a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
As we move toward the end of one ministry at HUUC and toward the beginning of another, we may well ask where we are going. One world view says we are self-interested individuals, unconnected and unconcerned with one another. Another says we are connected with one another, and caring for others is fundamental to our existence. The purpose of life, then, is to discover the joy or well-being that both pleases us and blesses our neighbor.
I was the child of two dedicated socialists, who viewed all religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Although such blessings were never said in my own family, saying them with my grandfather felt quite natural to me. At one time I knew many of them by heart, but I have long since forgotten them. What I remember is the importance of blessing life.
- From Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000:
My grandfather was a man of many blessings. These blessings were prescribed generations ago by the great teaching rabbis, and each is considered to be a moment of mindfulness – an acknowledgment that holiness has been met in the midst of ordinary life. Not only are there blessings to be said over food; there are blessings to be said when you wash your hands, when you see the sun rise or set, when something is lost or when it is found, when something begins or ends… My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and he said them all, tipping his black fedora to the Holy many times each day as he dealt with the small details of daily life.
- “Choose to Bless the World,”a poem by Rev. Dr. 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 gifts 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, abandon the door, obscure what is holy, comply with injustice, or withhold love. You must answer the question: What will you do with your gifts? Choose to bless the world.
All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington D.C., was leading an “adult spiritual development class” at the church. One evening he began a session by reading Rebecca Parker’s poem, “Choose to Bless the World.” After he read the poem he asked each person to reflect on the question, “How am I blessing the world?” Then they divided into small groups to talk about it. The class had been meeting together for several weeks, and they knew each other pretty well by then, and they generally spoke freely. Like Unitarian Universalists in most places, they tended to be talkative. But the room was silent.
Hardies realized something was wrong. He asked, “What’s going on? This silence isn’t like you guys.” At first, no one responded. Then someone admitted that the question, “How am I blessing the world?” made them uncomfortable. Some thought it presumptuous to think of themselves as blessing the world. Others admitted guiltily that they really didn’t think that they were a blessing to the world. Still others simply had never looked at their lives that way, and really weren’t sure what this blessing thing was, anyway.
To bless or to curse?
The discomfort these UUs had with seeing themselves as a blessing suggests that there may be a need to talk about how we might be a blessing to the world. After all, why stop at making a class uncomfortable? Why not make a whole congregation uncomfortable? So today I am posing the uncomfortable question Rev. Hardies asked that evening, “How am I blessing the world?” Or maybe we might ask ourselves a simpler question, “Am I blessing the world?”
This is perhaps the fundamental question of a religious life. This question can set the course for our lives. Will my life be based on my own self-centeredness, or will I decide that it is really in my own enlightened self-interest to live a life of compassion, a life that bestows gifts and good tidings and joy? Or will I bully others to get my own way? Will I be a person who walks about the earth without a clue, so wrapped up in myself and my own ego that I don’t see what effect I have on other people? Will gaze at my navel and think only about myself? Or am I concerned about others? To bless or to curse – the question is fundamental.
There are many religious paths. But at least one ideal is cherished in all religious traditions – the ideal of unselfishness. A religious person, a faithful person, is dedicated to others. I am not saying that we can all be saints. There is a church that calls itself “The Latter-Day Saints.” But we do not have God on speed-dial, nor do we claim to be saints.
And I’m certainly not suggesting that I have it all together or have managed to conquer my own self-centeredness. I love to hear myself talk, and sometimes it is difficult to shut me up even when the sermon is over! I’m a better listener than I once was, less ego-driven, but I know I have lots of personal work to do.
Even when we are aware of our faults it can be hard to change. Mahatma Gandhi once said that he had three enemies. His favorite enemy, he said, the one that was the easiest to influence, was the British Empire. He said that his next enemy, much harder to influence, was the people of India. But his third and most difficult enemy, he said, “is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. Over him I have almost no influence at all.” So if even the saintly Gandhi struggled to overcome his faults, we know that there are no perfect people – certainly not us.
Still, our mission as a church is to be a blessing to the world. We have something unusual here. We are the local representatives of Unitarian Universalism, a denomination that affirms the worth and dignity of every person, and respect for the interdependent web of all creation. We promote ethical living, the freedom of religious expression, spiritual growth, the authority of reason and conscience, religious community, the motive force of love – and justice, compassion, fairness and equity. While there are many other good religious folks out there, we have something here that is special and unusual. We have something the world needs – and because of our heritage and promise, we can be a blessing to
Soon I will depart, and you will continue to carry the torch. You are wonderful people, and this congregation is well-led by talented and compassionate lay leaders. I am not the church. You are, and you will continue to be a blessing to this community and to the world.
Making a choice; choosing faithfulness ~
Choosing to bless the world doesn’t mean leaving everything behind, becoming a monk. It merely requires mindfulness, going about our daily lives while paying attention. It means not being wrapped up in ourselves and our own desires all the time. And the benefit of being concerned about others is that it makes it almost certain that our lives will be more rewarding and worthwhile. We are not just learning to be unselfish for the sake of it, we are also confronting the ego – the source of so much of our own pain
I want to leave you with a story, a story from Rachel Naomi Remen. One of our readings this morning was from her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings. Her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. And when she was a little girl, just four years old, her grandfather brought her a present.
Now, he often brought her presents – dolls or books or stuffed animals. Grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren. But this day he brought her a little paper cup with some dirt in it. She was not allowed to play with the dirt. She was disappointed by the cup of dirt, and she told him so. He smiled at her fondly. He put the cup of dirt on the windowsill. Then he took a little teapot from her doll’s tea set and took Rachel to the kitchen where he filled the little teapot with water. Back in the nursery, he told her to pour the water into the cup of dirt. “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something will happen,” he said.
At the time, Rachel was four years old and the whole thing made no sense to her at all. She was skeptical. He was encouraging. And so she promised to water the cup of dirt every day.
For a couple of days, curious to see what would happen, she did not mind watering the dirt. But after a week, when nothing happened, she asked her grandfather if it was time to stop. Shaking his
head no, he told her to keep watering it every day. The second week was even harder, and she became resentful of going to the kitchen with the miniature tea pot, getting water, and watering the dirt. She tried to give the cup of dirt back to her grandfather, but he just said, “Water it every day.”
By the third week she began to forget until she had been put to bed, and then she would get up and water it in the dark. But she never missed a single day.
And then one morning there were two green leaves that had not been there the day before! Astonished, she couldn’t wait to tell her grandfather. It was a few days before Rachel saw her grandfather, and the leaves kept getting bigger and bigger. She couldn’t wait to tell him, certain that he would be just as surprised as she was. But he was not. Carefully he explained to her that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places.
Rachel was delighted. “All it needs is water, Grandpa?” she asked him. “No,” he told her. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”
She says that was perhaps her first lesson in the power of service, although she did not understand it that way then. Her grandfather would not have used those words. He would have said that we need to remember to bless the life around us and the life within us. He would have said that if we remember to bless life, we can repair the world.
Rebecca Parker, the author of the poem we read at the beginning, knew the theologian and philosopher Charles Hartshorne. He was her teacher and mentor. He was elderly then – he lived to be 103, and died not so many years ago.
One spring evening, after a conference on process theology, Hartshorne’s area of expertise, she and another friend were walking with him. He would stop every few feet, cock his head, and listen to a bird’s song or watch its movement in the trees. He would pause to notice the plants, the birds, and to smell the spring air. At his threshold, where they were about to part, he turned around, took their hands in his, and said, “Be a blessing to the world.”
She writes, “One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will be faithful to this charge.”
And, as I get ready to depart, it is my charge to you. Be a blessing to the world. I would not give you this charge unless I believed you can be faithful to it. Choose to bless the world.