Sermon: Present to Each Other


preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, July 14, 2013

I wrote this morning’s sermon before the news came that George Zimmerman had been acquitted. The news came late enough in the evening that I didn’t have time to substantively change it. Yet I feel I must address it, however briefly, before we can proceed with the sermon that I originally prepared. If you are like me you are probably feeling a mixture of emotions: outrage, confusion, disgust, despair… I encourage you to sit with those emotions. I will. And next week my sermon will focus on this injustice more intensely.

Whatever your emotions, the facts of the Zimmerman case are clear. Zimmerman, a man armed with a gun, got out of his car and shot to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Only Zimmerman will ever know the exact sequence of events that led up to the shooting. Only the jury will know precisely why they found Zimmerman not guilty.

This morning, however, we know four things. We know that for the thousandth time or the ten thousandth time or maybe the millionth time since Europeans arrived on this continent a light skinned man has killed a dark skinned man and suffered little legal consequence. We know that if the situation had been reversed, if Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmerman, the verdict would have almost certainly been different. We know that what happened to Trayon Martin happens to hundreds of black men in this country every year. This is true even if we remember but a handful of their names—Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant… And we know that know that for this to change everything must change: the judiciary; the police; the enduring structures of white supremacy; the way we relate, as individuals and as a society, to guns and violence; what we hold in our hearts. It all must change.

And so, before I proceed with my sermon, let us have a prayer for change.

Ella Baker said: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest…”

With these words in mind, let us pray for a society in which everyone, no matter their skin color, will be able to walk safely through the streets;

Let us pray for an end to gun violence;

Let us pray for the dissolution of legal system that consistently has different outcomes for people with dark skin than it does for people with light skin;

Let us pray that we have the strength as individuals, and as a religious community, to help bring about these changes.


My sermon this morning is a reflection on the question: What does it mean to be present to each other? If you were here last week you might remember that I am serving this month as your summer minister, leading worship and proving pastoral care coverage. The four services I am leading form a sermon series on Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. Last week I asked: What does it mean to be present? Next week I will ask: What does it mean to be present to justice? This morning, however, I am asking: What does it mean to be present to each other?

I begin with a story about the Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also called the Baal-Shem, the master of God’s Name. He was one of the greatest Rabbis who ever lived. In 18th century Eastern Europe he founded the Jewish mystical movement called Hasidim. Legend has it that he was a great miracle worker. There are dozens of stories that describe his powers.

One such story has been preserved by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber in his collection of Hasidic tales. It is said that on the evening after Yom Kippor, the Jewish New Year, the moon remained hidden behind the clouds. The Baal-Shem could not go outside and say the Blessing of the New Moon. This weighed heavy on him. He concentrated all of his power on the moon hoping that its light would push away the grey cover. It was in vain. No matter how hard he prayed the clouds grew thicker and the moon’s shine more obscure. At last he gave up in despair.

While the Baal-Shem sat in his study praying his followers gathered in the front room of his house and began to dance. They knew nothing of his despair. They only knew that the evening after the New Year was an evening given over to joy and feasting. Their dancing grew more and more ecstatic. At last they could wait for the Baal-Shem no longer. They burst into his chamber dancing and singing. He sank into gloom; his prayers inadequate for the holiday. His followers, oblivious to his misery, whirled round him. As they did someone called from outside. The clouds had disappeared. The curve of the new moon shone more brilliantly than it ever had before.

Buber is one of the theologians who has dealt most directly with our question: What does it mean to be present to each other? In I and Thou, his most famous book, he claims that it is only through knowing the other that we can ever know ourselves. In Buber’s understanding, to be present to each other is to be present to, to discover, ourselves.

The story from the Baal-Shem seems to offer a different lesson. Instead of suggesting that we know ourselves through others, it suggests that the power of the religious community is, at least sometimes, greater than the power of even the most devout individual. The Baal-Shem could not part the clouds, but the whirling ecstatic prayers of his followers could. This story might seem an inadequate answer to our question. If so, I admit that I am being intentionally sloppy in my theology. I am not trying to completely answer my question. Instead I am hoping to provoke you into thinking about it and, in doing so, gently goad you in finding your own answer. My stories are meant as gestures towards answers, not answers themselves.

The story from the Baal-Sheem contains something of what it means to be present to each other but only something. The experience of being present with each other is often an experience that is beyond words. Such experiences frequently do not make good stories. I find them in the mundane moments of family life. A description of the act of playing with my six year old, building a lego castle together or throwing rocks into the river, does not offer a narrative thread. The same is true of intimate moments with my partner or important exchanges with my fourteen year old. It is precisely because such relationships are usually the most important in our lives that they are the most difficult to describe. The self-revelation, the sense of becoming, that is available through them has been for me, and is I suspect for most people, a slow sense of unfolding rather than jolt of self-recognition.

Visual art, particularly photography, can, sometimes, illustrate this unfolding when narrative fails. Consider the work of Czech artist Marketa Luskacova. Trained during the Soviet era as a sociologist, she has spent her career creating intimate images of ordinary, often marginalized, people. Some of her most compelling photographs capture routine moments of becoming, of gaining self-knowledge through the daily encounter with the other. In one, a woman cradles a sleeping child, probably her son. Her legs extended, back straight, and glance off center she appears present to both the child and herself. Behind her sit two more women and another child. The five appear unified, their individual identities related to, and informed by, the identities of each of the others. In a second photograph, three peasant women rest against half-doors, their austere grab of loose fitting dresses and head scarves framed by rough grained wood, aged stone and plaster. All three look out at the camera together, the moment suggesting a long intimacy and a sense of rootedness. One holds a book, maybe a Bible, and appears to have taken a break from reading, probably to the others. Both images suggest that these people know themselves through those who surround them.

Let me now stray from the routine and offer you another story, this time from my own life. I have been involved in the labor movement for close to fifteen years. During that time I have done some union organizing. My experiences organizing unions have been important, in part, because they have challenged me to develop relationships with people who initially I have little in common. Dan McKanan, the Emerson chair at Harvard, describes such relationships as prophetic encounters, interactions which change one or both of the participants understanding of the world and of themselves.

The organizer’s basic tool is what we call the one-on-one. The one-on-one is exactly what it sounds like, a conversation between two people. The objective of the one-on-one is for one person to get the other more involved in the union. The method is that of relationship building. The key to the one-on-one is simply to listen, to learn and to share. Listen to someone share their experiences, learn what troubles them and share something about your own troubles and, maybe, suggest a way forward together.

The most uncomfortable, and transformative, one-on-one I conducted was with someone I will call Frank. I was maybe twenty six. Frank was in his late fifties. We were organizing bike messengers and Frank was one of the oldest, and most respected, messengers in the city. We thought that he was essential to our organizing efforts.

Frank wanted to meet me at a biker bar after work. Bars are the worst place to talk about union business. They are noisy, there are often lots of other people about and there is alcohol. I tried to get Frank to meet at another location but he was insistent. If we were going to meet we were going to meet in the bar.

When I arrived Frank was already there with a couple of other messengers. I placed my order and we grabbed a booth together. Frank and I discussed the union, his reasons for being interested in it and his fears of what it might lead to for a while. His previous experiences with unions had been negative. I listened to his concerns and after about an hour I managed to convince Frank that we were trying to build a different sort of organization. I asked Frank if he would be willing to commit to working with the union. He said yes.

After our business was finished we returned to the other part of the bar and Frank introduced me to his friends. They made some polite chit-chat and then, as I was leaving, they then started to crack sexist and homophobic jokes.

I found Frank’s behavior offensive. His actions made me uncomfortable. It seemed to me at the time, and it seems to me now, that I was being tested. There was a vast cultural and class difference between us. Frank and his friends wanted to know if I would accept them as they were or if I would tell them how they were supposed to behave.

This was not an easy choice. I did not want to stand silent in the face of such commentary. But at the same time I thought that saying something might end all chances for future conversation. I might come off as just another person with more education and privilege telling Frank and his friends what to think and how to behave. So I choose to say nothing. I probably would have reacted differently if a woman or someone from the GLBT community had been present. But they were not.

Some of you may be angry with me for not saying anything. You most likely believe that sexism and homophobia are things that should be confronted whenever and wherever they appear, all else be damned. If so you might argue that I am, after all, a straight white male and the comments were not directed at me. I had the privilege not to speak out. This may be true. But to be present to Frank in that moment meant to accept him as he was rather than I would have him be.

My choice to accept Frank for who he was proved to be a transformative experience for both us. After our night at the bar he became more and more involved with the union. He helped to organize a strike and he was elected by his co-workers to negotiate with his boss. Perhaps most remarkable, he was crucial in getting the dispatcher at his company, a gay man, to support the union. With the dispatcher’s support the couriers at the company were able to win the first pay raise anyone in the industry had received in over ten years. The pay raise benefited close to one hundred people.

The question: what does it mean to be present to each other is not a question with easy answers. Sometimes moments of presence bring discomfort; sometimes the possibility of transformation.

Religious communities, like labor unions, contain within them the possibility of a prophetic encounter. James Luther Adams, perhaps the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologian of the later half of the twentieth century, has a story about such an encounter that has become a parable for some. Perhaps you have heard it before. Adams, it seems, was a member of the Board of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago during the late 1940s. At the time, the congregation was intentionally trying to racially integrate. One member of the Board was opposed and spoke out at meetings about the minister preaching too many sermons on integration.

Adams reports that, “One evening at a meeting he opened up again. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about [Jews] and blacks?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’”

Adams queried, “Will you tell us what is the purpose of the church?”

The Board trustee shot back, “I’m no theologian, I don’t know.”

Adams, or perhaps it was the minister, was unrelenting, “But you have ideas… you are a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.”

The argument went on until around one o’clock in the morning. Adams writes that at that point “our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is… Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’”

Adams concludes his story, and his essay, with these words: “Someone, a former evangelical, suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’

There is the vocation of the minister and the church, to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsive to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transformative power.”

Some years ago, Alice Blair Wesley, a student of Adams, gave a series of lectures in which, following her teacher’s lead, she placed the practice covenant at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. As she understands them, covenants are statements that attest that “the member’s loyalty in the church should be only to the spirit of love, working in their own hearts and minds.” This love is not to be directed to some abstract ideal. Instead it is to be given to the other members of the congregation. But it is not given to them only. It is also given to what Adams described as “a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transformative power.” That power is named by some as God. Others might find Buber’s description more compelling, “That before which we live, that in which we live, that out of which and into which we live, the mystery…”

I offered Joy Harjo’s poem “Remember” this morning because it suggests that mystery. The mystery includes “the sky that you were born under” and the whole of the universe. Like Adams’s parable or the story from the Baal-Shem, it suggests that when we are present with each other we are present to more than just each other.

Maybe this is because, on some level, the self we experience, the “I” that observes and acts, is more illusory than real. We humans are social creatures. We live in complicated societies. We are dependent on each other. This can be seen even in basic actions. I, for example, drove here this morning. My car was built and designed by someone else. The road is maintained by state and municipal workers. The gasoline that fueled the car was refined and extracted far from here. Most actions that seem independent, that appear to be individual actions, are actually social actions.

This might be a partial answer to our question: What does it mean to be present to each other? Perhaps being present to each other means being open to the reality of our interconnection rather than living in the illusion of our independence. Perhaps it means that each of us is not alone and that we are on the planet together. Or, as Harjo would put it:

“Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.

Let us remember that for each other, for Trayvon Martin, for George Zimmerman and for all the people of the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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