Monday, September 12, 2011

Us & Them: reflections on 9/11 then and now

[Listen to the Sermon]

Ten years ago my friend and mentor, the Rev. Gary Smith, entered the pulpit of our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, looked out over the people, and began his sermon with these words:  "This," he said, "had better be good."

Gary knew what a jumble of things were present in that sanctuary.  There was grief, and anger, and disbelief, and confusion, and fear, and he knew that everyone was looking to him to say something that could make sense of the senseless.  That could give meaning to a tragedy so obviously meaningless.  They wanted him to say something that would make everything okay again, to find the words that would heal the hurt.  And, so, he said what he knew was on everyone's mind -- this had better be good.

I told Debrah, as we were planning the service for today, that I know how Gary felt.  For we have such a complex community here today, as well.  There are people here who, ten years ago, had their worlds turned upside down and for whom it's never quite been righted.  There are people who lost loved ones and friends, or know people close to them who did; people for whom these ten years are barely a day.  And then there are people who weren't even born ten years ago, or were too young then to have any real idea about what it is the rest of us are talking about.

So what can I say about those horrors without creating new nightmares?  And how can I do justice to the victims without causing injury to the innocent?  And I don't know how many of you are hoping that I'll have some kind of magic words that will make it all make sense, so incantation that will bring peace to our hearts and souls, but I'm betting that at least some of you are.

And I stand here knowing that I don't know what to say.  There are no such words.  I know that I don't have them. 

Yet I don't come before you empty-handed.  I have two things to offer:  one truth and one hope.

The truth.  In the days following the attacks ten years ago I was also trying to figure out what to say to the congregation I served.  And the word "evil" was being bandied about a lot back then.  Even we Unitarian Universalists (who I thought had forgotten that word) were wondering about what evil is, whether it's an external reality or an internal state of mind.  And as I thought about these things I found myself stumbling upon a truth.

I don't know about you, but I know that I have a lot of opinions, I think a lot of things, and I even think I know a lot of things, but the things that I really do know -- know down into the core of my being -- are few and far between.  But that week, as I was thinking about what to say in my sermon, I discovered one of those thing.  I discovered that evil is whatever convinces me that you and I are not related.

Whatever tells me that we are separated and alienated, that is evil.  And so, on that Sunday morning, I told the congregation that there is no "us" and "them," that there is only "we."  "Us" and "them" thinking is what caused people to turn planes into weapons.  "Us" and "them" thinking is what started the wars . . . all wars.  "Us" and "them" thinking is behind every kind of "ism," every form of oppression, every act of injustice.  There is no "Us" and "Them," there is only "We."

And I told them that that "we" is as large as it's possible to imagine -- that it even includes those we wish it wouldn't, those we'd like to keep thinking of as "them."  But we can't.  We just can't.  There is no "us" and "them," there is only "we."

And from that day until this I've been able to sum up our Unitarian Universalist theology in four phrases:

We are one human family,
on one fragile planet,
in one miraculous universe,
bound by love.

That's it.  As Rabbi Hillel said, while standing on one foot, "everything else is commentary."  We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  That's what it's all about.  That's the truth I learned in the aftermath of September 11th, and the truth I have to offer you this morning.

And the hope . . .  As Deborah said in her story, the immediate response to the tragedy was that of people reaching out to help.  It was a response of love.  It was a response of recognition of the truth that we're one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  The immediate response was one of embracing one another, identifying with one another, looking past differences to see our common humanity.

Now, of course, if I take off the glasses of privilege I'd have to say that if I were a Mulsim, or looked like one, I'm not sure I'd be saying quite the same thing.  Yet even there, even with regards that community, in the days and weeks and months after the attacks there were also unspeakable acts of generosity and compassion.  For a moment, we saw the truth, and it set us free.

Yesterday, during the worship that culminated our "Cultivating Connections" workshop, I reminded people that the Rabbi Jesus is remembered as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is already among us.  It's not something that we have to wait for in the sweet by and by.  It's here, all around us, right now.

And Siddhartha Buddha, upon his enlightenment -- the same Buddha who said that the essential experience of life is suffereing -- looked around him and said, "How wonderful! How wonderful!  Everything is perfect just as it is."

Of course, everything may be perfect and the Kingdom may be here, but we still have to realize it and make it manifest.  But we've caught a glimpse of it.  In our lifetime we've seen a brief flash of what that world could look like.  Out of the corner of our eyes we saw it.  We got a taste of it.

And now that we've had that taste, we can walk with greater conviction toward that community we're dreaming of.  And we can do this by choosing, every day, every moment, to live by the truth that we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  We can choose to live out of that truth, live into that truth, and make that perfect Kingdom come to be.

And that is the hope I offer today -- the hope that's alive in that choice.

Print this post

No comments: