First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Between Everyone and Nobody" by Rev. Tom Schade

An MP3 audio file of this sermon is available here

September 17, 2006

Names; it is important to know names says Rachel Vigier, the name of the waitress in the donut shop, and know the name the teller at the bank. It is important to know the names, not only of these people with whom you do business, but all the names, the visitors and even the names of the old men who are playing games in the park, men with whom you have no business. It is even important to know the name of the park and the name on the statue in the park, that general from the Civil War, or that old poet, or obscure preacher.

It is important to know the names when the ashes fly.

She wrote those words in the aftermath of 9/11, but they still apply. The ashes are still flying. Every soldier and marine in Iraq, the ones who served and survived and came home, the ones who are still in hospital, the ones who came home to mourning families, they all have names. All those who died in Afghanistan, in Bali, and in Madrid, and in London, and in Lebanon, and in Israel they have names. All those in Guantanamo, and in secret prisons have names. Someday, there will a monument with the names of the US soldiers, sailors and marines who have died, but most of those other names will be not be immortalized. And the ashes are still flying.

Names like ashes in the wind; hurricanes, and earthquakes, names as light as ash, and flying away; lives like burning sparks, a bright brief flash of movement against a darkening sky.

So many names, and really, too many.

I cannot even keep all of your names, and the names of your children, straight in my head.

We have seen the Earth from the moon, and the most important word in our economic lexicon these days is “globalization.” We have seen that humanity is one species. You can now send off a sample of your DNA, just rub a swab against the lining of your cheek, and you will get back in the mail, a report that shows where you fit into the human family tree. And what the results show is that we are all “mutts and mongrels”, that nobody is racially or ethnically pure. We are not only each others neighbors, we are each others’ relatives. The phrase “the human family” is not just high-minded poetic blabber.

We have evolved from a dim past in which human beings were loyal to very small groups of other people to the beginnings of a global consciousness, a global citizenship.

We live in a time of war, and near war, and threatened war. Take these two points.

It does not take long in searching to find one of the many “security and terrorism” experts who predict that nuclear terrorism in the United States is either possible, or likely, or inevitable.

On the other hand, if you read about the concern about a war with Iran, you will read that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is considered the only feasible tactic against their alleged nuclear weapons facilities.

I would think that the use of nuclear weapons in Iran would increase the probability of the use of nuclear terrorism in the United States. Wouldn’t you?

We live in a time of war, another World War some say, Fourth Generation war, asysmmetrical war, war, and not-quite war and threatened war, and it is clear what part most of the human family, including ourselves, will play in it.

We are the collateral damage, all of us.

Watch the people of Iraq and Lebanon closely; they are showing us our future, caught in the crossfire, “collateral damage”. Homes destroyed, children killed, suddenly impoverished, thrust into the dark, our water fouled, not because of what we have done, but because someone is trying to prove a point to the government which governs us. It does not matter if we live in Northern Israel, or in the suburbs of Beirut, or in Baghdad, or work at the symbolic office building, or happen to be flying the wrong plane on the wrong day Your life may be ruined by people who do not know your name.

I am occasionally seized by a vision of a world wide movement called the CDLF: the Collateral Damage Liberation Front.

Jesus, of course, lived in a time in which small groups, the tribes, the clans, the small nations, were the limits of the human moral horizon. And in his story about the Good Samaritan, Jesus pushes his listeners beyond the small group to consider those who not in their group as neighbors. The Samaritans were outsiders, not an esteemed group, someone who were considered the other. And so, this story of the Good Samaritan is one of the foundational stories of the human effort to see itself as one family.

Are we living in the same time? Do we face the same problem?

In some ways, yes. We still struggle with prejudice, and racism and bigotry.

But in many ways, we live in a different world. All the moral and ethical high ground, so to speak, is in seeing one people, one humanity.

It is many years ago that Carl Sandburg another poem called Names. The same title as the Rachel Vigier poem, and in some ways, this sermon is about the contrast between these two poems.

Names, by Carl Sandburg

There is only one horse of the earth
and his name is All Horses.
There is only one bird in the air
and his name is All Wings.
There is only one fish in the sea
and his name is All Fins.
There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child's name is All Children.
There is only one Maker in the world
and His children cover the earth
and they are named All God's Children.

But can we sustain that level of universality?

We also have ways of distancing myself from others, of coming up with ways that make some other group of people’s suffering seem not so grave, to make it bearable to me to witness. What is the mental process that you go through when you see how some people must suffer? How do you, to use that chilling phrase from Exodus, “harden your heart.?”

It is difficult to be human in this world today. On the one hand we have a globalized information system which brings us pictures and images and the voices of people from all over the world. We also have a moral and ethical demand to not see those people as strangers, as the others, as people beyond our moral concern. But, on the other hand, it is still a fact that we have slots in our brains for only about 150 persons. Most people can sustain relationships with no more than 150 people – which is one reason why nobody here at First Unitarian knows everybody else.

We are trying to process global information with tribal brains.

We are not called to be more than we are. We are not called to have global consciousness, nor even to be citizens of the world.

We are called, I believe, to live in the fullest awareness of the truth of every day, to live in the fullest awareness of what is sacred about each moment, and to know the truth of the past of each moment, to live in the truth of the here and now. To live knowing that you and your mind will resist the truth of this present moment in all of its wonder and terror.

In our Jesus story today, a lawyer asks Jesus how to have eternal life, and among the things that Jesus says in response is that he must love his neighbor as himself. And so the man asks him “who is my neighbor.” And Jesus tells him the story of the man who fell among thieves on the Jericho road.

And at the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer “Which of the three men do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“The one who showed him kindness.”

We know the story; we know the answer to the question. The parable of the Good Samaritan who aids the man on the Jericho road is deeply inculcated in our culture. When someone helps a stranger, we call him a Good Samaritan. We know the answer.

But I do not think that we consider the question nearly often enough. “Who is my neighbor?”

The human mind wanders. The human mind gets caught up in trivia. The human mind sees the present moment through the lens of the past, past hurts and humiliations, past grievances and troubles. The human mind is always alert to possible dangers, and the human mind is suspicious of others.

We are each engaged in a constant struggle to be mindful, to be thoughtful, to have our thoughts and actions guided by our values.

When our thoughts are wandering, we need to be able to gently and firmly bring them back to what is important. This question: Who is my neighbor? Is a question that can help us focus again.

I am asking you to consider making this part of your life: when faced with a difficult social situation, to stop and ask yourself “who is my neighbor?”.

For example, you are in our coffee hour after church, scanning the scene trying to figure out who to talk to. Ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor?” Who here, in this room, needs to be shown some kindness and some mercy?

In your work, “Who is my neighbor?”

As you walk the streets of your neighborhood, “Who has need of mercy and kindness?”

When you watch the news of faraway conflicts, “do you have a neighbor there?”

I wish to be a compassionate person; I presume that you do, too.

I have come to realize that the obstacle to my compassion is not that I don’t know what the meaning of the word is.

It is not that I didn’t pay enough attention in my Moral Theology course in Divinity School.

It is not that I am a draft dodger in the culture war.

The reason why I am less compassionate than I want to be is that I have the habit of asking myself the wrong questions.

I find myself always asking what is it that I want, what will make me comfortable, what will make me feel safe and secure.

I need new habits, and making a habit of asking myself a some new questions.

This question: who is my neighbor? This question right from the heart of Western spirituality is a place to start. I am asking you to think about it, perhaps today is a day to decide to make it a question of your own.


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