Sunday, April 10, 2016

Seeing and Believing and Doing

Seeing and Believing and Doing
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, April 3, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson, The Welcome Table, serving North Tulsa and Turley

The 19th Century minister, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, one of the founders, albeit reluctantly, of the American Unitarian Association, used to sum up his ordination sermons for new ministers with this admonition: “Teach them to see.”
By that he meant not only to bring new knowledge and new understandings of religion to the communities, the whole communities, they served--though he did mean that, and that was, then and now, an important role of religion and religious leaders, especially of liberal religion that seeks to be liberating—but what he ultimately was getting at as their ministry duty was to help people cultivate a newer, broader, deeper way of seeing life. To see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To see one another, and each person seeing themselves as being, in the title of one of his famous sermons taken from the Book of Genesis, likenesses of God; not the same as, he would have hastened to explain, but as bearers of the spark, the possibility, of the divine.
Teach them to see, as fully as possible, because we can so readily become in our way blinded to limited narrow perspectives; in some ways that is an inevitable blessed truth of our finite lives; it is a blessing because it pulls us toward community. It is a problem only when we think we see it all, that everyone’s perspective must be the same as ours. And it is a problem when we don’t even fully see our own perspective; when we don’t go deep enough right where we are and see, as William Blake famously said, a world in a grain of sand. I so admire the naturalists who, for example, study life as it is revealed writ small, like David George Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen on nature revealed in a single square meter of forest floor.  
  • Haskell said in his study he was “applying the contemplative approach of narrowing down our gaze to a tiny, little window and thereby hoping to perhaps see more than we could by running around the whole continent just trying to see it all and do it all. And that's the contemplative gambit, narrow your gaze down to one breath, to one image, to one tiny, little patch of forest. And then from that, perhaps you can, like a pinhole camera, you can see further into the universe and the focus of the universe becomes crisper for you. (on the Diane Rheem show, NPR)
Haskell did his study on a small patch of old growth forest. That’s a cool place to do it. It is, though, where you might expect to see a lot going on in a little. But I believe we can and need to learn to see life most fully in the places where we are often taught it is the hardest to find, and in the people where we are taught there is nothing new or more to see, and in the times of life to see them too, especially the bad times, as not all in all bad and so miss the way they may open toward goodness.
Because if we don’t learn and teach people to see life and life’s spirit where others may not, then we will shrivel not only our powers of sight but our world too, and further divide it up between the full and the empty, the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad.
And that leads to seeing life as irrevocable, irredeemable, as fixed. Which takes all the creativity and transformation out of it. Which takes all the love out of it. Which takes all the justice out of it. Which kills it.
In our hymnal we have a reading taken from the Book of Genesis chapter 28 that says “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” It is powerful because it refers to a place that Genesis describes as just “a certain place” where Jacob came to in his journeys; it was a stony place, for he took a stone and used it as a pillow for his head as he slept, and in his dream he received a vision from God, and when he woke he was grateful for the gift of this certain, stony place.
The place where I live and work is like that. A place where others see only bad statistics, and some of them are bad—we rejoiced that in the eight years of our missional ministry there we have seen the life expectancy gap narrow from fourteen to eleven years, and of course followed that with continued outrage at such a continuing discrepancy, especially as the longer we are there the more an abstract term like life expectancy takes on real names of real people who have died among us too soon.
I get to talk with lots of people about our place, mostly in their own places but also when some come to work with us, and I tell them we are more than our statistics, though it is important to know them, and we are more than our stories of struggle with injustices and neglect; that we are most of all a place and people of spirit and that’s a story that doesn’t get told enough, even by our own folks who too often feel ashamed for living where they do—that if they had only been better, smarter, stronger, they and their kids would be able to move away like so many have done. That the good life, as it comes to be seen by them, is only possible somewhere else, and for someone else. That attitude seeps into the soul and as much as anything else affects that shorter life expectancy just as much or moreso even than the travesties of not having health insurance, of being too poor for Obamacare because of our state government refusal to accept Medicaid extension.
In fact one of the things we try to get people to see more fully is about health and life expectancy in our area itself. It is more than meets the eye that watches TV news or reads the newspaper. As much as we need more medical care access, more culturally competent medical care access, like having medical professionals that you see around you in your life and trust because they know you and live among you, and we desperately need more of that, even with that clinic access alone will still be a minor part of increasing life expectancy. Genetics accounts for some 20 percent; medical care access accounts for only ten percent; 50 percent of a longer life expectancy comes from lifestyle choices, and 20 percent, twice as much as from clinic access, comes from our environment, the social determinants like how much blight we live around and crime and stress and hunger, all of the things which in fact tilt people away from the very healthier choices when they are available.  (OU Community Medicine Report, see my report on the presentation and the report at
Seeing this, and seeing what often prevents people from making these choices, is hard when you are not where you can see and hear and learn from the people themselves. I just had a conversation with a good intelligent liberal friend and colleague who was trying to learn why people might not take advantage of the medical options that were available to them. He couldn’t see their whole life, just the choices they were making as if in a vacuum. I began to show him, to teach him to see, how the stresses of subsistence living, where your life is structured in smaller increments, meal to meal, day to day, opportunity to work hour by hour, perhaps with the addition of addictive self medication to supposedly help you cope with the stresses, and with how you see your own self worth, all of this means that you are not going to take the time to make appointments, for example, for preventive health. You are going to get by until you can’t get by, and then you are going to go to the place that has to take you, the ER, and not worry about the expense because you know you are never going to pay it anyway. And you don’t have the social network with the skills to help you overcome all that. If the hospital tries to shame you into better behavior it instead keeps you more mired in the attitude that is self-defeating.
We set up our clinics, our classrooms, our nonprofit helping agencies, our churches, our civic meetings, our elections, so much around the perspective of those with resources and without so many stresses, and then blame people, as one suburban progressive banker did to me at a regional event, for more of the folks from my area “not being at the table.” Talk about wanting to teach him to see; his privilege of having time and means and the kind of job that set him at the table, not to mention the way we run so many of our public meetings comes from a model that is based on higher education or even the classroom, a model that is a trigger to so many people who struggled in school for so many reasons.
When I get to teach people to see in person, I tell them I see my place with three sets of eyes. I am trying to get them to see it that way too. I see our area as I saw it growing up until the time I was graduated from high school, seeing it both as it was in a negative way, the legacy of racism and segregation, and in a positive way, the way there was so much social capital, connections among people, a more income integrated neighborhood, and more common resources put into the area in schools, parks, infrastructure; how you went to school together for example as my wife and I did from kindergarden through high school, which made it so much easier to communicate with the community than now when any neighborhood the kids of the same age might go to five to ten different schools, including home and online.
And I tell them I see our place as it is now, with its abandonment and isolation and ill health, its prison culture attitude as a place where people with felonies often come to live. But that I also see it with eyes of the future, and in some ways the future of transformation is happening also for those with eyes to see, in small ways not only in our Welcome table undertakings but in what some of our partners and neighbors are doing.
If I am rushed and can only take people on a tour of one part of our area beyond our properties, I take them to one three block stretch in our area. If I can to teach them to see I have them drive from one end of Peoria avenue in Tulsa to the other and observe carefully the disparities. But at least I take them to 53rd Street from Peoria to Utica and ask them to count the number of boarded up abandoned houses where families used to live, where dollars used to turn over into the community, and I tell them to also look at how right in the midst of that abandonment there are people putting extra energy into making their certain place a gate of heaven, and I tell them not to miss the small house with one of the best yards that is Sarah’s Residential Living where one of the houses that would have been abandoned is now a small intimate living space for seniors who need monitoring but not assisted living, keeping them in a homelike environment; a wonderful vision and response to a deep need, and how three more houses along that street are now owned by Sarah’s just waiting for volunteers to help transform them too.
Being able to see this way, these things, is to see more fully. And that is what we need. And when we can see a place more fully, we see the people more fully, and we see our connection to them. We can begin to believe more fully that another world is possible; yea, it is even already here and yet to come.
Today in many churches of many traditions across the world sermons will be preached about a classic story of this form of teaching to see, about seeing and believing in change. It is the story in the gospel of John about so called Doubting Thomas. No surprise that many will see it not as fully as it was meant to be seen, and will come away from it with a too limited perspective. It has much to teach us I think about how to see life. It was considered an extremely important story to the Johannine community that produced the gospel of John several decades after Jesus death; it was the story of the original ending to John’s gospel. It sums up so much of the wisdom the whole book was trying to make over and over that life and truth and the truth about people is more than what we see, that understanding comes from grasping the spiritual, the poetic, the metaphorical, that we can give ourselves and our lives to a story that can be more than real, it can be true.
Here are the highlights of the story and I comment on it, and we can see many places where John’s overall themes of spiritual truth, as opposed to literal truths, are resonating. The story picks up after the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary of Magdala soon after the crucifixion.
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 
Right here we are to see how times of fear and anxiety present us with the option to respond out of scarcity, to lock the doors and hide inside because of what has been taken away from us and what might at any moment it is felt be taken away from us; or to respond as jesus does, to see the situation with peace and ignoring the locked doors. The story goes on:
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Apparently being there somewhat miraculously and speaking peace to them wasn’t enough even for them for he felt the need to show them his wounds to signal who he was. Meeting them where they are, you might say, one of the first lessons of chaplaincy, of ministry, of truly seeing people. Only then it says the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Over and over John stresses peace, wants his listener readers to focus on it, see its need. John is composed at a time of great conflict, but wants the reader hearer to be reminded of peace. See that we should savor the world even as we see where it is in need of saving, as the famous John 3:16 points out that God first loved the world, all of it, no exceptions as we say, with all its hellishness, and because of that sent a Savior to love the hell out of the world.
Jesus goes on to say: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
I love that phrase because it fits in with our missional faith mandate to not set back and wait for people to come to us, to come see us, but to go be sent, the original meaning of the Greek word missio, to be sent to be with them. Here the disciples have been seeing themselves as a fortress kind of group, inside a locked room, retreating from the world, but Jesus is again articulating that to be one of his followers means not to be locked up at home but to be out serving the people.
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Again Jesus is trying to get them to get over themselves for good, to live in a state of mercy and trust at a time and place when they more naturally would see their plight very differently, full of fear and blame.  
Now we get to Thomas and the heart of the story and of the whole gospel of John.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut [What again? They are slow learners; they have still locked their doors.] Jesus came and stood among them again and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 
Unfortunately that is where too many tellings of this story and in popular parlance end, with Thomas’ conversion so to speak, coming to belief. But the ending is not quite here. For Jesus then said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas is to be remembered not only for the change of mind, but the whole point is not his belief; it is his admonishment by Jesus that his way of believing is too limited; his sight too narrow. There is more than physical sight, touch, experience, all external to one’s self; there is also the internal way of knowing, of deeper sight and truths than by those who have to have all things nailed down, and there is trust in what you can not yet see.
I trust even though I can’t yet see or show easily to someone else that another  world is possible, a resurrected world if you will, even in my place and even in so many people others are quick to give up on, and in myself.
This has meaning for us too in how our religion can help transform the world around us into a more generous and just world. It means seeing ourselves anew, and also getting over ourselves for good too. My colleague Tom Schade writes about this often in his blog The Lively Tradition. Recently he has written about how what we take often for granted, it has become so rote and ordinary to us, the 7 Principles statement in the UUA bylaws, that it is often denigrated and dismissed, but how when we see them as not something whose purpose is to define who we are but as our mission steps for how the world should be, and guides for taking action in the world, we can transform ourselves from a small religious institution to part of a large and emerging progressive social spiritual movement.
  • There is a facebook meme that connects each of the 7 principles with what is pulling people together out in the streets.
    The inherent worth and dignity of each person with the black lives matter and trans rights movement; justice equity and compassion with the income inequality movement; acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth with the immigrant movement, including the response to islamophobia; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning with the climate change movement and fighting for science education; the democratic process in society at large with the voter rights movement; world community with peace and justice with the anti-war and acting like an Empire movement; the interdependent web of all existence with the fight against environmental classism and racism, for example, ala the Flint Michigan water crisis, the way natural disasters affect the poor and the vulnerable so much harder.
  • Rev. Schade says “People are fighting for the principles we have named as the Seven Principles in the streets everyday.  They may have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. We are not their leaders. The question is whether we will see them as our leaders.”
We need to see our principles, and our institutions, as ultimately about more than just ourselves in our own locked rooms, just getting by. In a book called The Small Church At Large, author Robin Trebilcock writes it well, saying that the only thing that it not good about a small church is when it is has a small vision. As another author frames it, Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution, we need to grow smaller to do bigger things in the world.
And we need to see our mission as being about the world and helping others to see themselves as more, and capable of more, than they see themselves now. That is what being a liberal religion, in all its manifestations, has always been about.
Tom says, “It is as though we think that our congregation is the Beloved Community, rather thinking of the Beloved Community as all humanity made fair and the people one.”
The virtues of how liberal religion is lived is the best way for people to see our faith and to see the possibilities for their own lives and their own places and times. These virtues are reverence, self-possession, gratitude and generosity,  honesty, humility, solidarity, and openness. We live in a time particularly it seems when it is hard to see these as blooming all around us, but that is because we are letting ourselves be blinded.
After our tornado in our area this week, it has been easy to focus on the destruction and the interruption in lives that are already struggling, and how the official response is so slow and so limited and the fears that the effects will linger and add to our abandonment, but what I kept seeing the past few days was, what we also should expect, and that is the ways people opened their lives and their homes to one another, in a place that so many people see differently, where they think it is not even live and let live  but die and let die.
Tom writes:
“The well-being of the planet and all who live on it depends on each of us making these values the cornerstones of our lives.  These virtues are the ethical implications of the way we religious liberals understand the world. Our mission is to embody these virtues, persuade others of their necessity, and convert the world to living in accordance with them.”

I hope if nothing else we might see anew the value and vision and possibilities of what we do deep down when we come together on Sunday mornings and, most importantly, what we do when we carry our Sundays vision with us into our Mondays. 

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