’t much fun as many of you already know.

This focus on the pockets in my gums where bacteria can breed got me to buy a fancy sonic toothbrush and clean up my dental act.  But I was still having some problems.  I don’t remember why it came up in conversation but Kiva Sprissler, Amy Lent’s daughter and the woman who gives me regular therapeutic massage to help me manage the damage to my body from old injuries, told me about an unusual kind of toothpaste from Asia called Neem (I buy it locally at Parivar Spices & Food 1275 Central Ave, Albany, NY).  She reported to me her friend had tried the stuff and had amazingly positive results.  So I decided to try a tube.

Your mileage may vary but I found the stuff to be amazingly affective at tightening my gums and reducing my tooth sensitivity.  I saw the dentist on Monday.  He looked at my mouth and asked what I change I’d made.  I explained the toothpaste change and he said, “Hmm.  Seems I heard something about it before, where can I buy some.”

Here is another potential grace story for you to ponder that is unfolding as we speak.

After I got my first Android phone a little over three years ago, I downloaded an app called Insight Timer.  All it originally did was play nice bells at the end of a timed meditation period.  Then they added a social media feature.  You can see who else is meditating at the same time you are.  You can see their picture and a little tag line under their picture of up to 50 characters, kind of a meditation tweet.  Mine is: “Keep calmly knowing change one breath at a time”  You can friend these other meditators and sit with them virtually because you can see who of your friends are meditating at the same time you are.  As I sit at the same time each morning from about 5am to 6am, I see many familiar faces.  I carry on supportive exchanges with a couple of people in different parts of the world.  I love being part of a worldwide meditation community.

The latest version of the app shows a collage of tiny little pictures of the people who have just completed meditation sessions the same time you have who are not currently your friends.  At any given time hundreds of people are using the timer app.  I like to randomly click on the pictures to discover who these people are.  Many of the more experienced meditators are very interesting people.  You can list a web site on your profile and these have been fascinating finds too.

I was drawn to one such fellow by his tag line, “Nothing real can be threatened.  Nothing unreal exists.”  So we exchanged a few messages.  I suggested he sounded like a UU.   Turns out he is in seminary and a follower of a woman named Regina Dawn Akers.  I’d never heard of her so I of course Googled her, watched a video of her, checked her out on Facebook and friended her.  She seems like an interesting religious teacher who has been inspired in her work through a series of moments of grace.  She could be a nut or maybe she might be a sincere person who has a teaching for me and my ministry, maybe even a gift for teaching non-duality.  We’ll see.  We are planning to have a chat next week.

So in the toothpaste example and the Insight Timer App example, people I connected with became mediums through which I came across things and people that are actually and potentially helpful to me.  I know some who would say that God used those two people as mediums of communicating grace to me.

As a reality based religious professional, it is easy for me to be skeptical that God is communicating with me this way.  On the other hand, if I understand grace as a freely given opportunity I can accept or reject, grace is happening all the time.

And being in a wide network of relationships increases my access to grace.

If you use this understanding of grace, being a member of a religious community increases the odds of a graceful moment tremendously.

Over the fifteen plus years I’ve served here, I’ve seen this congregation be the agents of grace for a number of people.  Whether it is the Caring Network stepping in during a crisis; the Pastoral Care Associates providing empathy; listening and support for someone going through a difficult transition; the Economic Distress Support Network keeping the lights and heat on for someone;  to even providing a place to stay in several cases I know of.  We’re of course not perfect at doing this but there is a lot of support that goes on behind the scenes you’ll never know about.

I recently talked to a ministerial colleague who had served in one location for about twenty-five years whose child was in a terrible bicycle accident a few years ago.  The boy’s face was severely damaged and required extensive and expensive plastic surgery that the insurance company refused to pay.  The family was left with 65,000 dollars in medical bills.  My colleague talked about being deeply moved that non-members in town came through with 30,000 in donations to help pay that bill.  That generosity was completely unexpected and very gratefully received.

When grace really happens though, is when people gather for a memorial service to share the pain of a significant loss.  The love that the family of the twenty-one year old young man received at the service on Friday, I know, made a big difference in their grieving process.  When saying goodbye to the body of your child for the last time, it makes a big difference to have friends and family around to hold you up.  I was honored to be there to help, perhaps by the grace of God.

The truth is, we are not alone.  If you are feeling alone, speak with me.  I can help you fix that problem.  In a community like this one, there are many, many opportunities for connection.  And in those connections, grace happens.  Not every day, not maybe when you expect it, but it will happen.  In my experience the key is paying close attention to the moment, as these opportunities can easily slip by without being noticed.  And many of these opportunities are not moments to get something, but moments to give something.  For the greatest grace I experience is when I notice the opportunity to give of myself.  I almost missed the one to do the service for the family.  It took Bobbi Place calling me and saying, pay attention.

May you too, attend carefully to the graceful moments coming your way and receive the gift.

Anne Lamott humbly said it well:

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace –
only that it meets us where we are
but does not leave us where it found us.

May we be attentive to the opportunities grace presents and
have the courage to bring them to life.

Jesus … A Zealot?

On July 26 last year, Fox New’s Lauren Green did an interview of Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, that many people found offensive. She questioned his ability as a Muslim to write a book about Jesus. Aslan pointed out that he is a scholar of religions. He wondered why she questioned that a scholar of whatever faith could research and write such a book. The interview went viral on the Internet and did a great deal to stimulate the sales of the book. (Makes me hunger for a similar interview for the book the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I edited titled Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I’d enjoy being indigent as I’m asked how can two Unitarian Universalist ministers say anything about Buddhism.)

Still, Aslan waded into a stormy sea of research, speculation and controversy that has been navigated for the last several hundred years by many Biblical scholars of impressive credentials and accomplishments. Yes, Aslan has three graduate degrees but not focused on Biblical research.

One is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in “the history of religions.” Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement,” at UC Santa Barbara. (From excellent review in Jewish Review of Books by Allan Nadler)

Still, I’ll give him credit for the research he has done which is a lot more than I have. I bought the book before that interview because I knew Alsan is an engaging writer. After the interview I felt much more motivated to open it and read it which I have now done.

I’ve also read some more scholarly critiques of the book. While reading them pick it apart and huff and puff about this or that book he didn’t reference, I remembered what he wrote in his introduction:

Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth … is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like…Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.

That is true of Aslan as well I’ll say. He also notes in his author’s preface that every argument he makes will likely be both supported and refuted by an array of scholars.

The basic problem here is the very scant first person evidence scholars use for their work. Much of what we know about the flesh and blood Jesus (and some even doubt that he existed at all) comes from suspect sources. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus personally, saw him perform miracles or die on the cross, let alone come back from the dead. The letters of Paul are some of our earliest sources and he is utterly uninterested in Jesus-in-the-flesh. He is only interested in the Risen Christ he has directly encountered and whose message he preached to Hellenized Jewish followers of Jesus scattered around the Roman Empire.

The literate people who recorded the events of the day that have been preserved didn’t write much about the territory then called Judah. It was a backwater of the Roman Empire, more of a distraction than a focus for the emperor. The first non-Chrisian independent source is the Roman historian Josephus writing about the Jewish Wars. We can learn a lot about the Jewish rebellion from Rome in this book but precious little about Jesus or the Jesus movement. Almost all the sources we have come from the Christian tradition and not so friendly Rabbinical commentary in the Talmud.

Most of what we have is not from impartial observers just looking for the facts. They had a different idea about telling a story. The documentation of the life of Jesus had the purpose of proclaiming him as a savior. The stories and quotes were selected to serve that purpose. If any counter narratives were quoted, they were edited and corrected to support their purpose. The Gospel writers purpose is to support the hearer’s faith in Jesus the Christ not to let you make up your own mind based on the evidence presented.

But scholars are very clever at teasing what they think was closer to the truth out of the edited and embellished texts the Church decided to preserve. We also have later discoveries of texts not preserved by the church like the Gospel of Thomas that is a collection of sayings of Jesus, some familiar and others not. What Aslan has done is taken this material and the interpretations of it by eminent scholars then distilled it down into the creative narrative of what he thinks actually happened. And he tells a good story. That story is what I’d like to consider now.

First we need to understand what a ‘zealot’ was. Zealots were individuals who strove to live a life of zeal, dedicated to preserving and practicing their faith and traditions. Zealous Jews were protecting the identity of their faith from syncretism with Greek and Roman beliefs and practices. This is an age old struggle for Jews living along side people who practice different religions. The Torah is full of railing against people worshiping Baal and the golden calf. This drove Moses nuts and provided the fodder for countless prophets. In that way, Jesus was clearly a zealot for Judaism as opposed to Pagan, Greek and Roman religion.

There was however overlap between those who claimed to be a messiah and those who had zeal for their tradition. Jesus was not the only person who claimed the mantle of messiah that the prophetic Jewish texts predicted would arise, overthrow foreign occupation and restore the glory days when King David ruled Israel. Aslan tells the stories of these messianic claimants before Jesus and after him who were all crucified by the Romans and their followers exterminated or dispersed. The culmination of that messianic rebellion led to the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 CE, forty some years after Jesus’ execution.

The question is, was Jesus a militant revolutionary messiah like the others we know about from history, or was he a different kind of messiah altogether. The evidence we have from the gospels Aslan presents begin with the fact of his crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for rebels as a tool of terrorizing and controlling the population. Those crucified were not taken down from crosses. They were left hanging to rot, be eaten by birds, until their bones fell down on the ground.

Why would the Romans crucify Jesus? Aslan claims he must have been seen as a threat to Rome. Clearly the story of his disruptive behavior in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers would be all the needed evidence. Aslan argues Pilate would have ordered his execution without a second thought as he had done with many before and after him that littered Golgatha with bones.

After his crucifixion, the Jesus Movement took root first in Jerusalem, then in smaller groups of Hellenized Jews who spoke Greek and lived in non-Jewish cities like Corinth, Thessalonica, and Galatia. Jesus’ brother James was the Bishop of Jerusalem for some 30 years after Jesus’ death, establishing it firmly as the mother church.

Into this world came a persecutor of the followers of Jesus named Saul of Tarsus. Here is how Aslan tells his conversion story:

As he approached the city gates [of Damascus] with his traveling companions, he was suddenly struck by a light from heaven flashing all around him. He fell to the ground in a heap. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. The reply broke through the blinding white light, “I am Jesus.”

Saul took the name of Paul and started to follow Jesus. But he didn’t do it the same way James, Peter and John, the original disciples of Jesus followed him. Paul felt he had received direct guidance from the Risen Christ rather than the teachings of the Historical Jesus. He didn’t need to know anything about the flesh and blood Jesus because he received guidance directly from Jesus the Christ.

The record we have in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts outlines the conflict between the Jerusalem church and the church Paul envisions. As the temple was being destroyed, the Jerusalem church waited expectantly for Jesus to return and establish the Kingdom of God. Sadly for them, that isn’t what happened. They were all killed or scattered. Any texts they had created were destroyed. All that was left were the letters of Paul to propagate his vision of Christianity. Scholars believe the four gospels were likely written very close to or after the temple destruction. Certainly stories and Jesus sayings were known to the Christian diaspora but Paul’s organization of the meaning of it all shapes, dare I say infects, all of them, especially Luke and John.

There is much more in the book to examine and discuss than this quick overview of Alsan’s argument. I’ll be opening that up in three classes using his book starting March 3. Admitting that I am not a Biblical scholar, I’d now like to respond with my thoughts about the historical Jesus from my many years of reading about him, studying sections of the gospels and doing my own little bit of research. I expect I’m likely to guilty of creating Jesus in my own image, but maybe that is okay if I’m willing to own it up front. With Lent beginning in March in a little over a week, this is a good time to return to the story of Jesus and use it to find meaning for our lives. The truth of who he was, his purpose, and his after death transformation shall forever likely be a mystery. But by engaging his story, we can find meaning for our own lives. And we do have a story of the life of Jesus to work with.

There is fairly scant evidence of Jesus as a leader of a revolutionary movement that a traditional messiah would have mounted. What I read lines up more with the traditional actions of a prophet who goes before the king and tells him that he has deviated from the covenant with Moses and should come back to it or suffer God’s wrath. Jesus’ actions in the temple speak of symbolic protest more than an attempt to takeover the Temple or stage a rebellion. I don’t think such a rebel leader would be in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for the bitter cup to pass from him rather than manning the barricades with sword in hand.

Rather than a violent militant, the record we have of Jesus is one of a healer who worked without charging people for his services. That was one of the reasons for his enormous popularity. A doctor that fixed hips, knees, cured heart disease and infections for free would be very popular today too.

My hunch is that he was gravely offended by the execution of his own teacher, John the Baptist by Herod. The movement from Galilee to Jerusalem happened after John’s death. I wonder if his love of his teacher drove him to Jerusalem to protest the corruption of the Temple.

The value I think we get from Jesus will not be found in the magic of whether he came back to life in three days or if he will come back someday to save humanity. These all sit in the realm of speculative theology that most Unitarian Universalists don’t find useful.

What we do have of great value can be found in the Beatitudes; the congratulations to those who suffer for they will not suffer forever; the day will come when the poor will find the domain of heaven. Those who grieve will be consoled. The gentle will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will feast. And those who work for peace will be recognized as holy. Of great value is Jesus’ vision of creating a good society organized around our highest and most precious values rather than the baser drives of individual profit and mutual mistrust.

As the Letter of James puts it: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]

The most valuable part of Aslan’s book for me was the direction to look to Jesus’ brother James as the source of what Jesus might have taught. And we do indeed have a letter from James preserved in the Biblical canon. What if this book closely parallels what Jesus might have taught?

We’ll have a look at the letter of James with that in mind in the class. As I read it, I hear echos of teachings in the gospels as well as teachings found in Buddhism. And I find core values that resonate with Unitarian Universalism.

The dilemma of the status of the poor and the rich is every bit as difficult today as it was in the time of Jesus. I can imagine both Jesus and James joining the occupy movement to rail against the 1%. I also see resonance with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka proclaiming their goal of no poverty and no affluence.

The vision we inherit from the historical Jesus is a vision of what the world would be like if God was in charge. That world vision would definitely reject exploitative empire as a way to govern people, whether emperor, king, colonial power, dictator or corporation. That is also a core principle of Unitarian Universalism that promotes democracy as well as peace, liberty and justice for all people.

If Jesus does decide to come back, I hope he would consider using our principles and our ministry as a way to finish his earthly work cut short by his execution.

Some Unitarian Universalists do see our collective work to embody those values Jesus preached and help usher in that good society he called the Kingdom of God, we sometimes call the Beloved Community.

Whether we embrace the vision of Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community, may we be guided by Jesus’ inspired values as we work to build world community and work to restore the health of our planet.

Benediction

James, brother of Jesus, likely said:

Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.

We have heard much today about Jesus. In those words, powerful truth rides on the breath. It is our challenge to bring that truth to life. When we find ways to bring truth to life as a community, the Realm of God Jesus taught becomes real.

Readings

Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law– a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 21:10-13

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

Matthew 5:3-9

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be known as God’s children.

James 2:2-5

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]?

On Being Wisely Compassionate

Person holding sign saying Last Saturday, my wife Philomena, our son Andrew and my sister Sue were in the theater district of Manhattan. We were squeezed and jostled by the large crowds on a chilly, late December Saturday afternoon. With the sun, low on the horizon and shining in our eyes, we walked up to Central Park and then back down again, taking in the sights.

In the crush, I remember passing two people asking for money. One was an older man who sat on the cold sidewalk near the street shouting like carnival barker, “Spare change? Need a little help here.” I also remember passing a middle aged woman wearing lots of clothes leaning on the icy stone bricks of a building with a small basket of change next to her. She didn’t look at us or say a word as we passed, I couldn’t tell if she was even awake or not.

I could have stopped and said hello to either of these people and offered them some attention and/or some money. I didn’t. Even though we walked past thousands of people on the streets, I’ve only remembered them, and wondered about their situation. Wondered if I should have paused to offer them at least a little compassion?

I think I was a little more sensitive to these two people because I was mulling over the topic for this service. Religion usually lines up strongly on the side of compassion as a religious obligation, especially for the poor. The Great Commandments to Love God and Neighbor are pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If I were to take Jesus’ counsel found in the Good Samaritan parable, I would gather them both up and take them to an Inn. Jesus spent a lot of time healing and comforting the outcasts.

The Abrahamic faiths all emphasize the compassionate nature of God. Traditionally, Judaism enumerates God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. Some of these qualities, identified in the book of Exodus, are: compassion before and after a person sins, graciousness when in distress, being slow to anger and forgiving of iniquity, transgressions and sins and pardoning the guilty. Allah’s most repeatedly praised quality in Islam is being merciful and compassionate. Every chapter of the Quran except one starts with Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim, in the name of Allah, most merciful and compassionate.

Eastern religions are no less appreciative of compassion. The Buddha’s attendant Ananda asked him, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” The Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

Because the world religions value compassion so highly, Karen Armstrong used it as the unifier to bring people around the world together creating a Charter For Compassion that I wrote about in my Windows column for January.

Compassion literally means joining with another person’s suffering. There are moments when we are spontaneously moved to action when we encounter someone in pain. When Sigrin Newell fell right over there a couple of weeks ago, people rushed to her aid. When Jacqui Williams fell outside a month ago, she was surrounded with care. If we had a big crisis and our members needed food and clothing, you know there would be an outpouring of support. I expect if our neighbors on West and Bradford Streets were suddenly in trouble because of some disaster, we’d be there for them.

This kind of immediate, heartfelt, emotional response seems both natural and good to us … but ancient Greek and Roman philosophers would not have been so enthusiastic. They would have wanted us to be guided by our reason in our actions rather than by our feelings.

One danger of our compassion being guided by our emotions is in the area of justice, symbolized by a blindfolded woman holding a scale. In a courtroom, the defendant should be convicted or go free based on the evidence not how we feel about the victim or the accused. The defendant may sway us emotionally toward mercy and compassion yet may be clearly guilty and deserve punishment. On the other side, think of the racial bias that leads to the high level of incarceration of people of African descent. Would we want to condone a father or mother taking revenge against those who have harmed a son or daughter? There are good arguments to moderate our compassion with reason.

I had an opportunity to explore this distinction when I briefly served as a chaplain in a Florida hospital as part of a six month pastoral care training. I found it easy to feel compassion for and offer comfort to the patients I visited. Sometimes though, my rational mind interfered. Visiting a severely obese person with congestive heart failure, a heavy smoker with lung cancer or an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver could bring up resistance to feeling compassion. Of course, thin people get heart failure, non-smokers get lung cancer and non-drinkers have liver failure too. What I noticed during my hospital visits was my all too human tendency to judge, interfered with my feelings, limiting my willingness to feel another person’s suffering.

A woman named Mary had a powerful lesson in what opens and closes the heart to compassion. Her teacher was her seven year old son. She writes:

It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.

What’s up?”

Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”

I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.

Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money I gave her for drugs or alcohol.”

Let me pause here in telling the story to encourage you to turn inward and examine your own response to this situation. How often have you been in the same situation and had those same thoughts. I confess to having that very thought in New York City last weekend. It is a common defense against giving money to people on the street.

In my research this week, I read a challenge to this defense against compassion from white, anti-racist activist Tim Wise. He makes a habit of always giving people money and questions this assumption as a reason not to give. He points out that if an employer suspected that an employee would be getting drunk on the weekend, that employer wouldn’t choose to withhold the employee’s salary to prevent it. He writes:

to suggest that one is withholding money from homeless people or beggars “for their own good” is a dishonest and preposterous conceit. If you feel that the poor don’t deserve your support because of their presumed moral failings, so be it… If they would just take out your garbage, they might be entitled to your dollar in alms, and the hooch that said dollar might help them obtain. But if they merely beg for it, without first performing some labor, then whether or not they have a drug or alcohol problem, you will be free to presume they have both and refuse to aid them.

Mary’s seven year old son didn’t presume so. Her story continues:

Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.

Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”

I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.

Now, I don’t want to make this easy. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the woman. She might be a con artist. Maybe she makes 400 Euros a day sitting there looking miserable. I’ve heard stories about skilled people who do make a lot of money begging and borrowing. And if you don’t believe that, I have a guy from Ethiopia I’d like you to meet who needs help with his ten million dollar inheritance.

While I don’t believe there are simple answers for when and how to be compassionate to another, I do believe wise guidelines for our compassionate response can help. They can help to unite our head and heart when we are moved by another person’s suffering. There are a number of ways our compassion can go wrong and do more harm than good. Those harmful ways are sometimes called “idiot compassion.”

One kind of idiot compassion is rejecting the process of identification with the suffering of another person. In this case, the feeling of compassion arises but makes us uncomfortable and we want to make it go away. My first memory of this kind of feeling was during the Nigerian–Biafran War. Seeing pictures of little dark skinned children with swollen bellies and flies on their faces was very disturbing to look at. I was more identified with the feeling of disgust looking at the picture than feeling connected to the suffering child. My giving of money was less for the food aid and more because I didn’t want to see that picture again.

That same discomfort gets stimulated this time of year when many of us get mailings and see ads featuring children with cleft palates. I don’t know whether the organization promising to fix their birth defect is a good one or not, but it is an example of charity pornography, using images of suffering to stimulate donations. It works to stimulate giving, but often generates more revulsion than compassion.

Another kind of idiot compassion is being moved by the suffering of another and being willing to help, yet offering what isn’t wanted or needed. I remember this from when I cooked breakfast for homeless men sheltered in the Oakland Unitarian Church. Thinking they would like a filling and nutritious breakfast, I made them sausage and eggs. It wasn’t long before we got complaints that the food was too high in saturated fat and we didn’t have any tofu for the vegetarians. This happens at food pantries too. People donate uncommon foods (I might want to donate sardines, for example, to satisfy my idea that they need essential fatty acids) that many clients of the pantry wouldn’t touch. People commonly donate what they want to get rid of rather than what they have learned is needed by these clients.

The last kind of idiot compassion I’ll mention is an unawareness of skillful means of helping. In a sense, awareness itself is the core of wise compassion. When we recognize the object of our compassion, the source of the feeling welling up within us, and use our reason to skillfully choose our response, we are much more likely to be effective in making a positive difference. This is an iterative process that incorporates learning from our mistakes. Just the last couple of days, I have fallen short several times when I could have been more compassionate. My commitment is to witness the results of my actions or inactions and to learn from my successes and failures. In the process, I hope to grow a little wiser and increase my motivation to continually deepen that commitment to being loving and compassionate in word and deed. There isn’t any perfection to be had in wise compassion, but we can become more skillful and more effective.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the troubling presence of a stressful and unsatisfactory component of existence he called dukkha, has always captivated me. Being born sets us up for having sickness, if we’re fortunate, growing old, and certainly dying. Sickness, old age, and death are not desirable. Jesus had his way of saying it, “the poor will always be with you.” We can have moments of freedom from difficulty but there are burdens of being alive that we all must discover how to live with.

And that shared dilemma of dukkha, is itself the deep root that unites us all and serves as the common concern that fuels our compassion. The more we can recognize that common condition and identify feel our shared reactions to it, the deeper will be our capacity for wise compassion.

Ultimately, we don’t have control of the outcome of our compassionate acts. We do have some control however over refining the intention that motivates them. By being wisely compassionate, we can strengthen the social fabric of our worldwide community and connect across boundaries of gender, race, culture, class and ability.

May wise compassion be a vehicle for the holy in me to meet the holy in you. And in that meeting, may our inherent worth and dignity find affirmation in our unity embodying the Spirit of Life that brings us into being.

Encountering Disconnection

The December holidays feel like a self-examination.  It takes till December, however, for me to discover the status of my holiday spirit. I can’t predict how I’m going to feel. Sometimes I’m really excited and full of anticipation. That was especially true when our son was little. Christmas experienced through a child’s eyes is so magical. This year I’m kind of neutral to slightly positive. Not having any snow and warmer weather makes it less real that we’re approaching the shortest day of the year. And a few times, I’ve gritted my teeth and just plod on through till Christmas morning just wanting to be done with it. Those years felt very uncomfortable as the celebrations cranked up and I wasn’t feeling much connection to the joy and happiness I’m supposed to be feeling.

That sense of disconnection can be even larger if there has been a major loss in the past year. The death of a loved one weighs heavily on the heart as others are making merry. There are so many little reminders of that person’s absence that come up unexpectedly. Then a wave of grief hits, tears flow and an inner ache pulls one out of the present into memory, and into an intense longing for what can no longer be.

There are other losses that gnaw at the heart this time of year. Those who are new in this area and not able to return to be with friends and family may be lamenting the separation. For some this may be the first year after a relationship break-up. There may be family members newly moved away who will be celebrating the holidays alone or with others. Children may not be coming home for the holidays. There is a significant emotional price we pay for our transient and mobile lifestyles.

Some may be struggling with employment or lack of employment. Money may be tighter making the gifts we’d like to give unaffordable. It doesn’t feel very good to cut back this time of year when the impulse is to splurge.

Unbidden, we find ourselves stuck in an emotional trough of disconnection.

Others of us may have an ongoing experience of disconnection that troubles our lives. I was listening to a podcast recently describing the challenges children have when their parents have unhappy marriages and go through bitter divorces. When these children grow up, frequently they struggle in forming intimate relationships, often with significant trust and abandonment issues. If they marry at all, it is often much later in life, postponing their child bearing years.

Another common source of disconnection in families are the taboo dinner table conversation topics at Thanksgiving: politics and religion. I’m amazed at how quickly I can want to disconnect from someone I’ve recently met when we start disagreeing about politics and religion. I’ve had those conversations on airplanes. The fellow sitting next to me will ask what I do for a living. If I mention I’m a minister, he’ll ask what denomination. Then he’ll ask me what Unitarian Universalists believe. I’ll do a credible job explaining our faith and its value as a religious path. The other person will nod and and smile. When I finish, he will ask, “Well all that is interesting, but is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” And I’ll know that this conversation isn’t going anywhere. The disconnect happens when I hear the word “savior” because I know he is on a way different religious journey than I’m on.

But as bad as disconnecting around religion and politics is, the hostile feelings that come up around money are deep sources of disconnection. Loving families can be ripped apart by ill will generated by how an inheritance is distributed when a parent or grandparent dies. Friendships can end quickly when money is loaned and not repaid. It is one reason I never loan people money. I give money away when I can and it is asked for. If they want to give me some back that would be very pleasant. Pleasant but not expected.

The feeling of disconnection can also happen in small ways. Small ways that can still feel disproportionate to the situation. That happened to me recently and I’d like to describe the situation.

Last January I attended a Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Convocation in Florida. The focus for my fifteen hours of class time was a presentation by the co-minister at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, the Rev. Scott Tayler. The theme for his presentation was “Doing More with Less.” Tayler is an organizational genius. He has studied all the successful church models and distilled their ideas, with his own innovations added, into some great programs in that congregation. I’ve translated one of them into a new program for our congregation called Meaning Matters that is going very well so far this year.

As the class ended, several of the participants informally started talking about meeting to follow up on what we had learned and brainstorm implementation strategies. One of the ministers offered his cabin in the Adirondacks as a place to gather, so six of us agreed to meet there in June. We had a wonderful meeting for a couple of days, did a lot of talking and came up with some grand plans.

The way we realized we could “do more with less” effort was through sharing materials with each other. What makes sermons and adult programs great are the materials and resources we have from which to prepare them. This is some of the hardest work of my week, searching for that great illustration or story that will inspire you and motivate you. If we could share with each other our great finds by focusing our efforts on a shared theme for the month, we would all benefit. We chose themes and set up resource sharing locations in the cloud with excitement and anticipation.

So when September came, I was distressed that the contributions and material didn’t appear the way I had expected. I put up what I was working on but the response was lack luster. Two of our group didn’t post anything at all that first month.

Now, I know how hard ministry is, how many distractions there are. I know how best laid plans do not come to fruition as a memorial service or a congregational crisis intervene. Yet, the absence of any emails from those two bothered me. I was afraid I’d be going to the extra effort of sharing all my material and getting little I could use back. The urge to withdraw, reject and disconnect came up.

This is a familiar experience, I might add, in congregational life too. The mismatch of expectations and results creates a lot of stress. We are all working together to create this community and sometimes people don’t follow through on their commitments. They are less friendly and kind than we’d like. Events don’t turn out to be as satisfying or enjoyable as we’d hoped. Each Wednesday, Matt, Leah and I review the previous Sunday services looking for ways to improve what we do. Your hard working staff troubleshoots all the unexpected problems that come up so your expectations are met as often as we can.

And still there are moments of disconnect, many that we have no control over.

I listened to a very interesting sermon recently by a British minister named Stephen Matthew describing those kinds of disconnections that happen in his church. He pointed out that people sometimes get disaffected from his congregation and its programs. I was interested to hear how he understood what was going on and what his solution was. He saw the movement away from his church as people participating in sin. If his members were disaffected and hadn’t talked to him or his staff, if they got critical and judgmental, they were moving away from God. They were allowing themselves to become alienated.

I enjoy listening to these kind of traditional religious messages because sometimes they have practical value that is independent of their theological perspective. I think he has a part of the truth when he points to our participation in the process of disconnection and alienation. And we know it emotionally.

When we participate in disconnection and alienation, it leads to unhappiness, inner turmoil, and unrest and can lead to meaninglessness and dehumanization. But when we participate in connection and experience unity, it leads to happiness, calm, and peace, and can lead to meaning, a greater sense of humanity and fulfillment. One direction feels good, the other bad.

Whether by recognition or by feeling, becoming aware of the disconnection and sense of alienation moves us out of reactivity. In Buddhism, this is called a moment of mindfulness. There is a recognition of the mental and emotional processes that are happening inside us. It is the difference between being absorbed in an experience and stepping outside it and seeing it as a mental and emotional process. It is like the moment in a movie theater when someone coughs and you are jerked out of the trance and recognize that you are in the audience and not part of the movie.

When we are in this mindful state, we have the freedom to evaluate the situation and make a choice. In the recognition of being disconnected, there is space in the mind to know that what we are doing may not be healthy or wholesome. The choice is ours to remain disconnected and alienated or to renounce that path and choose another one to reconnect and seek unity. Choose a path that potentially leads toward reconciliation.

That moment of mindfulness happened for me first when one of the missing participants in our group sent an email apologizing for not posting because of the overwhelming success he had had signing up people for his small groups. He had been struggling to train more facilitators and keep up with that success. Then the second missing person posted an email to the group apologizing as well. He had been leading an international trip and all of his time and attention had gone into that project. Both reiterated their commitment to our common experiment.

Reading those emails, I became mindful of my resentful feelings just below the surface of my awareness. I regretted that I’d allowed those feelings to take root in me and not checking with them to see what was going on. I rejoiced to renounce that resentful attitude and reconnect with both of them. This joint project may sink or swim in the future, but I don’t want that success or failure to disconnect me from these beloved colleagues.

As Anne Lamott puts it, in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Alone we are doomed. Yes, people are impossible, often damaged, prickly and set in their ways. It may be comfortable to be invisible, disconnected, and intoxicated with our superior thoughts but it isn’t where we discover hope. Only together do we come through unsurvivable loss.

So as we approach the Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year, may we use these holidays as a wake-up moment to take our emotional temperature and see how we are doing. If we are sensing a feeling of disconnection, to pause and explore it, then decide whether you want to do anything about it. My hope is you will seek a way to reconnect with the sources of value in your life, including the opportunities we offer here.

There is much love in this place already.
There is always room for more.
It comes into being when we choose to make connections.

Acts of Gratitude

If you follow the positive psychology movement, you’ll see that gratitude gets a lot of positive press. The researchers have developed measurements to separate people into grateful and ungrateful types. (You can reflect for a moment as to where you think you might fall)

Here are a few characteristics of grateful people. Grateful people:

  • Have positive outlook independent of the events of their lives (could be dying of cancer and still feel grateful)
  • Focus on the blessings and gifts in their lives rather than slights and deficits.
  • Tend to compare their situation with those less fortunate and feel lucky rather than those more fortunate and feel envy
  • Notice pleasant sensory experiences, like a sunset, the smell of freshly baked bread, a breeze on the skin, the sound of sweet bird songs … and savor them.
  • Embrace a difficult experience as a learning opportunity, and
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the contribution to their lives of family and friends.

Researchers notice those people who are grateful types, statisically speaking, tend to be healthier. They have fewer strokes and heart attacks. They live longer. They are much less likely to suffer depression and other forms of mental illness. They have happier relationships and fewer divorces. On the whole, people who are grateful types turn out to be happier people.

The good news is that one can become more grateful by nurturing this quality.

Almost every religion focuses on stimulating gratitude in its adherents. They do that by asking people to be grateful to God. Expressing praise and thanks dominates the purpose of worship. I suspect though, that the positive effects of loving, praising and thanking God may not be paid back by the deity as a reward for being faithful. More likely, to my mind, the benefits come from cultivating the inner climate of gratitude that then generate the positive effects I just mentioned. Whether you believe in God or not isn’t as critical as acting authentically grateful.

What is clear from the research is the importance of both feeling and expressing gratitude on a regular basis. So today, I’d like to explore ways to act grateful. The research also suggests that just acting grateful even when you’re not fully there can stimulate the experience of gratitude to develop.

I learned this at the first meditation retreat I attended. The seven day retreat didn’t cost very much money. The registration only covered food and lodging. The teachers offered the teachings without charge … just as they had been offered for the last 2500 years. We would have the opportunity, at the end of the retreat, to make a donation for the teaching but didn’t have to give anything if we didn’t want to. “Great,” I thought, “I can get enlightened on the cheap and save my money for other things!”

The problem was, every day of the retreat we did many different practices of gratitude. We honored each other through keeping the silence. We helped run the retreat with different yogi jobs like sweeping the floors, chopping vegetables, washing the dishes, and cleaning the bathrooms. People were so nice to each other, like making sure that there was enough food for everyone by taking smaller portions of special desserts. The teachers were very helpful and supportive. Being the recipient of so much generosity and feeling gratitude for the quieting and sharpening of my mind and the heightening of my senses, by the last day I was feeling very generous, ready to give far more than I had originally thought I might give.

The idea that a sense of gratitude, developed by receiving freely offered gifts, will stimulate generosity is one of the underlying principles of the gift economy. Gift economies are a controversial area of social research as scientists strive to understand the nature of gifts as a social transaction and the degree of expectation of reciprocal response. Gift economies, unlike exchange based economies, theoretically do not include the expectation of anything in return. All the gifts are given altruistically. In an exchange economy, a goods or services transaction would be evaluated based on fairness of the exchange. Did I get my money’s worth or have I been cheated? Gratitude is unlikely to be evoked.

Eating at Karma Kitchen however, is not like this at all. At Karma Kitchen, you are seated at a table for lunch. A server takes your order just like a regular restaurant. The server delivers your food and you enjoy it. Then your server delivers you the bill that says, You owe ZERO dollars. Your meal has already been paid for by other diners. You are then given the opportunity to buy a meal for someone else and offer any amount of money you choose.

All the staff running the kitchen and serving the food are volunteers. They freely give their time once a month. They are inspired knowing that for a poor person, this may be their only opportunity to have a nutritious meal prepared for them and be treated like any other guest.

The Karma Kitchen in Berkeley California rents a regular restaurant for $750 from noon till 3pm on Sundays. It is a popular destination so you’ll need to come early to get a seat. They started doing this in 2007 with the idea that the meals should be entirely supported by donations and volunteer labor. If the donations didn’t cover their costs, they’d just stop doing it. So the fact that they’ve been in continuous operation for the last six years says a lot about the model.

Panera Bread corporation has picked up on the idea. In the spring of 2010, they tried a similar experiment in Clayton, Missouri, near St. Louis, called Panera Cares. They set up a store where, when you get to the end of the food pick up line, there is a donation box for you to pay what you want. Some of the workers in that first store were at risk youth getting on the job training. That same year, they opened two more stores, one in Dearborn, Michigan and the other in Portland, Oregon. In 2013, they opened one in downtown Boston that I saw when I was visiting to participate in the UUA Board meeting.

As a provider of high quality food to the public, they see this effort as a way to give back to the community in a novel way. They want to make sure everyone who needs a meal gets one that is of high quality. They do list suggested donation levels but guests can also volunteer to work as a way to offer payment for their food. They see this as a way of offering a hand up rather than a hand out.

And what is interesting is the result. I’ve heard that people are often generous in response to their donation for food policy. People are so generous, that the non-profit stores are the most profitable of the chain!

If we are talking about food donation however, right now one of the most amazing donation programs in the capital region is happening: the Equinox Thanksgiving dinner. Every year 3500 volunteers come together at the Empire State Plaza over several weeks to take donations of over 11,000 pounds of turkey, 400 gallons of gravy, a ton of green beans and two tons of potatoes and yams and 1200 pies to assemble 10,000 thanksgiving dinners. 500 are served at First Presbyterian in Albany and the rest are delivered to needy people’s homes. Equinox started this 40 years ago to feed 200 students from SUNY who weren’t going home for the holiday. It continues to grow today, all based on gifts.

(This is how I finished these words on Sunday – If you’d like to sample one of my delicious muffins, put the Sunday before Thanksgiving on your calendar for next year for a visit to our congregation!)

So if hearing about these acts of generosity hasn’t yet stimulated your sense of gratitude, I hope to inspire you in a few moments with and act of gratitude, a gift of food from me: a corn muffin. All are lactose free and some are gluten free. I made them all this morning for your enjoyment. I hope this small act of gratitude for the opportunity to serve as your minister, will inspire your gratitude to help start off a restorative week of thanksgiving.

Shramadana

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Slogan

I’m dedicated to Buddhist mindfulness meditation and social justice work to address the ills of society. I’d like to be happy and peaceful and I want others to be happy and peaceful too.

Sometimes people think of Buddhists, however, as navel gazers who want to escape the world rather than helping save it. In Southeast Asia, it is common to see monks who like to stay in their temples, accept donations and appear not to be doing much for others. They meditate a lot with the goal of becoming enlightened and escaping being reborn again in this world.

One of the positive aspects of the contact between Buddhism and the West is a movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Preeminent in that movement is an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka.

Given my interests, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t noticed them before listening in May to a podcast by an American Buddhist activist named Joanna Macy. In 1980, she spent a year in Sri Lanka studying Sarvodaya and then returned home and wrote a book about them. Between what she said in the podcast and reading her book, I felt strongly attracted to this movement.

My goal for this service is to excite your interest in this organization that has been transforming village life in Sri Lanka for over fifty years. I think they have some great lessons for us that we may find enlightening as we join together this morning in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

An adapted translation of a traditional Metta Meditation from the Buddha

The embodiment of loving-kindness
begins with the practice of morality.
It requires uprightness and being straightforward
being gentle in speech,
being humble and not conceited or demanding.
Being contented and easily satisfied.
Be not burdened with duties but
Be peaceful and calm,
Be wise and skillful.
Be careful in action and above reproach.
To embody loving-kindness,
May your intention be
with a feeling of gladness and security

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever livings beings there may be
Those who are weak or strong
omitting none.
Those who are great or mighty,
non-distinctive, short or tall,
Those seen and those unseen,
Those living near and far away
Those born and yet to be born
May all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another,
nor despise any being in any state.
Let none, through anger or ill-will,
wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upward to the skies,
and downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
Let us remember and sustain this beautiful intention.

Reading

From: Collected Works of A.T. Ariyaratne, Volume III, pages 55-56

The type of human being we need for the world today is one which has the courage to reject [the] dreadful systems of organized evil which have made us decivilized; we need the type of leadership which will strive to re-build a new person who has the strength of character to harness the good that is in all of us. This new person in turn shall re-build our human society and a new human civilization on more abiding values.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (USA branch) is determined to build a new person and a new society. In Sri Lanka we started this process by enabling human beings to come together to share their time, thought and energy for the awakening of a process of sharing which is called Shramadana.

We selected several of the poorest of the poor villages in Sri Lanka and while living and working with the villagers, together we evolved a series of concepts and a methodology to improve their quality of life by their own efforts. Self Reliance, Community Participation and a Planned Program to satisfy their basic human and community needs were three important ingredients in this self-development process.

Sarvodaya defines development as an awakening process. An ever increasing accumulation of goods and services created to feed greed in man is not development. On the contrary development is an awakening process taking place within individuals, families and communities in which their needs are first satisfied without polluting the mind, poisoning the body, destroying the ecological balance, violating the cultural boundaries, widening prevailing disparities or demeaning human nature.

Development in a true sense should enrich people both materially and spiritually so qualities of sharing, brotherhood and peace ennoble all people.

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. As we well know, that value isn’t universally embraced around the globe. It isn’t embraced right here in Albany for that matter. This becomes abundantly clear by spending some time on the North side of Central Avenue, east of Henry Johnson Boulevard and south of Delaware Avenue. As someone who has done faith based community organizing in these areas, I have some awareness of how difficult making a positive difference can be. So, discovering an organization that has had significant success at this kind of transformation in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka for over 50 years got my attention.

The backbone of Sri Lanka is small, rural villages; about 23,000 of them. With lush vegetation and fertile land, carefully cultivated with an intricate water storage and irrigation system developed over a thousand years ago, the country has a proud heritage as being the the breadbasket of the region. Buddhism came to the island 2300 years ago and today is the religion of 90% of the population. They preserved many of the earliest Buddhist texts and have a proud heritage of being a light of the Dhamma in Asia.

That proud identity and heritage suffered greatly under four hundred years of colonial domination, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. That domination had a devastating impact on those villages. The tea and coconut plantation system took away their control of their land. Their culture, traditions and religion were diminished by the Europeans in comparison with their culture. Over the years, that oppression turned into a self-destructive, downward spiral of disease, stagnation, poverty, harsh speech and conflict in the villages. That social disease infected the villager’s spirit with the negative spiral of ill-will, disunity, ignorance, possessiveness, competition and egoism.

In the glow of independence from Britain in 1948, a new generation of leaders sought to address this damage. The misery in the villages was much on the mind of a young science teacher, named A.T. Ariyaratne, or Dr. Ari as he is commonly referred to today. In the 1950’s, he and others were wondering how to restore the pre-colonial greatness to their country.

One of his inspirations was a prominent follower of Gandhi in India named Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba is known today for starting a land reform movement called Bhoodan. It encouraged plantation owners in the early 1950’s to share, without rent, a little of their land with landless peasants for them to grow their own food. How Vinoba started this program is worth retelling because in the story are the seeds of Dr. Ari’s later work.

In 1951, Vinoba, already a respected figure committed to non-violence, stayed overnight in a small village in an area of communist military activity. Two thirds of the villagers were landless, many of the untouchable caste. He asked a group of them why they had taken up arms. They told him the communists promised them land. He asked if they would lay down their arms if they could get land non-violently by asking for it and farming it cooperatively. They agreed. He wanted to go to the government with this request but the villagers urged him to make the request at a local meeting that included landowners especially a man who was known to be a generous fellow. At that meeting, “to everyone’s surprise, that landlord, Ram Chandra Reddy, got up and said in an excited voice: ‘I will give you 100 acres for these people.’”

In this story, I believe Dr. Ari became aware of two very important truths that have guided his work. First, the people already knew what their problems were and what they needed. Second, the people collectively had wisdom about how those needs could be met. What was needed was getting people to talk to each other and work together for the good of all.

But how to translate these ideas and methods from India to Sri Lanka? Dr. Ari looked within Buddhism for the principles that paralleled the Gandhian ideas that Vinoba used. Attracted to Gandhi’s “uplift for all” movement he titled Sarvodaya, he realized that another way to translate that word could be “awakening for all.” The Buddhist goal of enlightenment could join social welfare with spiritual development.

A friend of Dr. Ari’s had participated in post-World War Two work camps sponsored by the Quakers. Dr. Ari borrowed the work camp idea for his first attempt to make a difference in a village in 1958. A group of 16 and 17 year old students from his high school spent two weeks in a poor rural village working side by side on projects that the villagers guided them to do.

Sarvodaya’s first Shramadana was born.

Shrama or labor and dana or donation, together name the engine that powers the Sarvodaya train. The very first step for organizing one is to bring villagers together for what they call, a “family gathering.” These gatherings always begin with prayers from the villager’s religious tradition, multiple prayers if more than one faith is represented so everyone feels included. They also include silent meditation to establish that universal spiritual practice to join people together. Then the conversations begin about the problems and the needs of the village. The ideas for work projects come from the villagers themselves rather than from the Sarvodaya leaders. They use familial address calling each other brother and sister, mother and father, to counter any inequality of social status, so all voices are valued equally.

A common initial project that people can get behind who are unfamiliar with working cooperatively is cleaning and making improvements to a temple or church. This is an attractive project in a Buddhist community because of their understanding of dana. Every Buddhist knows that they can individually get a lot of merit for a better rebirth by giving to monks. Monks eat based on the generosity of the villagers who offer them food every morning. What they may not know is the joy of a group of people coming together for a joint work project. Other common projects are building access roads, cleaning irrigation canals, digging latrines and building schools.

The next step is to canvass the community for resources for the project. Typically, food and materials are donated for the camp. The goal is to get as many people involved in the project as possible.

Once the resources have been promised and pooled, the shramadana can begin. The work is structured so people of all ages can participate either in the work itself or in meal preparation and other kinds of support. Family gatherings start the work camp with chants, prayers and ritual. Communal meals are served morning, noon and night where the discussions continue. A celebratory atmosphere is encouraged, particularly in the evenings when there may be singing and dancing. A work camp could be a single day or go on for a week or more.

In parallel with the project, sub-groups will be organized. Youth and young adults, mothers, elders, farmers, and other sub-groups find common interests for continuing shared labor. One very common project is to build a preschool. The government will pay for a teacher but not to build a classroom. Economic development through micro-loans are another common project to support the development of the village using appropriate technology.

The foundation of their shramadana methods are spiritual, the awakening, the liberation of all from suffering, stress, dissatisfaction and misery of every kind. While this goal comes from Buddhism, it resonates with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the other predominant religions in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is intentionally interfaith and non-partisan. Their focus is on bettering the lives of people rather than promoting a religion or political party. Their constructive activity supported by sharing and cooperation, lead to pleasant speech, equality, love and selflessness. The resulting unity leads to organizational development, greater health, and spiritual and cultural development which supports education and economic development.

The first awakening that Sarvodaya encourages is to interdependence. Together people can do what it would be difficult for anyone to do by themselves. The disunity and downward spiral of oppression is reversed through cooperation. Mutual care for each other is encouraged through the cultivation of qualities of heart described in Buddhism as the four heavenly abodes, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and an equanimity to the ups and downs of life. Shramadana gives participants, a direct experience of those four abodes through the skillful organization and execution of the work project.

Both interdependence and self-reliance are developed using shramadana. Again rooted in Buddhism, one’s progress toward liberation comes through one’s own efforts. The value of each person’s individual involvement in the common work is stressed from the very beginning. This means speaking up with one’s ideas in the family gatherings. Each person’s contribution to the joint effort is honored and appreciated. Each person’s ethical practices, such as gentle speech, generosity, social equality, and constructive work build both self-reliance and interdependence.

Sarvodaya believes what they are doing is more than village transforming and awakening. It is nation and world transforming as well. It envisions the goal of development very differently than the predominant corporate globalized vision of increasing material prosperity through endless growth in consumption. Sarvodaya presents us with a model of sustainability that puts human happiness and the well-being of all life as its central purpose. They build a new order from the bottom up rather than the top down. Interdependence and self-reliance are the methods that lead to the awakening of all.

I’m bringing you a little taste of this organization that most people have never heard of because they are one of the most extensive and successful efforts to date in socially engaged Buddhism that I believe could also have much value for Unitarian Universalism.

This weekend is a fine example of our own version of a Shramadana project, the Holiday Bazaar! People have come together numerous times to create items for sale. There was a gathering to make dry soup mixes. There was a gathering to make holiday pies. There was a gathering to set up Emerson Community Hall. Randy’s kitchen is another joint effort. And beyond this weekend, there are the gardening work parties to care for our grounds. People coming together to cook for the homeless shelter. Volunteering at Sheridan prep to read to students. Some will remember our joint work to build a Habitat for Humanity house. I remember our gathering to hit the streets to register people to vote in our neighborhood. These are just a few of the joint ventures we do regularly … but probably could learn to do more skillfully by studying Sarvodaya.

Our congregation is, in one way of looking at it, a virtual village. We pool our resources of time, talent and treasure to create this community. We network with other congregations to build a world-wide movement to support and promote our values. The values and methods of Sarvodaya have a lot of overlap with our principles. The core Sarvodaya interfaith spirituality that is self-reliant and interdependent parallels our evolving Unitarian Universalist religious development. Both serve to reverse racism and oppression while creating a sustainable world community that meets everyone’s basic needs while striving for peace, liberty and justice.

With a new mayor in Albany, there are some great opportunities for systemic change in our distressed neighborhoods. What we can learn from Sarvodaya might be very helpful in that process. The dysfunction in some Albany neighborhoods parallel Sri Lankan village dysfunction that may be transformed through their bottom up methods.

For these reasons, I’ll be traveling to Sri Lanka January 13 to immerse myself in Sarvodaya for three weeks, participate in a shramadana, and see for myself if Sarvodaya is as good as they appear to be from my research and from my conversations. By turning the tables and going to the developing world and bringing home their ideas for our use, perhaps we can help restore some balance to this world so far out of balance.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has articulated and is practicing a compelling vision of how to bring awakening to villages that could be of great value in the developed world too. May we benefit from their wisdom and adapt their methods to support our common work of building community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Benediction

I close with these wise and generous intentions offered by former Sarvodayan regional director Dr. Herat Gunaratne:

May all beings be well and happy.
May no harm fall on anybody
May we look only at the good of others
May nobody suffer because of my actions.