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Sunday, November 4, 2012

What is Set in Stone?

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration with Ken Redd, Worship Associate and the Choir

What is Set in Stone?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

November 4, 2012

Don’t know what the neighbors thought on Friday, my writing day. Never have I worked on a sermon with Bruce Springsteen’s music blaring through the house! “Born in the USA” … (pianist plays the chorus)…

“Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand. Sent me off to a foreign land… Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong. They’re still there, he’s all gone.”

You see, this sermon was won at the 2011 Auction by Jonathan Mawdsley and Mike Stark. Everyone who knows them knows they are Springsteen fans. So, I was not surprised when their suggested topics included:  * The music of Bruce Springsteen - a UU perspective.

From that 1984 Born in the USA cd, The Boss (as his fans call him) sings in another song, “I had a job, I had a girl. I had something going, mister, in this world. I got laid off down at the lumber yard. Our love went bad, times got hard. Now I work down at the carwash, where all it ever does is rain. Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”

Bruce Springsteen’s is hard-driving, raise up the folks who are down kind of music. I love it. I love the beat. But it’s not my story. It’s a guy’s story, a white working class kind of guy, who had a tough childhood, crappy high school, shipped off to ‘Nam, can’t get a job - or a girl - when he returns. Gets in trouble, hits the ground hard.

I love the beat. It’s not my story. But he’s my generation, and there’s something very American about his music. It’s our story. You start with a “lot in life.” It might be tough. You hang in. You try to make something of yourself. But it’s hard. But the American Dream is out there for all to try to achieve.

Yet another song from 1984, “The times are tough now. Just getting tougher. This old world is rough. It’s just getting rougher.” That was 1984 and the times have been tough again for many people since the financial collapse of 2008, and Springsteen still identifies with the people who are struggling. He’s been traveling the country with his new CD  “Wrecking Ball” and giving interviews. But he puts forward a clearer analysis of why we’re in the mess we’ve been in and some of the songs have a more spiritual feel to them than they did in 1984.

He even allowed The New Yorker to run one of their typically-long articles about him last summer. It explored his history, musically and psychologically, via interviews with him, ex and current band members, among whom is his wife. I was interested to read that they have three children – the oldest just graduated from Boston College last spring and the youngest started at Bard College this fall, while the middle one is at Duke. A rock star with a long-time spouse and kids, and plenty of money to have two in college at once for numerous years.  A family man! http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/07/30/120730fa_fact_remnick

Springsteen explained who he is trying to reach with his music and how he hopes it helps them, “You are isolated, yet you desire to talk to somebody. You are very disempowered, so you seek impact, recognition that you are alive and that you exist. We hope to send people out of the [the concert] with a slightly more enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally. You empower them a little bit, they empower you. It’s all a battle against the futility and the existential loneliness! It may be that we are all huddled together around the fire and trying to fight off that sense of the inevitable. That’s what we do for one another.” Sounds to me a lot like what we try to do in worship at PBUUC!

Before I tell you Mike and Jonathan’s other suggested sermon topics, let me offer a bit of shameless (but not self) promotion:  the 2012 Auction is this Saturday evening, November 10th, from 4 to 6 pm for the silent auction and 6 to 9 pm for dinner, the sometimes hilarious vocal auction, and entertainment by our talented musicians and dancers.  I attended myself for the first time last year. Though not much of a bidder, I had a great time. It is our only large fundraiser for the year, so I will be donating another sermon. Today after the service in the foyer you will find the auction booklet listing the options for your bidding, ticket sales for the catered dinner, and auction leaders who will accept your offers to help out that day.

So, our auction sermon winners gave me a choice: 

* The music of Bruce Springsteen - a UU perspective, or:
* The philosophy of Ayn Rand and its influence in US political life, as seen from a UU perspective, or:
* The causes and consequences of the recent global financial meltdown, observed from a UU moral/ethical perspective.

Because they waited until two months ago to tell me what I’d be preaching on, I told them in an immediate reply, “My first reaction is that any one of these would require more study than I have time for, but then I recall your winning bid was pretty significant...”

Well, what do you know but I got a sheepish reply from Jonathan, acknowledging the delay, adding “For what it's worth, there are a couple of themes running through the items in our list that seem as though they would be worth discussing from a UU perspective.  First is the concept that philosophical ideas actually matter.  In her lifetime Ayn Rand was a major influence on Alan Greenspan [who was, let me add, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve- the most powerful Central Bank in the world]; and her writings have also helped inspire the modern Tea Party.  Some writers have even connected her anti-government, strongly individualist rhetoric with the policy changes implemented by Greenspan and others that primed the global financial system for a meltdown.  Second, I also think it's worth acknowledging that music matters, as a tool for confronting social injustices and building larger social movements.  Bruce Springsteen has made a career of echoing the sentiments of working-class people who are struggling to cope with larger societal changes that are being driven in many cases by changes in the global financial system that they cannot control.”

I think they could have preached this sermon themselves!

First, I had to find out how to pronounce the author’s name:  it’s not Ann; it’s I-ne, rhyming with “fine.” I learned that she made up her first and last names before she left Russia, where she was born in 1905, and that her given name was Alisa Rosenbaum. She emigrated to the US in 1927, quickly obtained an extension on her visa and moved to Los Angeles where she worked in the theater industry - acting, playwriting and screenwriting - and was married within two years of her arrival. She is best known for two novels, a philosophy she called “Objectivism,” and an institute bearing her name founded by early followers to “promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience.” According to the Ayn Rand Institute website, she and her husband, an artist, Frank O’Connor, “chose not to have children.” He died in 1979; she in 1982.

Never having read Ayn Rand’s novels, I had only a vague impression of her until last summer when my husband presciently suggested, “You know, we really ought to read Ayn Rand. Her philosophy is having a strong influence on American politics right now.” I retorted, “Oh, come on, Americans don’t read philosophy!” So he informed me that one of the possible nominees for Vice President on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan, told reporters that he requires his staff to read her novels. I fact-checked it and it’s true, Ryan did say that. Too bad I hadn’t gotten going on the reading last summer, when I had more time. But we did watch the 1959 television interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace. And more recently I watched a speech she gave in 1981, the year before she died, to a group of businessmen. http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=reg_ar_sanction

In that speech, she called for a philosophical movement from the right, to counter the philosophies of altruism and collectivism that had ascended in American politics, undermining capitalism and even, she pointedly complained to her audience, infiltrating the minds of businessmen. She also declared her support of abortion rights as well as disdain for the Equal Rights Amendment (go figure!); opposition to use of force; hostility toward the Moral Majority, because it wanted to force its religious views on others; and her dislike for then-President Reagan who she said “believes in a mixed economy, not capitalism” and is mistakenly “turning for inspiration to what she called the ‘God-family-tradition swamp.’”

From a Unitarian Universalist perspective, then, her views are a mixed bag. But, bottom line, I cringed when I heard her say, “altruism is a monstrous notion” and likened it to the “morality of cannibals devouring one another” because it requires sacrifice of oneself for others. In our seven Principles of UUism, we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and that includes ourselves, so we don’t support self-harming behaviors, but we also see how connected we are to one another, other living things and the earth and give of our time, talents and money in ways that are not directly for our own benefit. Our Principles also call for “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” which may require altruistic actions for the collective good. Clearly, if she knew about Unitarian Universalists, she would disdain us, too!

It seems to me that the philosophical movement Ayn Rand wanted to see had already begun and has done well since she died. Although she would object to the fact that it is linked with a religious identity similar to that of the Moral Majority, it has achieved dominance. The Tea Party is its popular face of late, but for a long time it has been working at many levels, from many angles, to achieve power for the very elite of her capitalist system, nearly invisibly, nearly without objection (at least until Occupy Wall Street).

Meanwhile the voters keep busy arguing and organizing on social issues while they have steadily achieved key gains in tax reform, deregulation, more access for lobbyists – all of which contributed to the financial meltdown in 2008— and then, to top it all off – in the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision Citizens United – giving First Amendment protections to corporations and unions allowing them even greater influence in the campaign season, as we have been seeing. So, more and more money is required to run for office and to pay for lobbyists, limiting who can run and who has influence after the election. This is true of both parties. Our democracy has been corrupted. (Just look at Question 7 – apparently, the campaigns both for and against it are funded by competing casino companies, with more spent than on a gubernatorial election!)

This cycle is self-perpetuating, sure to result in continued increasing wealth and political power for the superrich and diminishing well-being and political power for most of the rest of us.

Our democracy is not set in stone! It must be cultivated.

Is voting a waste of time, then? NO! Especially not this year – look at the social issues on the ballot in Maryland – let’s not squander all the arguing and organizing we’ve been doing by losing on these issues in the popular vote, and let’s elect candidates who support them too.

But while we work on social issues we care about, let us not be blind to the fact that the 0.01% can use these causes as a smoke screen behind which the very foundation of our democracy is being washed away in a storm surge of money. Meanwhile racial disparities widen and the earth heats up – increasingly frequent violent weather incidents call our attention to these facts.

A corrupted democracy is a violation of our Fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle: the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  It will take another philosophical movement, with smart efforts on many levels, from many angles, to reverse these trends and achieve power and improved standards of living for the rest of us who aren’t the very elite.

One angle must be in election reform:  to institute instant-run off voting in place of our winner take all system. It allows true participation by third, fourth and more parties by giving the voter the opportunity to indicate first, second and third choice candidates. So, if you vote for the Green or Libertarian Party candidate, for example, if your candidate doesn’t get a plurality of votes, your second-choice candidate gets your vote. This change will dislodge our stultifying two-party system.

Another angle must be campaign finance reform:  right now, all aspects of the advertising industry make huge profits in every election cycle, and fundraising becomes a major focus of every elected official, leaving too much of the policy-making to the aides and lobbyists. Solutions may include public campaign financing, campaign season cost regulations, and more. 

As Springsteen sang, “The times are tough now. Just getting tougher. This old world is rough. It’s just getting rougher.” But also he sang, “I’ll wait for you, and if I should fall behind, wait for me.” Whether due to Superstorm or pink slip, we rally round those who fall behind.

So, we need musicians, like he said, and houses of worship such as ours, “that will connect with those who are isolated and disempowered” and “send people out of the building with an enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally. You empower them a little bit, they empower you, we empower each other.”

And we wait up for the ones who fall behind. We wait up for each other in love and hope, in celebration of the life we share, renewing our spirits by opening ourselves to the forces that create and uphold life. Amen

Closing Words

Borrowing from the words of Wordsworth sung by the choir earlier:

Let us NOT lay waste our powers in getting and spending,

nor give our hearts away like a sordid boon.

Let us see in Nature all that is ours-

The sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, let us be in tune;

Open to that which renews our spirits,

The forces that create and uphold life.


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