“Got to Be Kind” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – May 6, 2012
Call to Worship – from Sharon and Thomas Emswiler
You, are amazing grace. You are unique, unrepeatable, a fragile miracle. You are God’s grace and glorious gift. Gifts evoke gifts. And so we who are gifts of creation each give gifts to our Creator. Let us give with the wild abandon that benefits such examples of amazing grace.
First Reading from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, p. 65-66
Second Reading – “Ithaca” by C. F. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
Emerson once said, “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. The whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether.” Do you believe that? “Do you feel “Love is in the air,” echoing like that hit disco song from the 1970’s? Are people basically nice and kind and loving? Or do you read the newspaper every day like me, and feel humanity is more like the way Hobbes once described it. This is to say that every man ( and we might add woman, child and beast) is warring against every other, and life itself is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Unitarianism emerged here in New England based first and foremost from an understanding that human beings were not born with the stain of original sin stamped on our souls. When they came to baptize children, Calvinists asked “Don’t you think a child is born into this world with enough sin to damn it forever?” Our liberal predecessors wondered how anyone could ever feel this way. Like the Rev. John Ames in Gilead, looking at the face of an infant, they saw lovely innocence, not innate sin. They felt sin came through individual acts, not a corporate, natural state, and believed we can make the choice, with the right training and education, to be good.
Unitarianism not only said that humanity has the potential for good, but in fact, is naturally good, as each of us carries a bit of God within. When Van Wyck Brooks wrote about The Flower of New England he said of our early 1800’s leader, William Ellery Channing: “The adoration of goodness was his religion.” To cover human nature with infamy, Brooks said, crushes our energy and confidence; we cease to awaken the soul to its potential. In this context, we can readily see why James Freeman Clarke would have adopted “the brotherhood of man” as one of his five principles of Unitarianism. Today is the last of our sermon series on these principles. Brotherhood implies that we believe that human beings are somehow all connected to one another. It embodies the theme of the Carl Sandburg poem, “Names”, where he says, “There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men. There is only one woman in the world and her name is All Women. There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.” This means that my freedom, and my welfare is directly related to your welfare and freedom. Clarke would have said that it is a religious truth that humanity is one, and we have but to realize it.
One problem we have with all men, women and children is that we cannot know them in theory. Love is not abstract because we only really experience it through the relationships we have with others. This can be a difficult obstacle for us when we ponder the seemingly selfish nature of human beings we come to know – that boss who is always asking us to do one project after another while he seems to do very little except cash checks, that angry driver who just cut me off, and then there is Aunt Mary who won’t stop talking and finds her daughter’s successful matriculation to the Ivy League of paramount interest to all her relatives and friends. For many of us, who experience these annoying people, the typical response might be : I love humanity, but it is people that I can’t stand. One has to remember that the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity or human solidarity cannot exist in theory, especially if one wishes to espouse it as theological truth. We liberals have to remember that it does not have to be expressed with a belief in perfection or even divinity within, but that despite our flaws and failings, we can together stumble our way towards a vision and a lived reality of a little more love and understanding, while acknowledging how hard that may be to attain. When we say people are capable of committing evil, we are not saying we are doomed original sinners, but that we all have the capacity for wrong doing. We can’t be like the woman on TV the other night who said, I live in a good neighborhood, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen here, in the wake of a murder down the street. Well, obviously that kind of thing can happen there or anywhere, and that is the first lesson in understanding human nature, a little humility can lead to a little solidarity.
Having a little humility means we understand that others struggle with life, too; it is not just me that has been mistreated or me that lost a job, but others know something of what I am going through. Feeling empathy towards another leads to kindness. Science has also taken up this question, as there is a current battle over the genetics of altruism. Why should I be kind toward you, and is there some biological reason that compels me to care? This bothered Darwin, as he wondered, if life is a cruel struggle for existence, then a selfless, kind individual won’t last very long. We know that people run into burning buildings to save others, and that bats feed other hungry bats. Some would theorize that we are merely promoting our own DNA, and so it is not altruistic at all, and that we are inherently selfish. I suppose there is some irony in that scientists are fighting over the origins of kindness. The famous biologist E. O. Wilson, as usual, has something to say here, and that is that kindness is related to the tribe we belong to. This is more than our own blood line, but evidence shows that we will give aid and even sacrifice ourselves for the common good of the group we identify with, especially if it leads to victory over other tribes. This must mean we would help any fellow Red Sox fan regardless of race, color, sex, income level etc., but if you see a Yankee cap, forget it. Seriously, the urge to help another may come from our inclination to see our group survive and prosper, especially if we feel threatened.
Let me confess that I don’t automatically love humanity. In fact, whether by genetics or rearing or personal inclination, I don’t readily feel warm and kind towards others. For me it is work, but reflective of my profession, it is work worth doing. Once, I had a parishioner in another congregation who I did not care for. She wanted things her way, and was very judgmental. She was a name dropper who equated goodness with success. I went to see her out of obligation. Then I made a choice to try to understand why she was the way she was. It didn’t make her less annoying, but it did make me feel sorry for her, and henceforth I cared about her more. Our understanding of human nature develops when we make the choice to deepen our relationships with others. When I understood the injustice this person had suffered, and listened to her, then I cared.
I think we can make the choice to embrace human brotherhood/sisterhood, and there are three things that can inspire us to do so, not based on some abstract theory about how we are connected, but on a lived truth. A long time ago I was a student chaplain in a hospital in Worcester. One of the ironies of Margaret’s coming here is that despite the century difference in our ages, we had the same chaplain supervisor (more than thirty years apart). Like Margaret, one of my wards was maternity, and I also had neo-natal intensive care. Most of the babies who were born there were healthy, and the visit to the rooms were warm happy occasions. There were lots of smiles and a bit of relief, too. But there were high risk pregnancies as well. One of these resulted in the birth of Matthew. Matthew struggled from the start, and had some kind of genetic problem that made breathing difficult. Despite his parents obvious pain that they were not in one of the happy rooms, they held out hope during the two months that Matthew remained in intensive care, while I was there as chaplain. The mom had left the hospital long before Matthew, but she visited daily. I looked into her eyes, and saw her anguish and concern, and also her longing that things might work out. I also looked into the eyes of that baby. As Marillyne Robinson helps us see in the novel Gilead, “there is nothing more astonishing than a human face.” Once you have seen a face of a child, or anyone, and truly look with your eyes, a claim is laid upon you. This is a fellow being who knows both the loneliness of life, and the courage it takes to face life, and all it brings. Once I looked into Matthew eyes, I never forgot. Six months or so later, I was home for Christmas, sitting at my parents house, I was reading the Worcester Sunday Telegram, and I saw an obituary for a Matthew Aubin. Grief overcame me for this little baby, who would not grow up, but I also realized that despite what life can take from us, this baby had also helped me make a claim on life, and ever since I have tried to let my heart be open to that claim. May we look to see our common need for kindness.
On Thursday night I was in charge of a lecture at Andover Newton. The lecturer, John Matteson, has written a new book about Margaret Fuller. Fuller of course, was the first great feminist of the nineteenth century, and an active Unitarian. Matteson talked about Fuller’s understanding of freedom and liberation. We normally think of Emerson and the other Transcendentalists as delivering a gospel on individual fulfillment as an ultimate personal goal. Matteson spoke of how Fuller grew to reject this potentially selfish idea. She sought freedom, not for her own personal liberation or for the ability to achieve her own economic success. Rather she sought freedom so that everyone could have freedom. Freedom is not about self-realization or fulfillment, but instead is working for the common welfare of a people or a country. Fuller said liberation means the liberation of all, women and men, from the chains that bind the fulfillment of our souls and intellects. It isn’t about freedom to earn millions or be famous, it’s about freedom to live in peace; to be productive and happy and part of the whole. Then Matteson gave a personal example of this liberation by speaking about his daughter. She is a senior in high school. Not long ago, she witnessed classmates denigrating and insulting another classmate. She said to the offenders, “Stop talking to her like that.” This was a brave thing to do, as they could have turned on her. They looked at her and said, “Stay out of it, We’re not talking to you.” Then his daughter shot back, “That’s not the point! We don’t talk to anyone that way.” That was enough, and they backed off and left. Can we stand up for those who are under attack? We look and see our common humanity. We hear and understand and realize how we would feel if that were being said to us. We understand that kind of painful act should not be inflicted upon anyone. Suddenly we are in the other’s shoes, and know that kindness is called for in protecting and caring for those who might be hurt by others.
Does something call to us from within to help those who are in danger? There are many stories that assert this to be true. One of the great ones from World War II is that of the village of Le Chambon, where the minister and the villagers collaborated to save thousands of Jewish children and adults from certain death. Was it because it was their town, and they knew the people? Unitarians did the same during the war, and went first to Czechoslovakia, where it was our tribe, other Unitarians, who had called for help. Those who were convinced that a Jewish life was worth less than a German or French life, perhaps would have acted differently, but these townspeople believed in the preciousness of all lives. The Rev. Daniel Trocme said that he wanted to have a door in the depths of his being, and that that door would never be locked against the faces of all other human beings. If that door was knocked on, he wanted to be able to say, “come in, come in.” We know that kindness is a quality of the soul, but it is a quality that we can shut out. Would we sacrifice for another, or endanger our own life, if we feel this could be me?
We see faces, up close and personal. A baby’s eyes lets us see how life is reborn to a journey that is singular, and requires great courage. We take that journey together, and no matter how long it may be, that journey is less traumatic, less fearful, less dangerous, and more loving, more joyful, more amazing when we look at each other, understand what the other is going through, and thus understand the need to be more kind from the relationships we build with one another. And when the Rev. Trocme saw those eyes at his door, he knew he must care, he must help, he must offer hope. They must be given a chance to continue the journey. And he helped convince others, you’ve got to be kind. We’ve got to be there for each other.
My father once told me that the only time he cried as an adult was when President Kennedy was shot. It was understandable. I was twelve at the time and remember the feeling of emptiness and aimlessness, too. But I think my father cried because he felt a connection to our nation’s tribe, our people, who felt lost because the man who gave them hope was taken from them. Hope as you know cannot just happen. It needs to come from other people. There is a longing in our hearts for the tribe of humanity to continue, and it continues with the discovery of more beauty and wonder when we look at each other, and care for each other, and offer hope to one another that we will be there for each other, and that together things will be better. Kindness does not necessarily save us from tragedy or sadness, but kindness makes the sadness bearable, The soul is happier it seems when we choose to be kind. The poet Cavafy reminds us of the dangers of the journey, and that if we hold our thoughts high, we won’t carry those dangers into our souls. Kindness is the fabric of society, and we are its weavers. We are fragile beings, and it takes courage to live. But we are also full, each of us, of amazing grace, with miraculous abilities to grow the kindness waiting to be awakened in our souls. We are able to hold our thoughts high, and see and understand the need to sew the connections between us. Then we know the power of kindness to heal and uphold us, and then hope lives. All we need to do is follow Kurt Vonnegut’s rule for new arrivals: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.””
Closing Words – from David Rankin – “Natural Theology”
Is there such a thing as God?
I saw a sunrise at Jackson Hole
I fell in love many years ago.
I caught a tear in my father’s eye.
I watched a lily bloom.
I saved a boy from drugs and death.
I touched the hand of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I feel the warmth of children.
I laugh almost every day.
I hold the hem of hope.
The only wisdom I can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility – and humility is endless.