Sermon given by Connor Wertz, August 26, 2018.
What is something that makes you comfortable right when you walk into a space? It could be the first time you’ve been in a house, or it could your own home, someplace you’ve walked in hundreds of times. Think about it for a second, what makes you feel at home? It could be how clean or messy it is. How many windows or the pictures on the walls or simply the people inside of it.
For me, it’s books and hugs. There is no particular order to this, but usually hugs come first - I’m a hugger, and when people hug me whether I know them or not I feel more welcome, the formal walls of social interaction broken down a little by the mutual contact.
Books come next, and on entering a new house I try to be polite as I can, making small talk etc., as I look around for a shelf or two to scan titles. The better houses have a floor to ceiling shelf for books; the best ones have stacks.
Now, I hope as I’m saying this you are not worrying, “jeez, I wonder how my house would stand up” - I’m not keeping track. There’s no list where I score houses, saying “well, the colton-robertson’s have a great little shelf of books there, so that’s an 8/10, but those smyths never hug me when stop by and visit.” I’m from New England too. I don’t hug just anybody.
There’s no judgment being passed, and no right answers, because like a space has to be just a little bit chaotic for me to feel at home, someone else might need everything to be in its place, to have order and feng-shui.
And although choosing what space feels comfortable to you might seem trivial, it’s an important conversation to have, because it illustrates both the desire for things to work out, to have the “best” or “correct” answer to a problem, and the fact that, for the most part, there never will be a perfect solution.
I know many people’s favorite room in this church is the sanctuary, but for me it is Frank’s study. The books, the quiet, thoughtful space. But even if we all thought Frank’s study was great, it would be a tight squeeze on Sunday mornings - so here we are.
This dissonance can be even be found right here where we worship. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I always feel this sense of calm when I walk in here and look at the stained glass picture of Jesus. But I am also aware that there are connotations with that picture that can change the space. That if a newcomer walked in the front door this morning and the first thing they see is a radiant, large, white Jesus, that their perception of the room may be different than mine.
This is an amazing space, and a place that becomes even more vibrant when people come to fill it up. But there are different ideas for how to make a church more spiritual, welcoming, and inclusive and no one answer, because everybody has different needs for different spaces.
Imagine the room of requirement in the Harry Potter series, a magical room that changes for the user’s precise needs. It sounds great, right? But I would think that as soon as two or more people enter the room, even the room of requirement with its special magic couldn’t make a perfect place, because there are two or more sets of needs that need to be matched.
Different solutions, and imperfect answers. These terms force us to recognize the humanity in all problems, the potential and indeed at times the guarantee for some degree of failure.
Today, it seems as if a great deal of emphasis as a nation is being placed upon our differing solutions politically, and we are ignoring the reality of imperfect answers, instead insisting that I or we or someone knows better than someone else.
This only exacerbates differences that seem to be widening weekly into an uncrossable chasm. And, increasingly, it seems as if effort is being placed to simplify these divided desires. All sides paint the other in a caricature of ignorance, intolerance, and rigidity. Soon, the nuances of the many experiences and upbringings that lead someone to a political conclusion is lost.
Too often we fixate on that headline or sound bite that vindicates our side, that justifies our divisiveness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to identify the commonalities between different sides politically, we may have to start taking a step back, connecting with people on fronts other than the political to then find common ground and move forward.
These divided desires are found not just on the other side of the chasm, between drastic sides of the political or religious or cultural perspective.
Hanging out with UU youth, a common theme I’ve heard is if only the young adults would be supported in college, or if only youth were taken seriously, then more would start showing up to services.
Likewise, I talked with people who believe that the future of Unitarian Universalism lies in its attractiveness outside of Sunday morning: its activism, small group ministries, meditation groups or book clubs. Others believe Unitarian Universalism will only survive if we teach our youth how to be lifelong UUs, to retain interest and involvement not just when you want to start a family. And still others find their answer in music, in a well-funded RE program, or in an embrace of the spirituality of Sunday services.
Our faith is unique because it is pliant, adaptable, and relatively young. Maybe it is because of this that I have heard so many strong voices advocating different changes - maybe this plurality of proposed solutions is a fact of life wherever you go. I don’t know.
But I do think that these solutions can only be positive if the different desires become inclusive instead of exclusive, a cohesive front instead of competing visions for the future. Spirituality and community mean different things for people and families and even churches. Recognizing that my answer and your answer may be an answer, but it is not the answer, is the first step to starting a conversation that will get things done.
The same is true in many activist circles. I have friends who believe that the correct use of language and terminology is the one way to create an inclusive society, others that all other problems are trivial when compared to the plight of our environment, and still more who condemn people who only focus on one issue, honing in on the intersectionality of movements as the best way to create lasting change.
All of these and so much more are critical issues, but this too often leads to arguing over which issue is more pressing, or what movement is more inclusive than the next. This ends up creating an environment that diverges from the goal of being self-critical and constructive instead becoming toxic and deconstructive.
Roxane Gay, cultural critic and author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, among other books, writes about the feminist movement, saying, “In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.”
We should carry this understanding of the humanity of social movements, and remember to be more forgiving of each other. It is exactly this humanity that creates these rifts, these divided desires, when many are working for the same justice and the same vision for the future. But it is the preciousness of this humanity that we are fighting to preserve.
This can sound pretty down, maybe too serious. But to me, when it seems that extremism and chaos are more defining adjectives for our time than compromise and harmony, remembering that there is no right way, and no perfect antidote is more freeing than it is depressing.
So what to do? What to do when there seems to be no right answer, when you feel like you are fighting so hard just to stay where we are, nevermind moving forward? For starters, we can start to listen.
There was an NPR interview this past week, where a catholic journalist who had reported on the recent church abuse told a story about a mass she attended. During the mass a priest gave a humbling sermon addressing the most recent scandals in Pennsylvania, and asked that the congregation step up and put pressure on the diocese for change.
After the sermon, as the priest turned to take his seat, a father stood up, trembling, and asked “How?”
And this is catholic mass, so standing up during the liturgy when you’re not supposed to is kind of a big deal!
But the priest turned around and haltingly, imperfectly, tried to answer the question. And I remember as I listened to this, the interviewer pressed the journalist, asking if the priest was able to give an adequate response to the father.
And the journalist kind of shook her head and responded that the content of the reply was not the point. The beautiful thing was that the priest didn’t wait until after the sermon, or didn’t blow off the father, but turned around, listened, and tried to help.
And yet I want to be clear here - this is not a simple lesson on the virtues of compromise, of recognizing two very different sides, finding a happy medium and going about our ways satisfied and enlightened.
Having come of age in a political and cultural climate defined by first Obama and the rigidity of his detractors and now Trump; having come of age in a gridlocked Congress and in a changing environmental climate that doesn’t know the definition of centrism or legislative cycles, compromise feels to me more like an ideological dream than a practical reality. The idea that there is a happy medium, that there is a simple answer at all, to the problems our world faces today, seems more delusional than achievable.
So how do we respond to this? How do we come to terms with the scary idea that as hard as we try, a fairytale ending may not be achievable, that the arc of the universe bends toward a more complicated version of justice than we’d like to think? The first thing I think of is that this is a defeatist view, that no matter what I do I can’t get the answer I’m looking for. But recognizing the inherent flaws of big answers to big questions can be freeing too, in a way that can energize and bring a calming peace.
The blessed humanism of our time, the humanism of our problems and our politics, is not a reason to stay away but to get involved. Being ok with the imperfection of solutions that may arise lets me move forward without this imposter syndrome - or for that matter, a messiah complex. We may not be the most skilled advocate, or the one with the answer. But because of that we are freed to help each other as best we can.
Our reading today said “Help us to open our minds, to deeply listen, and to truly know one another, finally glimpsing the kaleidoscopic beauty of the divine.” Let us go out and strive for this kaleidoscopic embrace, so that we may better find the divine in all of us.
Amen, and blessed be.