We can set down the stone of our fear, and when we do, we will be free and we will find true justice and true compassion. Like a person emerging into the light from a long dark journey, we will be able to feel the springs of life once again and reclaim our hope and our trust in goodness and we will know without a shadow of doubt who we are to each other and how we are meant to be together.
This sermon was delivered to Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on April 21, 2013.
Story for All Ages – “Where my fears are planted” by Rebecca Pournoor. http://archive.uua.org/re/faithworks/fall03/worshipc.html
On Monday evening my family and I were blissfully unaware of what had happened in Boston. I was in Canada visiting my parents, who have a no-news-when-we-eat policy because my mother got fed up with the news taking over her meals. She has this radical idea that dinner is about putting family first and appreciating each other and the food that we share, not sitting silently beside each other staring into a TV screen. So on Monday evening my parents and I were enjoying a wonderful meal with my brother and sister-in-law and my five-year-old nephew. All we wanted to do was be together.
After dinner my nephew asked to play his favorite game, which right now is Clue – you know the game where you guess who the murderer is, what weapon they used, and what room of the mansion they committed the crime in? “I suspect Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the lead pipe!” But my mother has changed the game to protect my nephew’s innocence. We are now guessing which room has become messy, who made it messy, and what they used to make it messy. “I suspect that Miss Scarlett messed up the kitchen with the wrench!” Who knows what she messed up! Did she smash the dishes or the refrigerator? Not important! But it was wonderful to see the world through his five-year-old eyes. There is an unspoken ethic in our family, you probably have it in yours, that children are to be protected as long as they can from the unpredictability of the world around them.
So we did not learn of the bombings until Tuesday when we turned on the radio and slowly pieced the details together, and then the reality began to settle in. That reality became very real when I crossed the border back to the United States on Wednesday and customs officers had dogs sniffing every single car coming in. It became very real in the heightened security at the Detroit airport and it became very real in that every single TV in the terminal was tuned to CNN.
So we all know what happened in Boston. We have been inundated with it for almost a week now. The media has examined it from every single angle in the best and the worst ways. We know what happened Monday afternoon. We know what happened on Thursday night, when one suspect was killed, and we know that the second suspect was captured Friday evening. We know that the suspects are young men, immigrants from Chechnya, and that they are Muslim.
And the meaning making begins. In fact it began from the moment of the bombing because we human beings are essentially meaning making people and it can drive us crazy when we can’t make sense of things, can’t understand why someone would do something like this, can’t understand why one person dies and the other loses a limb and others near the bomb are perfectly fine and help load the victims onto stretchers. Why did one person cross by a mere two minutes before the bombing and the other come by at exactly the moment of detonation? Why couldn’t that eight year old boy have run onto the other side of the road to greet his dad and stayed there instead of going back to where he was standing? Why do some immigrants adapt seamlessly into their new country and others don’t? Why do some young men become radicalized while others volunteer for the Red Cross? Why do some people turn their unhappiness into violence and others into poetry? These are questions for which there is no answer.
And I think the media makes a mistake when they think that we actually want an answer to these questions. It is when we force answers for unexplainable disasters that we get in trouble. It’s why so many Americans leapt to the conclusion that the suspects were Muslim and assumed they knew what that meant. It’s why a Saudi man, running from the blast, was tackled and turned in as a suspect. It’s why so many of us are getting angry at each other on facebook as we throw around theories about why this happened, theories that say much more about us and our politics than about what actually happened.
What I believe is that most of us really aren’t looking for answers as much as looking for hope, for comfort, for some sign that things are going to be o.k. One of the most meaningful things I heard this week was on the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Weekly” and one of the guests said that when people ask “Why did this happen,” they aren’t actually looking for the reason why. What we are actually seeking is someone to stand with us, to stay present to us in the struggle of our unknowing, in the struggle to find something to do with the emotions we are feeling, and the most common feeling during trauma is helplessness.
This was a week that was filled with the experience of helplessness. Not only did we experience the bombing, but a fertilizer factory exploded in Texas, part of our city was destroyed by tornadoes last week, this week it was floods, there was already a documented increase in hate crimes against American Muslims before we learned the identity of the bombers, and the Senate failed to pass legislation mandating universal background checks to purchase a gun despite the fact that 90% of Americans support it. It was like we kept getting slammed, and a common response to this is the feeling of helplessness, and one of the responses to helplessness is an often desperate desire for information because it gives us some feeling of control.
Most religions have at their core the mission of helping us find our way through the experience of helplessness. Some religions like Buddhism invite you to go inward and find peace there, believing that what happens in our souls is mirrored in the world. We face in the world what we create in our hearts, so we start within and make peace there so that peace can come to the world. Other religions such as Islam ask you to immerse yourself in charity. If you have trained yourself spiritually to serve those less fortunate than you, you will not have the luxury to give into your perception of helplessness. Christianity asks you to place your trust in a God who works in mysterious ways. If you are in that trusting place, then perhaps you will remember that this helpless is but a moment, and that life will go on because it always has. Just as Jesus rose from the dead and conquered evil so too will humanity. We cannot be undone by evil because good has already prevailed, and this remains true even if we can’t see it.
At their core, these paths are there to keep our hearts open, to stay compassionate and caring and not give in to cynicism and apathy and despair. I think that is one reason why we gather here every Sunday, because unexplainable bad things happen all the time, maybe not as often as they happened this week, maybe not with the same large scope as they happened this week, but they do happen in large and small ways, and what are we going to do when we get slammed? Are we going to isolate, turn inward, become paralyzed with despair?
The Unitarian Universalist approach to the experience of helplessness is to honor that feeling, for we are sacred beings and there is truth and beauty in every experience, but we use the raw material of the experience to move beyond and through it.
So for instance, one of the normal responses to helplessness and trauma is to isolate and turn inward. These are very normal responses to trauma and pain, and they can be powerful ways to take care of ourselves in the first moments of loss and suffering, but they are not long-term answers. If you have ever lost a loved one (and I know most of you have and some of you are in the process of losing loved ones), if you have experienced that loss, there is a time to withdraw and to be in the pain and there is power and healing in that place. We have to go there and do the work that we are asked to do.
But if we stay there, we become paralyzed. We are like the girl in our story who carries around her heavy stone. And when you carry around that stone too long, it gets twisted into ugly things. It gets twisted into dangerous kinds of isolation where you can no longer see life, where you have lost the ability to love and forgive and empathize.
When a society carries around that stone for too long, it gets twisted into irrational hate and the need for something easy to blame, it gets twisted into the kind of scapegoating that we are seeing directed against the American Muslim community. I think that a lot of what we saw this week, with the 24/7 news coverage blasting this story into our homes, is a sign that we’ve been carrying a stone that is getting heavier and heavier. How many of us stayed glued to the TV even when we knew how crazy it was? I did. I was mesmerized by the coverage even as I was critical about it. I couldn’t set down the stone.
That heavy stone of fear and isolation has twisted our attention. We become defined by the weight of that fear and we stop paying attention to the things that we do have some control over, the things that have a few answers. The explosion in Texas for instance. That fertilizer factory hadn’t been inspected since the mid-1980s, which is 30 years. We should be outraged! Why didn’t Fox and CNN and MSNBC have 24-hour coverage of that disaster? Why aren’t they camped with their satellite dishes and bright spot lights and cameras outside the home of the CEO of the factory, providing endless commentary on where they went to college and what their hobbies may say about their morality and who babysat their kids? They should be dragging neighbors and old drinking buddies out and asking, “Did so and so look like someone who would put their workers in danger for a profit? Did you have any idea?” while we are treated to the same aerial view of the roof of their home for days. What about combing their facebook posts and tweets for clues about their disregard for humanity while pictures of every board member are plastered over the TV and internet? What about inviting the public to bring pictures of every person who died in the explosion and holding those pictures up until the CEO dares to come outside and face them?
While an explosion razed most of the town into the ground because a corporation was able to avoid meeting safety standards, our media provided 24/7 coverage of the cops tracking down the Boston bombers. If you watched TV on Friday night, you likely spent over an hour looking at the same video of a boat covered in a white tarp. I think this shows us who matters and who doesn’t, and who is considered off limits and who is considered fair game.
Where are our priorities? I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the bombing at all. That is not my intent! In fact I think that the media circus let down not just the people of West TX, but also the people of Boston, who became another spectacle to boost ratings. This is what happens when you carry the stone for too long. You lose your sense of priorities. Both these events were an equal violation of the common good and the public trust.
You know, when I watched my nephew play our version of Clue, it was delightful, and what I wanted most for him is a safe world and a fair world because I know that someday we won’t be able to protect him anymore. Someday he going to learn how Clue is really played and he’s going to learn how the games in the world are played. I want for him a world where no one is going to assume anything about him because of the color of his skin or where he went to college. I want him to inherit a world where he is kept safe but not so safe that he has no freedom. I want a world where he will know that his employer will value his health and his wellbeing. I want a world for him where going to a public event isn’t a statement of bravery. I want a world where it is harder to for him to get a gun license than it is to get a drivers license. What I really want is a world where the common good is just as important as individual freedom, where someone like a Mr. Watson will show him the stones he carries and help him figure out how to place them in the garden. I want a world where there is balance and fairness and we just get to live our lives.
But that’s not the world we live in right now. The world we live in has trained us to hold this heavy stone and believe that this is how it is meant to be. And it’s not. We can set down the stone of our fear, and when we do, we will be free and we will find true justice and true compassion. Like a person emerging into the light from a long dark journey, we will be able to feel the springs of life once again and reclaim our hope and our trust in goodness and we will know without a shadow of doubt who we are to each other and how we are meant to be together.
Amen and blessed be.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended
conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.