“Cracks in God’s Eggs” by Mark W. Harris
June 1, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship
“Where Does the Dance Begin, and Where Does it End?” by Mary Oliver
Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.
It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.
But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white
feet of the trees
whose mouths open.
Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?
Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly across Asia, then Europe,
until at last, now, they shine in your own yard?
Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.
When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking
outward, to the mountains so solidly there
in a white-capped ring,
or was he looking to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea
that was also there,
beautiful as a thumb
curved and touching the finger, tenderly,
as he whirled, oh jug of breath, in the garden of dust?
Reading – from Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus
This morning’s sermon was supposed to be an auction sermon for Rachel Klein. She bought it more than a year ago, but we had never agreed upon a date until we finally settled on today. A few weeks ago she excused me from the obligation when she responded very positively to a meditation I wrote. She said, “You don’t have to do the sermon now, that was enough.” Most of you know that the meditation will have to be enough, since she died a little more than a week ago, and her funeral was on Tuesday. But I thought I would keep the date.. Rachel wanted a sermon that covered forgiveness of self, but moreover acceptance, tolerance, and the pointed question of how do diverse people get along. How do we build the beloved community? Many of you believe we have a beloved community here. There are people who care about each other and support one another. I think that is the case for many people, and was true for Rachel. She felt supported and cared for here, and even used the metaphor of a loving family. She also knew how to ask for help. Yet a caring or responsive experience is not true for everyone. I have had a difficult time this year finding a coordinator for a caring committee, and filling out a roster of people willing and able to give rides to people from Brigham House. As a result, staff, including me, have frequently provided those rides. I am not sure that is how you want staff spending their time. What does it mean to build beloved community, and how are you as a congregation going to express it?
This week I received an email from a church member who dropped out. It is always upsetting to me when people leave, and don’t bother to tell us why. Sometimes it is good to know, but other times it is painful because I see how we fall short as a community. She said she did not make any friends here, and that when she was absent no one reached out to say, where are you? This happens. It is not a condemnation of the community because this church is not going to work for everybody, but we do need to ask if we are building that beloved community for the people who want to be here, and moreover want to seek personal and community wholeness by being together. How do we show we care? I am also aware that there are people who no longer need whatever they found here, and they move on, and there are others who use us. They want money or help in one form or another. There are givers and takers. Who do we notice, and whom do we fail to notice might be important questions to consider. Quiet people, who do not connect, quickly move on. Those with the louder voices tend to be heard all out of proportion to their commitment to building up the community. Part of this may be a membership development question, but it also directly relates to how we get along with someone who is different.
To help frame today’s service I have adopted the theme of dancing from a service by Linda Goonewardene. While dancing fits the opening words, I immediately thought of school dances. My two younger sons just had their prom a couple of weeks ago, but the dances I hearken back to were those awkward junior high school affairs where the boys stood on one side of the room and the girls on the other. The goal for the boys was to somehow have the courage to ask a girl to slow dance, so you could manage to get close to someone, approximating a hug. Mostly there was a large gulf between us where we just watched. Sometimes the girls would dance with each other because girls were clearly more willing to look silly, or act crazy, or be free with their body movements, while boys somehow believed that dancing was embarrassing. They might look bad. But I do remember a dance that freed us from all this uptightness. It was called Do the Freddy. While not as famous as the Twist or even the Swim, the Freddy was the brainchild of a British invasion group called Freddy and the Dreamers, best known for the hit song, “I’m Telling You Now.” It began , “let’s get ready, let’s do the Freddy.” What you did was alternate raising your right leg and arm with your left. It was a lot of goofy fun, and as I implied, it was quite freeing. Freddy himself, bowed either way, squatted, and even screamed. And it got everyone to dance boys and girls alike!
It was great to be freed from what we normally would not do for fear of being stigmatized as silly, or odd or different. We all dance our way through life in various ways, but some are more acceptable to the dominant culture than others. People who have some kind of disability are often perceived as odd or different. Throughout history, those who were physically challenged have often been left to die, and those who were mentally ill were tortured or banished as being products of the devil, which is where the stories of Jesus healing the possessed are relevant. Later the disabled were often called genetically defective, and were institutionalized. In more recent times the goal has been some kind of independent living and self-determination. While it may seem like we have moved into an era of enlightenment, full appreciation, understanding and involvement of those with disabilities has not yet occurred. Could it be that a church community might be that testing ground for what a wider society might embrace?
Few of us knew that Rachel Klein was part of a UUA Committee that had created accessibility guidelines for UU Congregations. While we are a UUA Welcoming Congregation in Watertown, having achieved that status through a special program that welcomes LGBTQ people on all levels of church involvement, Rachel’s committee was trying to broaden that welcome to include people of all abilities in our congregations. In my eulogy for Rachel this week, I spoke of how she struggled in life to win acceptance for herself, and also suffered from numerous physical ailments, as well as mental illness. She was a tough advocate for herself and others when she believed there was an injustice being perpetrated. Whether it was manner or style, I sometimes struggled as her minister when I responded to Rachel’s concerns. At first I found her demanding and negative and overbearing, and so could not always hear her real concerns where change might bring improvement to the congregation. My initial reaction was rejection because I perceived her demands as out of bounds. She was hard to listen to. She was disruptive and difficult, and part of me wished she would go away. I think this is often a reaction to those who suffer from some disability, especially if they are vocal or physically disruptive. We either avoid them or reject them, or even dismiss them as crazy, and thus worthless.
Yet even if we don’t dismiss those with disabilities, and don’t think of them as worthless, we often perceive them as having less worth, or not being quite whole. This is a stance liberals sometimes assume. We have always been too polite or too tolerant or understanding to denigrate someone with a disability, but our response has frequently been pity. I feel sorry for them because they have suffered so, and have endured such pain. With pity comes the idea that this person is pathetic and cannot really contribute in any tangible way, but we can give them some assistance that might elevate their life. We can make them feel better by tolerating them, and lending a helping hand. This can be the way we approach social action sometimes. We might presume that we can reach down from our position of privilege to assist the downtrodden, and make them feel better. We will try to lift them up to our place in society, but we never learn from them. It is always about us taking care of them or helping them, and never them teaching, or helping us. This is because we perceive ourselves as perfectly fine, and never having those kinds of needs. We always must be helping others. How do we make it reciprocal?
Our reading today helps us understand this perspective. In Andre Dubus’, Broken Vessels, he tells us of an encounter with a beautiful woman in New York. He is in his wheel chair having suffered the effects of a terrible accident in which his legs were crushed. He makes this remark about bumping into her, and she takes it in good spirits, and moves on. She neither rejects him as a sexist pig who only looks on women as flesh, nor does she pity him for being the crippled guy in the wheelchair, for whom she is supposed to say she is sorry, or cry or give a few dollars. She merely says I see you, I recognize you as a fellow human being and I hear you. If you behave badly, I am not going to accept it out of pity. I am going to set boundaries with you, just as I would set with anyone else. And I will listen to you just as I would with anyone else. She laid down her shield of protectiveness and did not attack, or feel pity, but instead showed lighthearted compassion. She embraced him as a person to be seen and accepted.
Pity was the second path I took with Rachel. I felt sorry for her, and so I could hear her and try to be compassionate, but I could not learn from her. I could hear her, but I did not listen. The problem with these first two perspectives as dissimilar as they seem, is that they both reject a commonly shared human experience. One rejects or avoids, and the other pities, but in both cases it is not of us. It is other. We never take disability on as our own. This is crucial because a person who is mentally ill or in a wheel chair disturbs our idea of what the universe should be. If the universe does not conform to our notion of how it should operate then these people must live in a different universe than ours. Moreover, this person also represents a threat because they are what we might be in the future, and so they are not only a direct threat to our normal universe, they are a direct threat to what we consider a human being should be. We are afraid of those who are different because we are afraid of suffering – loss of control, pain, weakness, insecurity death, even social stigma. It was not so long ago that psychiatry considered homosexuality a disease. It was abnormal. It needed a cure. What if the culture failed to embrace homosexuality as normal social behavior today? Would we be able to say, they are us. Or would we go back to the approach of rejection or pity?
How do we make disability into us? One way to begin to think about disability is to realize that we all live with limitations. Many years ago I got glasses because the blackboard was a blur, and I couldn’t see it like the normal kids. I remember Andrea telling the story of how one teacher had imparted to her that if she lived in ancient times, she would have been dead by the age of fifteen thanks to disease and other life threats. Her poor eyesight alone would have prevented her from seeing the tiger approaching looking for a tasty snack. Some years ago I remember hearing that my father had a mental breakdown before he went into business for himself. I don’t know the details, except that it came in the wake of some personal set backs. No one ever told me, but I know from his severe alcoholism, and the genetic inheritance of bipolar illness, that our family lived with something that was unacknowledged. We had perpetuated the typical response to a problem. We did not talk about it. We begin to see that all of us are limited in a certain way, and although we may not number ourselves among the disabled now, we will all be there as eyesight fades, or hearing is reduced, or bones creak, or lungs gasp. Pain and loss of life and limb scare us, and so we are afraid to look at others who have those afflictions, because it reminds us that we will be there ourselves some day. Part of the journey to accept those with disabilities as full partners is the acceptance of ourselves and the human condition. We want to look away from disability because it represents pain and suffering. But looking at it means first an acceptance of ourselves, but it also means an acceptance of a human condition that is flawed, prone to error, and subject to disease. As Emerson once said, everything God makes has a crack in it.
So it could be that the differences we see as flaws or cracks or inadequacies in others are really representations of the incredible amount of human breadth and depth there is in differences. What happens when that individual who initially scares or bothers us for fear of their difference, followed by pity for their difference, ends up transforming us to a new leap of faith? Instead of repeating, isn’t it a shame, we don’t have to make them feel shame, or blame themselves for being less than whole, or be looked down upon, but instead we marvel at their strength. This is the third step we must take with those who have disabilities. For any of you who have traversed the medical system in this country, you can simply add layer upon layer to what a person with disabilities has likely endured. For enduring all those battles alone, we would look into Rachel’s eyes and see courage, tenacity and strength. An auction sermon would usually not be directed at the person who purchased it, but she is an enduring example of how someone with severe disabilities could so easily be rejected and scorned. We might have responded that she was negative, or the pity would invoke calling her pathetic, but if that is the case, we only saw the dancer from across the floor. We failed to embrace the dancer or give the joy of the dance itself a try. We saw her differences. We didn’t embrace what she had to offer to us. We may have failed to recognize how smart she was, or what good questions she asked, or how interesting she was or perceptive. Ultimately she wanted what any one of us wants: to know love and joy. If we only see difference, we fail to see what the other offers, and we shield ourselves from spiritual growth.
Our dance must be for the inclusion of everyone. We must come across the room where too often we fail to see each other because I am afraid of the difference I see in you. Let me see my own difference, too, and thus see the cracks in both of us – my own frailties and failings. In the dance we must get past what makes us so afraid of the other. How we treat the ones we meet and the differences we embrace will teach us and expand our horizons, and ultimately heal us of some of the pain life brings. Those we meet in the community of the dance need compassion and support and friendship. We don’t offer words of advice; we offer our listening ear. We also learn a great deal about new perspectives and understandings. This also means as church members that we remember to welcome everyone into all aspects of community life. We notice who is missing because they are one of us. We listen to everybody because we want to hear what one of us has to say. Then we all learn. We all grow. We all become more whole, more compassionate, more understanding. We are building that beloved community. I will close with this story from the Talmud “A rabbi asks his students, how do you know the first moment of dawn has arrived?” After a great silence, one pipes up, “When you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog.” The rabbi shakes his head no. Another offers, “When you can tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree.” Again the rabbi shakes his head no. There are no other answers. The rabbi circles their silence and walks between them, You know the first moment of dawn has arrived, when you look into the eyes of another human being and see yourself.”
Closing Words: from Linda Goonewardene
May we hear the music of our spirit and let our life lightly dance on the edges of time. May we be able to look into the eyes of another and see ourselves. May we feel suffering and despair, and know that transformation is possible. May we understand that we are more than a diagnosis and we are not alone. May we know that everyone is all right because of where they are on their dancing journey.