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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Silent Majority -- Sermon by Rev. Tom Schade 9/16/2007

I want to lift up, again, these words by the Rev. Barbara Pescan*, on what we are trying to do and be. “We also want to develop for ourselves a reliable practice of our faith, and to find ways to serve a hurting world with kindness. We want to do something more than be buffeted by events; so we can be something more than observers. We want to trust life even when we cannot define what is wrong and then fix it.”

There are four things being said here, in her words.

One: We want to develop for ourselves a reliable practice for our faith –

Two: We want to serve a hurting world with kindness.

Three: We want to do something more than be buffeted by events, so we can be something more than observers.

Four: We want to trust life even when we cannot define what is wrong and then fix it.

Is that how we feel right now – that we are buffeted by events and so all we can do is to be observers, and that is not enough for us.

I, myself, after this last week, am so angry I could just scream.

I, like a majority of our fellow citizens, according to the polls, want the United States to make a swift and orderly withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, to stop trying to occupy that country. We invaded that place in 2003, overthrew its government, and have been unable to establish a viable government in its place. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a civil war. I think that our policy is essentially, that we will fight anyone who wants to fight us, and we will fight alongside anyone who wants to fight with us.

I know that not all of you have the same frustrations about the war in Iraq as I do, and that’s oK. This parish does not have a foreign policy, and I am one of your ministers, but not your foreign minister. I am just letting you know what it has been like in the neighborhood of my brain these days.

I have spent my summer seething,

Magazines and blogs and newspapers re-reading,

Policies and rationales I can’t believe in,

Waiting for someone to just start leading,

And yet somehow, Iraq just keeps bleeding.

The thing is stuck; the votes’ not there.

When I read Barbara Pescan say that we don’t want to be buffeted by events, so that we cannot be anything other than observers, this is the experience that I bring to those words.

If you do not share that particular dissatisfaction with our current reality, I am sure that there are other ways in which you feel buffeted by events, and forced into being a silent observer. You may never even think about politics and current events, but there are many other situations and circumstances that impact all of our lives over which we all seem to be powerless. Here in New England, it’s the issues of land use and transportation which translate into ever lengthening, draining and expensive commutes. It’s all the interlocking problems of our health care non-system, which is touching in some way or another, every person in this room. Our commutes, or our health care, both are affected by a set of political and governmental decisions that are hidden, opaque, and seemingly beyond our power to influence.

It is a common experience that we are buffeted by events, that there is no path open to be more than an passive observer. That one’s voice no longer matters, or has never mattered. There is no way to influence those who make the decisions. Symbolic actions are futile and ignored. To take the example of the war, I have, more than once, thought this summer, “one more day like this, I am putting on my marching shoes again,” and then one day, I did that, and went down to the Boston Common Park Street station, and hung out on the outskirts of a small crowd of the usual suspects saying all the usual things, and went home feeling more silent and more powerless than before.

Powerless. Unheard.

Welcome to the world of the silent majority.

Welcome to the world that Barbara Pescan describes as a world that resists our power of analysis and our capacity to fix.

Just to name myself as powerless over major, crucial and life and death issues about which I have deep and passionate opinions, well it makes me crazy, crazy enough to hear voices in my head.

One of those voices just laughs at me and mocks me. It says:

Tom, you’re an idiot. Of course, you are powerless. But’s its kind of cute that you didn’t figure that out. If you weren’t white, middle-class, straight male with a professional degree, you would have seen the reality of situation a long time ago. So learn this lesson – not only are you powerless, so is everybody else.

And another voice judges me and says that I am just lazy and uncommitted.

You say you are powerless, Tom, as a way of avoiding responsibility, because you are too comfortable to do anything that requires getting up off your lazy butt.

And another voice says “so what?”

Tom, maybe now is the time to just read a good book, try your hand at writing some poetry, go see an exciting movie. Watch the Red Sox and the Yankees play ball, there is enough hope and glory, terror and tragedy and the cosmic struggle of good and evil there for anyone. Forget the end times, it’s the playoffs.

And yet another voice says:

Tom, now is the time that all good folks dig deep, and come to the aid of their country. There is always something that you can do. If you cannot exercise power, you can still be a witness. You just need to summon up your moral courage and get out there, even if you feel foolish and uncomfortable, and even if it doesn’t seem to be having an effect. A wolf alone in the forest howls at the moon, it’s a lonesome sound, full of pain and terror, but soon enough, he hears another howl across the ridges and hills. If nothing else, Tom, stand in the backyard and howl.

These are the voices in my head, as I consider the possibilities of powerlessness, the life of the silent majority.

I quote the Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel in our order of service this morning. There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth.”

I am asking us to stop for a moment, put aside all the voices of judgment and excuse that we hear in our internal dialogues, and just live for a while with the facts as they are. There is a great suffering going on, I will not try to quantify it for that creates something to argue about, and I will not dramatize it, since this is not about the power of my imagination or my words, I will not try to break your heart. I just ask you to take a moment, perhaps while you are driving, perhaps before sleep, perhaps this afternoon between the Patriots and Red Sox and ask yourself, suppose that was my family, suppose we lived in Bagdhad?

And as pass through this period of the High Holy Days, leading to Yom Kippur, to take one’s moral inventory, and to let yourself sink to the bottom of one’s misery to understand the truth.

This is life, life beyond our ability to define what is wrong and then fix it.

The quotation [“There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth.”] comes from an essay by Havel entitled The Power of the Powerless.” We can learn much from the experience of the Eastern Europeans. They lived as a silenced majority in a system which functioned as though it really knew what people thought and wanted. Havel speaks of “living in the truth.” He imagines a man who runs a vegetable stand who one day no longer puts up in his store, the poster that comes with his fruits and vegetables, calling on the workers of the world to unite. He does not mean to be a rebel, but he does not really believe the sign, or at least, does not believe that it is a necessary part of the work of selling fruits and vegetables.

What Havel is identifying with this story is the importance of the independent mind, which persists in living “in the truth.” This is the power that the powerless have

The Free Church Tradition, which is the kind of church that this one is, originated in social circumstances where people felt frightened and silenced and powerless. And at the heart of our church is a covenant, a voluntary agreement among equals that we will unite to worship God together while preserving the spiritual liberty and independence of each other. That we will encourage each other to live in the truth, to love the truth, and still trust life.

As I look at what is going on in the world, and what is here in the church, I can see that we will have quite a year ahead of us. The conflict and controversy over the war in Iraq will continue throughout the year. There is also the related question of a military campaign against Iran, which is being openly called for by many of those who advocated for this war. In addition, by the time we gather in the courtyard for the end of the church year picnic in June of 2008, we will probably know the two parties’ nominees for the President of the United States. It is going to be a year in which there might be great political contention, and while no, this church takes as few political stands as it can, it is not an isolated oasis where news of the outside world never disturbs our contemplations.

As I am sure that you have heard, this week, Scott Ritter, the US weapons inspector who correctly analyzed that Saddam Hussien did not have active weapons of mass destruction, will be speaking here at the church. He will be talking about Iran, which is a certainly a topic much in the news now. He is being sponsored by the Building Peace group here at the church. Let me make this clear: groups and subgroups of members within the congregation are welcome to invite speakers that they think would be of interest to the Worcester community to make presentations here. They need to work through the Lay Leadership Committee. But there are not political guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not.

As we make our way through the year to come, so let us be open and lively. Let us be a place where the wider community can come to be engaged with the issues of day, in an environment where people are respected.

I used to think that the spiritual task of being a citizen was maintaining my motivation. How was I to find a source of moral power within myself that would keep involved and committed. Where would I find the strength to resist all the seductions and pleasures of life. Where would I find the strength to keep looking at how people suffer? How was I to find a persistent source of optimism, so that I wouldn’t burn out? The spiritual task was to keep one’s spirit up.

Now, I am coming to see that the spiritual tasks of citizenship is l accepting powerlessness over many things as the human condition. In order to let the truth of the world come into me, I must stop asking “what can I do?” whenever I confront suffering. It is only when we sink into deepest misery, sometimes, that the truth comes.

We are not alone. We have each other. We have formed a community that will sustain us, and strengthen us, whenever we face the truth with courage and humility. And we are strengthened by the religious tradition that has formed us.

Among the greatest gifts of the Biblical tradition is its reminder that it is in the moments of deepest pain, suffering and hopelessness, when we are floundering in the deepest water, that there is a solid bottom. Scripture calls it “waiting upon the Lord” Barbara Pescan calls it “trusting life’, but it is the same thing, so hear again these words, written from the period of deepest powerlessness of the ancient people of Israel.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases – Life is always trustworthy

God’s mercies never come to an end ---- life will remain trustworthy

They are new every morning --- even when it breaks your heart, life will prove itself again tomorrow.

The Lord is my portion, says my soul, and therefore I will trust in him.

Or as Rev. Pescan says: “I mean an open-armed stance to Life. I mean Love: not a smarmy love but an open hearted response to all of Life, whatever comes – if what comes is love, a pain in the neck, a diagnosis, death, the difficult, the beautiful, even the profane. We take it all, refuse none of it and do something with it.”

Note: Rev. Barbara Pescan is one of the ministers at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Evanston, Illinois. She was chosen to be the speaker representing those celebrating the 25th year of their ordination at the 2007 Ministry Days at General Assembly. This sermon is inspired by, and quotes her words, from that service