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Sunday, August 18, 2013

So, How Are You?

Presented by Reverend Diane Teichert, Minister, with John Sebastian, Worship Associate


So, How Are You?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

August 18, 2013

 

PART ONE

A colleague tells the story about the morning after her father died, following three days and nights of an around-the-clock vigil with her siblings, when she went to the grocery store to buy what they needed for dinner.

At the check-out counter, when the clerk distractedly said, ‘How are you?’ her brain went blank. She couldn’t muster ‘fine’ or even ‘okay.’ She wasn’t okay. She says she wasn’t even in her right mind. She was numb, sleep-deprived, and saturated with the mystery of mortality.

To her horror, she found herself blurting out a real and honest answer.  ‘I’m not so good. My father died last night.’

With his hands filled with her groceries, the poor clerk turned red and started to stammer. The people behind her looked longingly at the check-out lines they should have chosen, the ones that would not have placed them in earshot of the too-much-information lady. And she was mortified.

Everyone froze in the uncomfortable moment. Everybody except the young man bagging groceries, who had Down’s syndrome. He stopped bagging, looked at her, and with a little slur and great emphasis said, ‘I bet you feel really sad about that.’

The simplicity of his expression of kindness and solidarity allowed both her and the clerk to move again. ‘Yes, I do. Thank you,’ she said to the bagger, and was able to walk out with her groceries and not feel quite so much like she had undressed in public.

The young man bagging the groceries would be considered disabled in thought, speech, and movement. Yet he was the only one able to offer what counted in that particular moment. He knew how to give a blessing.” (Rev. Kathleen McTigue in Shine and Shadow: Meditations, Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011; pages 3-4).

Had my colleague not blurted out that real and honest answer, she would not have received that blessing. She would have left the grocery store as distracted by and alone in her feelings as when she arrived. Instead, she headed home, feeling heard, understood, and supported.

Our worship Associate today, John Sebastian, said in his Chalice Reflection that in AA meetings, people actually want to hear each other’s answers to the question, “How are you today?” He feels that way in our community, too. If he asks, it’s because he really wants to know the truth and offer a truthful response if asked.

But what if you don’t know how you feel? What if you are here, even paying attention, but are actually out of touch with where you’re at in the moment? What if you’re here but more in touch with hurts from the past? What if you’re here, but more in touch with anticipations for the future? What if you’re here but really haven’t dug any deeper into your thoughts and feelings than what it took just to get here today? Did you even notice what you passed on the way? What if you’re here, but not really present?! How will you know what to say if someone asks, “How are you today?”

For myself, I know that many of the times I’ve messed up in my interactions with others, it was because I was out of touch with myself in the moment. Being out of touch with ourselves makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to be truly in touch, truthfully, with another person.

Say, you have a serious illness but haven’t told anyone. Or, say you have a serious illness and you’ve told people you have it, but not how scared of the future you are because of it. There is going to be a superficiality, perhaps even a falseness, in your interactions. And your own under-the-surface anxiety may well pop up in an anxious, overly critical, needy, unjustly angry or otherwise unhelpful response to someone about something mostly or completely unrelated. And, most importantly, you will deprive yourself of many blessings.

Also, since there is not one among us who had a perfect childhood or was raised in a flawless culture without prejudices – if only because among humans there is no such thing as perfection – each of us has one or more issues, deficiencies, challenges, call them whatever you want – that get in the way of knowing ourselves fully and interacting with others in the ways we would wish at our best. And, we all, at one time or another, just do something stupid, having little recognizable connection to any issue, deficiency or challenge – we just do things we ought not!

In religious community, in a place like this, we have the chance to not only ask and answer the question “How are you today?” truthfully, we even have the opportunity to mess up, fess up, forgive ourselves and be forgiven. Even if such fessing up and forgiving has never happened for us in our families of origin or choice, it can happen here. As the great (and only well-known) Unitarian Universalist twentieth-century theologian, James Luther Adams, once said, “church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.”

 

HYMN # 1037  We Begin Again in Love.

Please find in our teal songbook, #1037, and remain seated. In this song, there is a line for you to sing, in between the lines that I will read. David will play your part once now so you can hear it. Then we will practice it once. And then we will begin the song. I will read the first line aloud. After it and after all my subsequent lines, you will sing your part, holding the last note longer the last time you sing it.

 

PART TWO

In the Metta Meditation we did for the Together Time, offering loving kindness toward ourselves came first before offering it to those we love, those we are neutral toward, and especially those who we find difficult. Similarly, in the song, we forgive ourselves and then each other. And Jesus quoted the Hebrew Scriptures (Leviticus 19:18) when he gave the Second Great Commandment (Mark 12:31), “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Self-knowledge and self-love are prerequisites to getting along in the world and with others, but it is SO hard to come by sometimes!

 

I recall some years ago being up in Maine with a long-time friend. Jane and I used to spend a week together every summer. She, being an author of children’s books, would write, and I would do my reading and preparing for worship in the coming year. Many days we would also hike or bike or canoe or swim, and often we would go way off the beaten track. One day, I went out on my bike to explore alone. The paved road gave way to dirt with very few homes on it, but it was bikable and I kept going. At some point, up ahead, I saw a guy in his yard and, being alone, I realized I didn’t feel safe. Should I go ahead and pass him, not knowing if the road would peter out soon and I’d have to turn around and pass him again, or should I turn around here and not worry? I turned around.

 

Later, I told Jane about the experience, and how, generally, if I encounter a man when I’m out biking alone, I feel unsafe. She said she doesn’t tend to feel unsafe, and was pretty sure that in that situation, she would have kept going. Clearly, I feel more vulnerable, even though I’ve never been attacked, and maybe have stronger stereotype-based fear reactions toward men, than she.

 

This hasn’t stopped me from biking alone. I do it often. So, I’ve given thought to the difference between actual threat and feeling unsafe. When I encounter a man on the bike trails around here, I do two things that make me feel more confident:  I speed up, and I say “Hi” with a smile. I figure if I’m going fast nobody will bother me and spreading good will can’t hurt. The alternative, not biking, is scarier to me than feeling briefly scared.

 

This story is not really about biking. It’s about two fairly reasonable, not ignorant, friends with similar values who articulate their feelings and discover they react differently to encountering someone who is different from them.

 

We encountered someone who is different here last winter. For a while, we had a visitor with whom some of us – mostly women – felt unsafe, some uncomfortable, and others felt sympathetic and even embracing. Many were unaware of his presence. But one conversation with him was enough to realize that he had paranoid ideas and did not adhere to common social norms, even while he seemed pleasant enough and was trying to show appreciation to us for accepting him by offering to help us, albeit in ways we didn’t wish to be helped.

 

We – staff and board leaders – took actions to insist that he conform to our norms of behavior and set clear enforceable boundaries for him; meanwhile we identified guardians for him among our Pastoral Care Associates and other members who felt comfortable with him, to extend kindness, reinforce the boundaries as necessary, and provide a buffer for those who felt uncomfortable or unsafe around him. After that, he stopped attending.

 

For those who felt threatened by him, it wasn’t soon enough. For those who felt uncomfortable, there was relief. And, those who had embraced and hoped to help him, worried about him more.

 

Reasonable, not ignorant, people with similar values in the same faith community had reacted quite differently to the same individual, who was a short, older white man with a full white beard and a German accent. Had he been an older Black man, or Muslim, saying and doing the same kinds of things, it is unfortunately likely that more church folks would have felt unsafe or uncomfortable. If so, what would be the appropriate leadership response? To act more quickly, more decisively to ensure members’ comfort and perceived safety?  Or, are we capable of knowing ourselves, assessing our reactions, deciding to live with our fears in order to diminish them, and acting differently as a result?  

 

There is a five-minute YouTube video making the rounds that shows the reactions of unsuspecting, mostly white passersby to a succession of three different young actors - white male, black male, white female – trying (separately) to steal a bicycle chained to a sign along a busy bike trail. While some folks question the young white guy dressed in t-shirt, shorts and backwards baseball cap, most just walk by and nobody calls the police, and he has enough time to try more than one tool, cut the chain and steal the bike. Whereas the young black man, dressed identically, is immediately confronted by numerous people, one of whom calls the cops to report a theft underway. And, the young white woman? Well, several men offer to help her steal the bicycle! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge7i60GuNRg

 

[As I delivered this sermon, many people laughed at the image of a bunch of white guys helping a white woman to steal the bicycle. I merely paused and said, “mmm….” I wish I had then commented something like, “I doubt if they’d have helped if she was a black woman.” and then went on to say something like, “Anyone who still thinks this is a post-racial America after watching this video, needs to watch it again.”]

 

Then, in real life not a video, George Zimmerman encounters, feels threatened by, and kills Trayvon Martin. To me it seems clear that the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida, which gave Zimmerman the right to shoot simply because he felt threatened, has to go. But, what about the feeling of fear based on stereotype? Doesn’t it have to go, too? Can it just go? How able are we to undo our prejudices?

 

We can become more able with opportunities such as the well-attended Conversations On Race offered here by our Diversity Anti-racism Transformation Team this summer. I hope these conversations will continue, because we increase our self-knowledge and understanding of each other through careful conversations, and so will be able to answer increasingly more truthfully the question, So, how are You Today?

 

Even as we commit to the struggle to know ourselves and identify the feelings that spur our personal reactions, so that we can choose to react otherwise, hard as that may be, it’s not enough. Our institutions, systems and culture are powerful external enforcements of our long-standing internal realities, so of course there must be public as well as personal knowledge and change.

 

This coming week, our country acknowledges the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, calling for social and economic equality. While much has changed, there is much still to do and a long way to go. Joining in one of the commemorative marches – this Saturday and the following Wednesday – as described in the insert in your Bulletin or through the media – will reinforce our resolve and create that great feeling of solidarity that empowers us to do the work of change both public and personal.

 

This feeling of solidarity is expressed in many American freedom and labor songs, but in celebration of the life of a hero of our time, the great but now ailing South African leader, Nelson Mandela, we are going to sing a song of the South African Freedom Movement. While much has changed there, too, there is much still to do and a long way to go toward love for self, love for neighbor, and equality, peace and justice for all.

 

Please find “Siph’ Amandla”  in Singing the Living Tradition #172 and rise to sing.

 

Amen.

You can play an MP3 audio file of this sermon by clicking: HERE.

 

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