Social Action Sunday – January 24, 2016

Three speakers included: Mark Harris speaking about First Parish and our faith commitment to make a difference in the world; Laura Wagner the Executive Director of UU Mass Action will tell us all about ways you can be involved in advocacy for issues that UUs across the state are committed to; Amira Elamri, a refugee from Syria will tell her personal story of flight from her homeland, inspiring us to become involved in immigrant rights.


Call to Worship – from “Choose to Bless the World” by Rebecca Parker

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—

can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,

The strength of the hands,

The reaches of the heart,

The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting


Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,

Bind up wounds,

Welcome the stranger,

Praise what is sacred,

Do the work of justice

Or offer love.


Any of these can draw down the prison door,

Hoard bread,

Abandon the poor,

Obscure what is holy,

Comply with injustice

Or withhold love.


You must answer this question:

What will you do with your gifts?


Reading – The Three Questions is a short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, also identified sometimes as a Zen tale, and now is a children’s book. This is a version of what was read in church, but not the same telling.


The thought came to a certain king that he would never fail if he knew three things. These three things were

  • What was the right time to begin everything?
  • Who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid?
  • What was the most important thing to do?

He proclaimed that the ones who give the right answers shall be rewarded. Many learned people attempted to answer the king’s questions, but they all came up with different answers. The king decided that he needed to ask a wise hermit in a nearby village. The hermit would only see common people, however, so the king put on common dress, left his guards behind, and went to see the hermit. The hermit was digging flower beds when the king arrived. The king asked his questions, but the hermit went on digging. The king offered to dig for him for a while. After digging for some time, the king again asked his questions. Before the hermit could answer, a man emerged from the woods. He was bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The king tended to him, and they stayed the night in the hermit’s hut. By the next day the wounded man was doing better, but was incredulous at the help he had received. The man confessed that he knew who the king was, and that the king had executed his brother and seized his property. He had come to kill the king, but the king’s guards had wounded him. The man pledged allegiance to the king, and he went on his way. The king asked the hermit again for his answers, and the hermit responded that he had just had his questions answered.

  • The most important time is NOW. The present is the only time over which we have power.
  • The most important person is whoever you are with.

The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.


Speaker – Mark Harris on Social Action

 Religious liberals commonly think of faith the same way that Mark Twain did. Twain once wrote,   “There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” This is what UU theologian James Luther Adams also affirmed about faith, thinking of it as the acceptance of something that “puts a strain on the intelligence.”   Adams also said that faith often means the acceptance of some belief simply because a church, a state, or a party demands it. St. Ignatius Loyola once said, “We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”   Faith then seems to mean obedience to a truth which we are not allowed to question. In this context, there seems to be no question but that faith belongs with the more orthodox churches or believers than with us. Or does it?

Adams says this would be a mistake to assume that faith dies when traditional belief dies. He says our world is bursting with faiths, each one hollering for our allegiance. Every politician says believe my truth and follow me. Adams concludes that history is not the struggle between religion and irreligion, but a battle of faiths, answered when we assert which god will claim our allegiance. Some have given their allegiance to an evil faith, like Nazism, one that believes in the superiority of a certain race. Today we look and wonder which faith is mine? Is it an ideological Americanism or consumerism, or faith in science or democracy or multi-culturalism? We all place our confidence, Adams says, in something. When we find what we give our deepest loyalty to, we have found our religion, regardless of what church we attend or what creed we mouth.

Thus, a social action Sunday inevitable asks of the church community, which faith shall be mine? As free people we ask, what do I have faith in, and what should I serve? Adams says there are three elements of liberal faith. He says we must have faith in that God or life process greater than ourselves that gives us being and gives us freedom. It is that power in history which works towards creating human good in human community. The second tenet of this faith is that we are only fulfilled in faith when we stand in right relation to each other, where we together create societies where humans can fulfill their potential. We must have cooperative effort for the common good. The third tent of faith requires the power of organization and the organization of power.   This has been the most difficult part of all for religious liberals because our beliefs in freedom and individualism have limited us from joining with others to shape significant societal change to create a just world.

Forming such a community is scary. It is one thing to collect food for the hungry, or serve a meal in a shelter, and quite another to say this system of economic inequality is unjust and needs to change. Some years ago here at First Parish there was some question of how the endowment should be invested. Some felt the highest return was the most important thing because this helped the church budget more. But did that in any way question the ethical practices of the corporations upon which the church depended for income? Did the faith of freedom mean the freedom to invest however we chose? Later the church saw the wisdom in socially responsible investing. Many years ago when I was minister in Palmer, it was not universally accepted that equal marriage was a life affirming family arrangement. When I preached about services of union in 1985, I was attacked by a couple of members of my board. They said this violated their freedom of faith because it meant the congregation was taking an ideological stance. But did their freedom mean freedom to believe in discrimination?   They were using their free faith to conceal injustice. Their faith was in protecting their privilege to marry, and not in creating an inclusive community. Some years ago there was a UU church whose application for membership started, “I understand that, by this act, I am not in any way limiting my freedom either of thought or conscience, nor am I surrendering ideals, convictions, or ways of living which I now value.”   This is freedom, from commitment, not freedom for commitment. So the commitment of the free church must be to join in covenant to create the just and inclusive community.

In our reading today we heard of the king who posed three vital questions – who were the most important people to be with, what the most important thing to do was, and when the best time to do each thing was. A crucial moment in the story occurs when the injured man falls at the king’s feet, bleeding profusely. Bleeding is something we all understand. I had dental surgery this week, and the dental assistant did all she could to stem the flow from my gums. Blood often indicates an injury. It denotes pain. We all know what it means to hurt in that way. We know our vulnerability. It is an easy way for us to relate to others. That could be me. That person needs help. In the story the king and the hermit both knell down to help the injured man. It turns out the man and the king were enemies, and the man had come to kill the king for a past recrimination. Now the king had saved his life. The events led to the answering of the king’s question. The right time is always the present. And the most important person is always the one you are with, and the most important deed is what is done for others.

We may not think of social action as well lived present moments. It is long term hard work to change the world and end discrimination, establish just economic systems, and bring peace among the nations. But it starts in the moment. Maybe with the food collection for the person who wanders the streets cold and hungry. That present moment awareness is what can change us. We truly see another. We see the injury and want to stem the flow of blood. And that moves us not just to apply a band-aid, but to want to seek ways to give real opportunities to people for whom the doors of justice are closed. Today we will hear from two other speakers. Laura will tell us about issues that impact our lives right here in Massachusetts. What about a welcoming hand to immigrants who come from other lands? Amira will tell a personal experience of a life interrupted, altered, and now beginning again. Social action for a congregation is beginning to imagine how we become part of a vision for justice. We start with the person who is right in front of us, and begin to wonder how can more be done to create equal opportunity and justice for all. Mark Twain once said “faith without works” is a risky doctrine. Our faith has always been about making justice manifest in the world. That kind of faith is a believing in something greater calling us to build a beloved community, but that community must move beyond our doors to marshal our collective powers as a congregation. I pray we commit to larger movements for social change working in each present moment on a path to justice.


Closing Words – from Howard Thurman, adapted

I confess my own inner confusion as I look out upon the world.

There is food for all, yet many are hungry.

There are clothes enough for all, yet many are in rags.

There is room enough for all, yet many are crowded.

There are none who want war, yet preparations for conflict abound.

Let Thy light burn in me that I may,

From this moment on,

Take effective steps within my own powers,

To live up to the light and courageously to pay for the kind of world I so deeply desire.


Meditation – adapted from Lindi Ramsden

Blessed are you who have open hearts, who can listen, you will hear with compassion the stories of others lives.


Blessed are you who can question your own assumptions and have an open mind; you will receive new insights beyond your imagining.


Blessed are you who stand up for what is right; you will not be alone, for your courage will inspire others to rise.


Blessed are you who build friendships as well as justice; even when you lose an issue, you will have strengthened the foundation of your community.


Blessed are you who agitate the placid waters of complacency; you will create waves in the inertia of privilege, and will know the thrill of riding the surf of change.


Blessed are you who do not demonize others; you will more fully understand yourself, and others, too.


Blessed are you who study the rhythms of history; you will have knowledge with which to shape the future.


Blessed are you who work with others rather than in principled isolation; you will meet great people, learn things you didn’t realize you needed to know, and have partners for the journey when you are in need.


Blessed are you who will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; you will see progress in your lifetime.


Blessed are you with an active spiritual life; you will find perspective and comfort in times of loss and betrayal, and will rise without cynicism to meet the challenges of a new day.


Blessed are you who live from a place of gratitude; for you will know the meaning of Life.