Today I delivered a sermon at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS. The text of my sermon is below, but as sermons often make reference to readings, I have included the readings too:
The first reading came from episode 3.5 of Route 66, a TV show from the early 60s:
First some context for this reading – Route 66 was a TV show in the early 60s, in which an Ivy League grad, Todd Stiles, traveled around the US in his blue Corvette Stingray with a streetwise guy with a beat sensibility, Buz Murdock. When Buz takes time to help a rather non-descript guy lacking confidence, Todd doesn’t get Buz’ persistence, and he asks him why. This is Buz’ answer:
“I don’t know. I don’t really dig it myself.
Every one of us is born into solitary confinement. We spend the rest of our lives sending out an SOS we hope to heaven someone else will hear.
This little guy – well, he’s coming in, clear as a bell.”
from “Voice at the End of the Line” Route 66: Episode 3.5
The second reading came from a book by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
“A Cup of Tea”
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The third (reading) was a song, “For Real,” by Bob Franke. Though I cannot replicate the wonderful performance of Jim Crist and Larry Beekman at the church, here is a link to Franke himself singing the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xqTWDSGe9U
And now the sermon itself:
“Being Hear: a Beat, a Bishop, and a Buddhist”
We are, every one of us is, born into solitary confinement. There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life. Both of those statements ring true to me; they resonate deeply, and have resonated for over half a century. I was about 8 when the dreadful apprehension of existential loneliness hit me, as I waited on friends to come out and play. It came in a flash – the realization that I could never fully know another’s experience, nor they know mine. It is something many of us may be feeling here today – a sense of disconnection, of isolation. When it hit, the realization came as a big shock and dazed me for a moment. I felt profoundly alone, trapped in my own body, no welcome feeling to someone with a touch of claustrophobia. I didn’t share that moment or revelation with my folks, my brother, my teachers, not even the parish priest. At 8, I lacked the language to communicate such a feeling. And I didn’t share it with my friends, that day or any other – what would other 8 year olds think of it? I was pretty sure they wouldn’t get it. So I kept quiet. Lest you think I spent the rest of that year, month or even day, in some sort of zombie-like trance – I didn’t. My mind turned to play that day, soon after my friends joined me, and that summer, well, maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox were going to have a winning season.
Yet, as a Unitarian Universalist, I also have a sense of connexion, of the Interdependent Web of all Existence, or which I am, and we are, a part. This serves as a powerful counterbalance to the sense of loneliness that never fully goes away. It is my brain and my eyes which see me as apart from the world, but my Universalist heart tells me I am a part of the world, if only I can hear its call to communion. And that call I often hear, here in this place, in this community, and I hear it now.
The urgent cry from another, the SOS Buz Murdock spoke of — that I think I can hear as well as anyone. Then, I go into meerkat mode; my spider-sense starts tingling. I’m not alone in being able to hear a compelling call of distress and in responding. I imagine the same is true of everyone here. That’s great, but somehow that’s not enough. I feel a need to cultivate a better sense of hearing, to get better at listening to others.
One of my listening heroes was a children’s librarian in the Onondaga County Public Library system in Syracuse, NY, Cynthia Bishop. She was and is a great storyteller. We came to be great friends through story. She once told me a story about something that happened to her at work; I wasn’t listening well. Oh, I heard the words, I got the story’s plot, but I missed signals she was sending, and I found something humorous as I visually processed the story, and I laughed. That was a misstep, a misstep that almost cost me an important friendship. She was graceful, however, and agreed to work with me on rebuilding our friendship. In the discussions that followed she said something which hit me like the words Buz Murdock spoke, and answered my own truth flash at 8. She said that, as she saw it, we “listen one another into existence.”
Physically, of course, this is not so. But we are not just our biology; we are also the we we create in the stories we tell. Our narrative we –our dreams, our fears, our beliefs – is something more than just our genetic inheritance. It is something we create or share in creating. And when our narrative selves and our stories are not heard, we see that part of us die a little. The link to community is frayed, maybe broken for a while, and we feel that existential solitary confinement Buz spoke of. Our prison walls close in, and we feel trapped even to the point of despair.
As Unitarians, even more so as Universalists, we know that respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of which we are a part is a principle we avow, and to which we pledge ourselves. This sense of connection suggests an alternate way – a way out of our prisons, a way to join others beyond our walls. One way of tearing down the walls that separate us, of reaching past our prison cells and helping others to do the same, of becoming aware of the interdependent web, and even of enhancing it, is to listen, to listen each other into existence and into freedom.
But listening can be hard. A lot of our education, and we, as a denomination, pride ourselves on being an educated people, is geared to categorizing, labeling, and filing information. Our learning is designed to hone our senses and our brains so we naturally filter out all sorts of things. As we get older these habits get stronger, so we see no truth, hear no voice beyond the system our training has created. We become like the professor in the Zen story. As a renowned scholar proud of his knowledge, he had come to Japan to learn about Zen, but as Nan-in demonstrates – with a mind full of junk and preconceptions and Western truths, there’s no room to learn Zen – first he had to empty his cup, to let go of his preconceptions, and to listen with open mind and loving heart.
I was formed as an educated person by 10 years of Jesuit education. There were lots of things I learned from the Jesuits, but their training made me a debater, a rhetorician. Debaters don’t always listen to opposing views – they listen for weaknesses in argument; they aim to win. In the contest of an actual debate, this is good strategy, but winning an argument on points is no way to build relationships; it’s no way to proclaim love, to build a loving world; it’s no way to listen one another into existence.
Pride, too, and certainty can get in the way. As I grew up, the nuns and the priests repeatedly reminded me that the Roman Catholic Church was the “true religion.” Well, it certainly strokes one’s ego, to hear that one is part of “the true religion,” “the true faith.” But such pride and such certainty lead to closing our ears to the truths of other faiths, other religions. In extreme cases, it can lead us to view those of different traditions, of a different ethnicity, of different backgrounds as “the other;” and we only reinforce the walls of our fortress (or prison), cut ourselves off from others, and relegate everyone to solitary confinement. In 2016 I think we’ve seen just where such thinking leads, to an us v. them mindset. There is a reason that pride stands atop the list of seven deadly sins. It cuts us off from connection; it cuts us off from love. Such pride and such certainty is not the sole property of the Catholic Church.
Fear, too, plays its part. When I was a kid, if I didn’t want to hear something, I sometimes would stick my fingers in my ears and start babbling loudly. If I only made enough noise, I wouldn’t have to hear an uncomfortable truth. As a rhetorically trained adult, I’ve done and sometimes still do the same thing, but now I use words as barriers or weapons, keeping other views out, to avoid something I fear may change me, or my world. The walls get thicker, and higher, and I feel no safer, just a lot more cut off.
We are now in the midst of the holidays. This is a time when we can feel all the lonelier, even in a crowd of friends and family. It’s a time when we offer up thanks, and opinions, and, sometimes, things are said that wound, or we remember all those wounds we’ve suffered from others. Fearing we haven’t been understood, that others don’t get our narrative selves, we may shout all the louder. They are likely to do the same. In such a situation, even if we feel we’ve won, with superior logic, and well-marshalled points, we’ll feel wrong. Winning the argument is no good if it cuts us off from community, or results in shutting our neighbors down, or boxing them in. To build our beloved community, a community we see that we need, here and abroad in the world, we must listen to the “voice at the end of the line,” and weave our web together.
It will be a challenge, but we face challenges. Though something of loneliness remains –there is “a hole in the middle of the prettiest life” – let us not obsess about that “hole,” or the distance that separates us, but rather let us focus on the greater whole of which each one of us is a part, and work together at weaving a stronger web of connection.