Reading: Grounded – Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, by Diana Butler Bass
“In the twentieth century, Jewish theologian Martin Buber explained that most arenas of human activity –politics, economics, and education– actually alienate us, because they treat human beings as objects. Modern culture has trained us to distance ourselves from one another, seeing others and the world itself as something to be observed, examined, and critiqued. Essentially, we view everyone and everything as problems to be fixed. When we know others only as objects, what Buber called the ‘I-it’ relationship, it precludes the possibility of community. There is, however, an alternative. If we encounter our neighbors with empathy, remembering that others are subjects, we can enter into an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. Seeing others as ‘Thou’ opens the possibility of real affection and mutual responsibility. True neighborliness can be described as being mutual subjects, acting toward one another with respect and understanding. Buber said that modern society is an ‘it’ world. But he also claimed that a ‘Thou’ world, of connection and compassion, was the only path toward a healthy human future.”
About 10 years ago I read a story by Author Naomi Rachel Remen that created an aha moment in me. It stuck with me every since.
It’s set at a Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish calendar. It’s about forgiveness, and setting things right. It’s about relationships, with each other, and with the deepest parts of one’s self, or with something greater beyond the self. Some call that God.
In the story, the rabbi, who everyone expected would talk about repentance for shortcomings and the forgiving love of God, didn’t start with that, that day.
Instead, he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and, carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah or podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted, Remen wrote, Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kippur sermon, talking about the meaning of the holiday.
“The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon. After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. The entire congregation chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. She put her tiny arms around his neck.
Looking out over the top of her head, he said, ‘Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?’ Throughout the room people began to nod in recognition, thinking perhaps of their own children and grandchildren. Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.
“Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came, he asked, ‘And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?’
That’s the questions that stuck with me.
How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?
Something happens between how we respond to that angelic infant stage and our everyday associations with the regular people around us of any age.
Something happens that makes it harder to forgive, makes it harder to appreciate, harder to see.
Even if we know, in theory, that everyone is a child of God, or in UU terms, that everyone has a spark of the divine within. It doesn’t always look that way. (are you with me? Maybe thinking of someone right now saying – child of god, spark of the divine? I don’t know… )
It’s good to be reminded of this idea.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in holy texts, the birth stories of great leaders or Gods are so prominent and so dramatically compelling. Stories that show that these larger than life figures were once infants, vulnerable babies. I think of the story of Moses, born in a time of murderous despots, left in thrushes at the riverside, then fished out of the water by strangers and cared for someone other than his own mother. In Hinduism, the birth of Krishna, the blue God, is a dramatic story that also happens to include the threat of death by an evil ruler, and not dissimilar to the story that most of us are most familiar with, the Christian story of the birth of Jesus. Portrayed as a humble baby, full of light.
Babies, children are compelling. Their love and lovability is just so irrepressable. It’s so visible. Engageable. They are so there.
We are drawn into relationship with them. With their wide-open hearts and insistence that we pay attention. And with their wide open eyes, they see things, like beauty and awe, and can draw us into that experience with them.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the center of one of the most important holidays in the Christian tradition, you have, a small child. A child who, the promise is, will change how we see everything. A child who, as we sing in the carols, we are invited to worship and adore. With whom we are invited into relationship.
As a faith, Unitarian Universalism don’t necessarily lift up worship of a god, but we do lift up relationship, the power of relationship the importance of connection in our spiritual journeys, in our healing, as individuals and as a society.
So when it comes to this time of advent, there’s something brilliant about the idea of worshipping the holy in the form of a child, offering adoration and reverence. Because the more we humans practice opening that channel in our heart, the more that’s likely to spill over onto other people. The more we have appreciation, affection and warmth in any relationship, the more likely it is, to flow into other ones. The more likely we are to treat others from that I-thou place described in our first reading.
It *is* good to be reminded of this possibility. Because it can be hard to see the holy in the regular people we encounter every day.
I probably don’t have to tell you.
These people with their foolish opinions, these people with their terrible habits of whatever kind, these people who are messy or boorish or outlandish or ridiculous or just don’t seem to get it. Not the way I do. It can be hard to see the holy in other people. Hard to treat them with reverence and care.
Or maybe we do that to ourselves. We see, in ourselves, all the things we do “wrong” – all the ways we are messy, or have messed up, all the ways we feel we don’t measure up. It can be hard, to see the holy in ourselves. Hard to treat ourselves with reverence and care.
And then there are systematic things that get in the way.
Like from that first reading. Even the institutions designed to help us relate to each other, like education, economics and politics, also serve to separate us from each other. Can lead us to objectify each other, see each other as an “it” rather than a “thou”. Here’s what we think this percentage of the population will do in the next election. Here’s how we think the stock market will surge or decline based on the behavior of the masses. Here’s how we can fix, manipulate and control.
And in education, we study it all. Rather than being with other humans, we observe, examine, and critique them. We intellectualize… everything. As videographer Jason Silva astutely notes, when we focus on the biochemical nature of love, for example, we may dismiss the authenticity of the feeling. When we take the universe apart with all our intellectual curiosity, our experience of it may no longer feel the way it did before. When we see the world and each other as objects, it can drain away the magic. The power, the awe.
So. There’s something here about our relationship with the Holy, which is so apparent in young children. Something here about developing that relationship, developing a capacity for reverence, a capacity for adoration, even if it’s only in our minds or with an idea of something or someone holy…However we develop that capacity, might we begin to find that we more often see the world, and other people, in that [reverent] light?
A friend of mine told me about a challenge with her partner. He sometimes felt she was not as available to him as he wanted. He would get mad or become inflexible. She, in turn, would feel controlled, get resentful, and want to be less available still. A downward spiral. One time, she told me, she took a step back, gave herself a moment and imagined how she would respond if he were a child who happened to be hurting. That time, rather than reacting to his anger, she was more able to stay present. That time she managed not to disappear. That time, things went better.
I was talking to another friend just last week who noticed in herself how critical she could be of people. Noticing all the ways she wanted them to change. And as we were talking she started criticizing herself for being critical. It was all I could do not to criticize her for criticizing herself. Funny how criticism grows on itself. It always says, something or someone needs to change, you, or me, or preferably you, but probably both of us. Maybe if we can just change, become more this or that, stop criticizing or doing that irritating thing, then we’ll see that holy light in each other?
[slow way down]
But, keep wondering, as I’ve been writing this sermon, maybe don’t have to try to change anything?? Don’t have to focus on all our shortcomings. Don’t have to fix ourselves or anyone else. What if we can relax, and look for the light? For that spark, for the holy, for that child? In them, *and* in us. And then, ask ourselves, what flows from that place?
I wonder, if that is what is meant, by grace. Treating ourselves and others with reverence, as thou, as a child of god.
And when we can open our hearts in that way, when we tap into kindness in this way, it sets the stage. Can open the way. To ripple effects. To amazing things.
What would that look like? Maybe something like this:
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tells of the time a guy spontaneously leapt out of a car to help a [so-called] “old lady” shovel snow from her driveway. One of his friends, who witnessed this small act, later wrote: ‘I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. […]. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.’”
Amazing grace. The impact of even 1 small act of kindness. A touch of inspiration. A touch of interpersonal awe.
Or Amazing grace can look this: A few people have already taken up Westminster’s reverse offering challenge.
Like one person who added some of her own to the money she’d been given, and purchased a half gallon of chicken soup and bread for a neighbor who works outside all day. He struggles financially and emotionally, she said, and he had just told her that his son was killed in an accident last month. She said she hoped that a warm meal after a day of working outside in the cold […] might give him a touch of much needed comfort. He seemed a bit embarrassed to take it, she said, but she placed it in his car, and he gave her a hug before he left.
Another person wrote that she lost her mom to suicide when she was a child. She took the $5 she received, added $195 to it and made a donation to Friend’s Way, a children’s bereavement center in Rhode Island. A place she wished had been around when she was young. A place that is now supporting other children suffering with losses no one should have to handle without help.
Or it can look like the person who gave money to her client’s bus driver, it can look like buying coffee for the person behind you.
And after I heard all those stories, I found myself donating my $5 to the UU Service Committee, then to AMOR, a local justice organization, and then on the spur of the moment bought chocolate for the cashier at Trader Joes (it was a little awkward but she looked pleased). And then I bought flowers for someone who I thought deserved them. An yes, some part of me apparently unaware of the fact that you can only give $5 away once, but there you go, the impact of inspiration. Amazing grace can spread.
As this advent holiday encourages Christians everywhere to relate to this god in the form of a baby, may we be reminded of the child in all of us. May we be reminded of the light that is already in each person. And the light we might spark, when we treat each other with the reverence we all deserve. May we find grace, and awe, and perhaps even some amazement, along the way.
May it be so, amen.