What is Faith?
January 20, 2013
Call to Worship – Theodore Parker
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe;
The arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways;
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight;
I can divine it by conscience.
And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Reading – “The Low Road” by Marge Piercy
What can they do to you?
Whatever they want..
They can set you up, bust you,
they can break your fingers,
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember.
they can take away your children,
wall up your lover;
they can do anything you can’t stop them doing.
How can you stop them?
Alone you can fight, you can refuse.
You can take whatever revenge you can
But they roll right over you.
But two people fighting back to back
can cut through a mob
a snake-dancing fire
can break a cordon,
termites can bring down a mansion
Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music.
Thirteen makes a circle,
a hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity
and your own newsletter;
ten thousand community
and your own papers;
a hundred thousand,
a network of communities;
a million our own world.
It goes one at a time.
It starts when you care to act.
It starts when you do it again
after they say no.
It starts when you say we
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
Have you ever gone into a situation not knowing how it might work out? Think hard about it. We usually know what to expect when we go through our daily lives. We are hardwired to pre-judge a situation. We make those prejudgments based on previous experience of how things have gone in the past. We anticipate what will happen, and most of the time those anticipations are correct.
For instance, going through a drive thru. You pull up to the loud speaker, place your order, pull up to window #1 to pay, then proceed to window #2 to pick up your purchase … or, in super-organized places, you pay and pick up at the same window.
That’s how it goes. That’s the plan.
Well, what if you pulled up to the window, cash or debit card in hand, and were told that your order had already been paid for?
This is what happened at the Tim Horton’s drive thru in Winnepeg, Connecticut last month. Around ten o’clock in the morning a customer decided to pay for the order in the car behind him, and the next person did the same, and the next, and the next … the chain went on for three hours. All in all, 228 people “paid it forward!!!” It was all over the news, and an amazing chain of kindness.
The idea of doing something nice if someone does something nice for you is pretty basic. But, this idea of paying it forward to a third person is different. Most often, the idea of paying it forward comes from a popular movie called “Pay it Forward.” In the movie, which is based on a novel by the same name, a young boy starts a project where he does three random acts of kindness for people and then instructs them to pay it forward to a third party. It’s a ripple effect.
Now there is a bit of a difference between the idea in the movie, and what occurred at the Tim Horton’s. First, the idea of paying it forward doesn’t require that each person enacts the same act of kindness that was enacted on them, though they certainly may. So, if someone pays your bill, you aren’t required to pay for another person’s, for instance.
The second difference is the element of peer pressure. I can’t help but admit that when I first read about this story at the Tim Horton’s I wondered why the person in the 229th car didn’t pay it forward! I mean, isn’t that a little rude to stop a chain that had been going on for three hours? Maybe the person in the 229th car only had enough money for their meal, and the car behind them was buying all of the coffee for the office holiday party!
And then I realized that maybe they did pay it forward, just not by paying for the car behind them. So, maybe later that day #229 helped someone with a flat tire, when they could have driven past. Or maybe they cooked a dinner for a neighbor who they know is often alone. And we will never know. We will never know whether the act of kindness was paid forward that day.
Paying it forward is an act of faith. It is taking the chance on something without knowing how it will work out. It’s putting trust in another human being that they might continue to contribute in a loving and caring way. There is some risk in that act of faith, and sometimes things won’t work out as planned. But that’s part of the power of the idea.
People will often ask about the idea of faith and how it works within Unitarian Universalism. They wonder what motivates us to do good things or to be good people if we don’t have hell to reckon with. And they wonder how we can consider ourselves as people of faith if we don’t have a common creed. But perhaps what is more difficult to understand is what, exactly, do we worship? If you are going to be a person of faith, don’t you have to have faith in something? Doesn’t there need to be a concrete idea that you all agree on, like God, for instance?
And this is where I usually get tripped up, because this idea of faith is a hard one. Having been raised Unitarian Universalist, I’ve never been taught that faith has to be in something concrete, nameable, or even the same as my neighbor. It’s one of the things I love most about this religion: the openness for an expansive and ever-changing faith. Because even though I am a planner, and I try to anticipate what might happen in a given situation, my faith lies in the unknown element. It lies in the mystery and the aspect of that situation over which I have little to no control. I can’t control whether that person will pay forward my good deed. That good deed doesn’t guarantee me a spot in heaven, for instance. I can’t control whether a person I let into the line of traffic during rush hour will do the same, or whether she will go on to cut another car off. But, I can do these things with faith that something good might happen as a result in this world.
When I left my job as a counselor to enter this path to ministry, my wife Susan bought me a little wooden sign. It was just as I was applying to seminary. The sign says, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase,” which is a quote by Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We can’t control the whole staircase; we can’t even know what it will look like. The path might be steep or shallow, it might be winding and spiraling, and we can never know. That is faith … it is in taking that first step anyway.
We are called to be active participants in our faith. This seems to be what draws a lot of people to Unitarian Universalism: our active nature. Yes, we like to have conversations about ideas and think about things, but we also like to get out the door and do something! Take, for instance, our involvement with the Boston Food Bank or the Friday Night Supper Club, or when our youth attend Conferences in the district, or when a group of us go to Boston Pride. Many of our members are active in community organizations that work for more just and equitable conditions in the greater Watertown community. We live out our faith every day, or at least we try to. This is not a faith that only requires something from us one day a week.
Unitarian Universalism is an active faith that calls us to actively use our minds, spirits, and hearts for justice, equity and compassion for all. And in some ways, that is not a unique characteristic of our faith. Most of the world’s religions call their followers to do the same. But, I’ve always felt a difference in the expansive ways we actively engage. Our congregations have been pioneers in the fights for green initiatives, rights for people with disabilities, the GLBT rights movement, immigration reform, and fair compensation for workers across this globe. As Dr. King once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We, as Unitarian Universalists, believe this to be true.
Perhaps this is why the message of Dr. King resonates so powerfully within our movement. He called for us to work together toward a greater future, one of equality and justice, and one that would not know race as an obstacle. Dr. King was a leader of a movement, and he was also a minister. His message comes from a place of faith, and it’s based in the message of love. Dr. King’s dream was a vision of a promised land, and of a beloved community. Some might say that we have reached that dream, as school’s became desegregated by law, fairer hiring policies were passed, and as we witnessed the election of this nation’s first president of color – twice!
And yet, we know that we do not live in a colorblind world. Race is still a source of division in this society, if not legally so, but in attitude and opportunity. Things are better than they once were, yes. But that hardly means our work is complete.
So what is good enough? Are we satisfied with the level of equality we’ve achieved in this country, or can we do better? Will the kinks in the armor just work themselves out? I’m not so sure they will. No, we don’t have slavery in the same way we once did as a nation, but we certainly have unfair labor practices and inequity of opportunity when it comes to the world of work. We don’t legally have segregated schools but we still have a large division between them and a canyon of difference between the opportunities afforded students of color and white students. And so, I’m not so sure that Dr. King’s dream has been realized just yet. When he dreamed of a world where his children would grow to be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character, I’m not sure our present is what he had in mind. We still have work to do.
This morning’s call to worship was words from Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. He speaks of the arc of the universe ultimately bending toward justice. This quote is displayed on a carpet in the Oval Office at the White House. There, the quote is attributed to Martin Luther King, but he actually borrowed it from Parker. The words ring true. The arc of the universe does bend toward justice, but as people of faith we are called to help in that bending. Schools weren’t desegregated all by themselves, there had to be a struggle to make it so. Little Ruby Bridges, who went to school that day by herself, was the only student in the school. It was just Ruby and her white teacher. The other students had been pulled from school by their parents. But slowly, the other students returned, and more black students came, and Ruby’s school became more and more integrated. There had to be changes in policy, which were fueled by energy from groups of people, which were made up of individuals who believed in a better world and a message of love.
What has always inspired me about the Civil Rights movement, and even about that time in our nation’s history in general, is the sense of urgency. The passion for peace, for mutual understanding, and for justice. There seemed to be so much energy for change … now … not later, or when it’s more convenient … but now. But that sense of urgency for peace and compassion and teamwork, usually emerges because of push back in the other direction. It emerges amongst mistreatment, hate, fear, and oppression. Often those two forces are very separate, with this group on this side, and this group on the other. But sometimes there is a blurring of the lines.
Many UU ministers were active in the Civil Rights movement, and some even marched with Dr. King to Selma. A young white minister named James Reeb was killed during that march. A few years later, tension continued to build about the issue of race and how racial equity would be achieved within Unitarian Universalism. In the late sixties, there was a group of African American UUs who felt very strongly that there was a need for them to have a forum in which to express themselves, without the presence of their white counterparts. The UUA, having been newly formed as a merged organization, felt pretty strongly that they should have no segregation within their programming. This meant no group that excluded a person’s membership because of their race, whether black or white.
What resulted was an argument over what was the right way to do things. Now, as a denomination that has congregational polity, we have the ability self-govern. This means that we send delegates, whether ministers or lay people, to the annual General Assembly and they vote on important issues that impact our congregations and the world.
This particular vote in 1969 took place during the General Assembly right here in Boston. There were complicating factors with the budget, and racial tensions were very present in the room. The vote was in favor of reducing funding for the Black Affairs Council, the all African American group. Many of the African American UUs felt hurt and unsupported and this all culminated with 300 African American UUs walking out of the plenary session at General Assembly.
Moments later, The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, a white minister, gave a speech about how he was disappointed in the vote and would also be leaving the assembly. He walked out, and many others followed, led by the entire youth caucus. But many more stayed … they disagreed. Jack found the African American delegates assembled at a local hotel, getting ready to leave and give up all their work and he asked them to join him at Arlington Street Church to figure out the next steps. Eventually, Dana Greeley, the UUA president at the time, came to Arlington Street and the delegates who had walked out returned the next day. The funding decision was changed in an effort to compromise. It was a heated and tumultuous time, and the walkout and controversy resulted in many congregations simply not talking about race again.
We have this tendency, I think, to think of history in a romanticized way. I wish that I could tell you that Unitarian Universalism has always stood on the side of love. I wish that I could tell you that every white single person within our movement was in support of those African American delegates in 1969. But, the reality is that this is just simply not true. As The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “we do not stand above the social attitudes of our times, as we are prone to believe, but instead flounder about in their midst with everyone else.”
And so it is now, some congregations wrestle with becoming Welcoming congregations to people from all sexual orientations and gender identities. Other congregations wrestle with whether the money is worth it to become fully accessible to people with disabilities. And still, other congregations are split about issues of immigration, race, and rights. We are stumbling and floundering with everyone else about these important and complicated issues.
And all of this wrestling, and discussion, and conversation are based in faith. This is our faith in action. There are different ways to tackle the social ills and issues of our times. One way is to march, and protest, and demonstrate. Another is to talk, and listen, and seek understanding. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but are complementary. Both offer the opportunity to learn and grow and make a difference. Both challenge our assumptions, our prejudgments, and our stereotypical tendencies.
My friends, the first step toward building the beloved community is about thinking differently every day. It’s about thinking reflectively about how this world works, how we benefit from the social systems that exist, and how we are harmed. The first step is about taking a moment of pause when we make a snap judgment, and thinking about why we think that way. The first step is about talking with one another about our life experiences in a way that opens the door for mutual learning and understanding. It’s about starting that conversation with a person we perceive to be different from us in some way. The first step is doing the right thing, even when no one else is watching, and even when we won’t get the kudos for it. The first step is about paying it forward, with our time, our effort, and our love. It’s about joining our hearts and minds with others who share our passion, to make a difference in our present and in our future.
The first step is a step of faith, and it’s the only one we can ever take. May we take that step together. Amen. Blessed be.