Who are you to think you can change the world?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 29, 2001
We Unitarian Universalists are, oftentimes, not the easiest people to corral. Someone once wrote that “Leading a group of Unitarian Universalists is like herding butterflies.” Not the easier thing to do, certainly... Our favorite bumper stickers, no doubt, read: “To question is the answer”. Or, “Honk if you’re not sure.” Or, the ever-popular “Question authority.” As Fred Small has written: “Instead of a bishop, our district...retains a ‘consultant’. We have seven Principles and Purposes that none of us can recite, including me [at least not in order]. [Indeed] Many of us insist that Moses descended from Sinai with a tablet of [not Ten Commandments, but] the Ten Suggestions [instead].”
So, what holds us together, if not the force of outside authority? It’s sure not the fear of punishment for our sins. The old saying from UU history goes: “Universalists believed that God was too good to damn His children, and the Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned.” No, we Universalists got rid of the fear of hellfire and damnation ages ago!
It’s sure not a common theology that binds us together. “If you want three opinions on a particular religious subject, then ask two UUs to give you theirs.”
Here in our church-- and beyond-- in our very humanity, I think, we want to feel that we’re part of something bigger than we are-- “something bigger than you and I”. That something, for most of us, is not to be found in some God off in heaven on a marble throne somewhere. It’s something much more tangible, something much for immanent, based in this life, in this world. Maybe it’s because of our uncertainty, because of our diversity of theological beliefs that we believe so deeply in service as a religious act. Perhaps for us it takes the place of that “something bigger than you and I”.
How do we, in this church, “strive to make our faith come alive”, according to our Mission Statement? Why, “through service to others and care of the earth”, of course!
No “pie in the sky when we die” for us. No, our deepest religious calling is to leave this world a better place when we are gone. Our deepest calling as religious women and men is to change the world-- and to change it for the better.
We don’t have to look very far, certainly, to see that this old world of ours needs changing. We don’t have to look very far to see that there is injustice and violence everywhere. There are struggles for political power everywhere; there is hatred and strife. and the fires of nationalism and ethnic conflict burn fiercely, unabated. Unstable economies and globalization ravage the poor. Human rights abuses go unpunished. One-fifth of the world consuming four-fifths of the world’s resources.
Sometimes, we have tried to face down some of this contradictions, but to no avail. We feel small and insignificant, perhaps, compared with the problems the world faces.
But just remember this, and take solace: As much as injustice seems to thrive, the urge for justice in our hearts abides; still deep inside of us, the fires of righteousness still burn. When the prophet Mohammed was asked “What actions are the most excellent?” he replied: “To gladden the heart of a human being, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured?” His words are echoed in the scriptures of every major religion of the world:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” we are asked in the book of the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?... [No], he had showed thee, O Man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In one of his previous lives, it is said, the Buddha was incarnated as a somewhat-less-than-human creature, trapped in hell, existing solely to serve the demons there. One particular demonic guard tormented him and another prisoner incessantly, forcing them to work constantly, harder and harder. Finally, Buddha’s companion stumbled in exhaustion, and fell to the ground. The evil guard thereupon plunged a spear into his heart, killing him instantly. Though the Buddha knew that he would face exactly the same fate, he stopped working and protested what the guard had done. He, too, was immediately killed-- but then, he was reborn as a fully human being upon the earth.
Hell is that place where there is no compassion. Compassion is that spirit inside of us which makes us fully human, fully alive.
Compassion, whose seeds are planted in service on this planet we share together.
But as one writer has put it, “But compassion must be cultivated, or our fears and cares and cravings will quickly seize control and drag us back into hell. Service is an instinct, but it is also a practice.”
How, then, do we cultivate our instinct to serve?
First, by having fun and enjoying (finding real joy in) our opportunities for service. “Changing the world need not be a dreary exercise in sanctimony and self-flagellation.” As Emma Goldman once supposedly said to Lenin: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” A revolution that dances is like a
When we discover again the joy there is in service, we rekindle the radical fires of our souls, and come to realize that though the body may age, and we all pass away, there is within us an eternally youthful spirit of hope and dreams which nothing can kill.
Have you ever heard as much laughter in our church kitchen-- or felt more part of a church family-- then when we are all crowded around the table and the counters, every age group in the church represented, each doing our own little part, to make lunches for MainSpring House?
Such a simple ritual of our “service to others and care of the earth”-- but so profound, because it is so simple, and so real.
Second, don’t be afraid to plant small seeds of service and compassion. I know that all those biblical passages about giving away all you have and selling all your possessions can be more than a little overwhelming. It all starts a whole lot more simply:
The Buddha taught about the gradual development of generosity. He knew that the satisfaction of making small gifts would lead naturally and eventually to more and more satisfaction (and joy!) from making greater gifts... Each of us, I’m sure, would like to end world hunger at one fell swoop. But it doesn’t work that way. As much as you might want to, you don’t get to enjoy a full-blown garden overnight. No, you plant seeds-- really tiny seeds:
Sew seeds like helping us make lunches for MainSpring House... or volunteer to make one of the casseroles for St. Paul’s Soup Kitchen, if you haven’t done so already... or going down to the Soup Kitchen some morning around 9:30 or 10:00, and offer to help. (You’ll be amazed by the joyous reception you’ll receive.)... Or simply bringing some canned goods in for the Stoughton Food Pantry... There are plenty of ways to help to feed people who are hungry. What greater calling in life is there than that? And it all starts so simply! We don’t have to give away all that we have. We can change the world one sandwich-- one casserole-- one can of soup at a time! “Don’t look for spectacular actions,” said Mother Teresa of Calcutta. “What is important is the gift of yourselves.” Start simply....
And third, be patient. “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said.” Therefore, wee are sustained by hope.” The movements to abolish slavery, gain votes for women, legalize trade unions, gain civil rights for African Americans-- none of these movements succeeded within the lifetimes of their founders. Oftentimes, shortsighted “bold” actions based in violence and confrontation and recklessness undermine a movement and send it reeling backwards. “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” Lao-tzu asked perhaps two and one-half centuries ago. Do you have the patience to wait till the tumult clears, and you see where the road ahead of you leads?
One of the most honest prayers of modern men and women should go: “O God, grant me patience. AND I WANT IT RIGHT NOW!” We’ve become used to “instant winners” and immediate results. But history shows that that has never been the way the world changes, and that even the most tumultuous and unexpected revolutions are usually generations in the making.
Fourth, don’t get attached to results. Hope is not the assurance that things will turn out well, or that there will be an easy answer. It is the assurance that what we are doing makes sense and has meaning. No matter how much we dedicate ourselves to our particular causes for social justice, there is no guarantee of the outcome. We may believe, with Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, that “The arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” but we also know that there are inevitably going to be a lots of kinks and aches and pains in the bending of that arm. Oftentimes, society will sneer at our “good intentions”, and even vilify us for our support of the weak, the despised, the marginalized, and the downtrodden. According to the laws of karma, it is the intention of our actions, not their results, that matter. Of course, we want to succeed, but let’s not become immobilized by agonizing about results. It is more important to do the right thing than to receive the commendation of the world.
Fifth, do something to serve every day. Dedicate daily activity to the spirit of service. Service is not what we do as how we do it. It’s more about the deeper questions of who we are. We serve one another-- and in so doing, we serve the world-- in so many ways, all the time: when we cook a meal to share; when we work hard to support our families; when we do something that contributes to the lives of others. When we do these things consciously-- in a spirit of dedication, even of sacrifice-- then what otherwise might be drudgery becomes a gift instead. If we choose to donate to some particular cause-- or to help with some community project-- or to go to an important meeting-- we can choose to do it in the spirit of love, or in a spirit of resentment. And that choice makes all the difference in how our hungry hearts will be fed.
Sixth, and finally, we can come to understand that through service we can become enlightened as to who we truly are. As we attend to the suffering of others, we come to realize, slowly, steadily, that their suffering-- their humanity-- is not separate from are own.
David Rhys Williams has written:
The precious life that is in you and me is the same in all of us.
Rich and poor, wise and simple, young and old,
we are joined together by a mystic oneness
whose source we may never know, but whose
reality we can never doubt
When one suffers, we all suffer.
When one hungers for bread, we all hunger.
When one tramps the streets in search of work, we all tramp the streets.
When one defrauds another person, we are all implicated.
When one destroys a human life, we all share the guilt.
When one attains the heart’s desire, we are all partners in the joy...
We are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper,
For that brother or that sister is but
our larger self....
“The rest of the world” is but our own self, writ large.
Oftentimes, we might feel puny and weak compared with the challenges this world faces-- puny Davids against mighty Goliaths of corruption, greed, selfishness, and injustice.
Remember how Goliath greeted David when he first saw him and his slingshot? “Who are you?” he probably shouted. “Who are you to think you can fight me?”
Here’s the story of that first meeting right from the First Book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible:
“When the Philistine looked and saw David he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods...[and] said to David, ‘Come to me and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field...’”
“Who in the hell are you,” he seems to taunt this little squirt before him, “to think you can do battle with me, the great giant, the great Goliath?”
But just remember who wins that particular battle, and who is lying face down on the ground when the dust clears.
May we find some hope here as we consider the work that is ours to do, and we gaze out at the seemingly unbeatable powers and principalities of our own time.