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One Brick at a Time – 11/16/2014

In my first year of college, they held a blood-drive on campus. I went with some of my friends down to the student center, to participate. Another friend had insisted it was the sort of thing everyone ought to do, if they could – and besides, there were going to be free cookies. That was my first and last time giving blood.

As I lay there on the gurney listening to conversation amongst my neighbors, I found myself thinking about the world, and my place in it. In those very early days of adulthood, I was in a struggle with my own moral relativism. I had been on the run for years already from my call to the ministry and I hadn’t found the courage yet to return to it. Still, I was haunted by the question of what I could do that would matter. What contribution was I going to be able to make in a world badly off-kilter, where it seems so easy to do wrong even when trying to do right?

There, with a needle in my arm, giving up a little bit of my own blood so that someone else, some stranger, at some point in the future could have it when they truly needed it – I felt like I’d found an answer. It wasn’t a grand solution, but it was something concrete that I could do – that almost anyone could do – to help other people and reduce the amount of suffering in the world. I took solace in this, and began to think that perhaps I was finding my way in the moral wilderness. And then I passed out.

The human body does not react well to losing blood, even under the best of circumstances. Health care professionals know this, and so they draw it carefully and responsibly. But in a small percentage of the population, just the normal draw that’s taken in a blood drive will cause a loss of consciousness. And a small percentage of those folks also go into a seizure. I’m told it was very impressive. When I woke up, safe but woozy, I was faced with a difficult reality: in the struggle to find something kind, compassionate, or just to do with my life, I couldn’t even donate blood.

This sermon is the close of a three part series exploring a declaration in the Talmud – the great collection of the wisdom of the earliest Rabbis – that, “The world rests on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.” Gemilut chasadim is usually translated as, “acts of loving kindness.” So this sermon also serves as the first in a series on what the Buddhist tradition calls the four immeasurables or the four sublime attitudes – the leading virtues of Buddhist thought. The first of these is metta, which again is usually translated as “loving kindness.”

In his novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Kurt Vonnegut’s titular character greets a maternity ward full of newborns in the following way: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote, “My true religion is kindness.”

Yet, preaching in favor of kindness is exactly the sort of thing that Unitarian Universalism gets mocked for, by those more inclined to orthodoxy. It seems too simple and too mild. We think of kindness as a passive trait: polite, inoffensive, the sort of thing that one compliments the meek on because they have no other virtues worth noting. But I am here to tell you that the practice of gemilut chasadim, the cultivation of metta, the living of a life devoted to loving-kindness is the most challenging and the most radically counter-cultural way to be that I know of in this world we share.

Deep, real kindness requires an unflinching attention to the needs of others. My mentor, Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert proposed that one ought to, “Do unto others 20 percent better than you would have them do unto you – 20 percent to correct for subjective error.” If anything, I would call this a conservative estimate. The discipline of kindness is not only in conflict with our own petty-grudges, profound frustrations, justifiable angers, and unjustifiable hates – it can even seem to compete against other virtues. In one Buddhist story an old woman gave of her meager savings to support a monk devoted to living a pure life and cultivating virtue. To test whether his devotion was worthy of her largess, she sent a young woman to visit his hut. On the old woman’s instructions, the younger woman reached out to the monk longingly; he flatly and coldly rejected her advance. When she heard what had happened, the old woman confronted the monk and burned down the hut she had paid to build for him. He had proven himself unworthy of it. Certainly, she said, he was right not to break his vow of chastity, but he should not have been so unkind about it.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, the teacher Jesus is reported to have said, “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…whatever you did unto the least, you did unto me.” Considering that the audience for this message is Jesus’ followers, we might describe the lesson in this way: that whatever kindness we show to a stranger is morally the same as showing that kindness to someone whom we dearly love. And, continuing that theme, when we fall short of kindness’ ideal – whenever we write-off or ignore another’s woe – it is as though we have turned our hearts away from those who are most precious to us.

We cannot ignore the fact that our dominant mode of relating to each other in this society is an attitude of neglect. We walk by each other on the street without acknowledgement and maneuver around each other in traffic. Those of us who participate in our economy – that is, all of us – spend our days enmeshed in a system that treats everyone else as a means to an end – at best – and at worst as our eternal adversaries who can only be defeated, never reconciled with. The impulse of kindness upends this system: it makes us questions and challenge the fact that anyone else has less or that the needs of some go unmet in order to satisfy the wants of others. Loving-kindness de-alienates us from each other, when we let it into our hearts and let it guide our hands. Our loving-kindness is a measurement of our awakeness to that quality, being, or force which unites us all – that one which is called by many names, even, sometimes, ‘God.’

As I said, kindness is not the only virtue and so we sometimes convince ourselves that other virtues are greater or more important or simply take precedence in a given situation. Honesty is a favorite here, when we absolve our cruel or inconsiderate words because they are made up of true facts. Justice is another leading case, which we tell ourselves exists in opposition to loving-kindness, rather than as its collective manifestation. And there is also the impulse to say that we have done enough – which is important when we are drained and depleted and need to be kind to ourselves, but all-too-often serves to let us off the hook, giving us permission to remain comfortable and undisturbed by the truly challenging possibilities of kindness’ imperative.

The angst that I felt before and after my failed attempt to give blood certainly owed something to the navel-gazing undergraduates are sometimes accused of. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about, but in my case it was true: I had a little too much time to worry, and just enough introductory philosophy to be dangerous. But one does not have to be a newly-post-adolescent in order to face doubt – in fact, that’s a very natural part of being human. And when we unavoidably encounter moments – or days, or months – of questioning the universe and our place in it, we do well to have something to hold onto and to ground us.

In the horror-comedy-soap opera from ten years ago called Angel, there’s a moment where one of that program’s characters faces such a crisis. He is facing his near-certain death, and the revelation that in this particular story, the universe is not compassionate or even indifferent, but actively hostile and full of cruel powers beyond his ability to defeat. Searching for a way to spend what he expects is his last day of life, the character goes to a shelter for homeless youth run by one of his friends. He finds her in the middle of her work, loading furniture into a truck, and lays a very heavy question on her, “What if I told you it doesn’t help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it’s all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive, and they will never let it get better down here. What would you do?” Her answer is simple, like she’s already faced that question and come through the other side, “I’d get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here. Wanna give me a hand?”

Those of you who joined in last week’s discussion, following the service, of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address may recall that we touched on the question of what good it is to be good. This, I believe, is the answer. The practice of loving-kindness is so nourishing, so satisfying, so unambiguously right when we take it into our hearts that it gives us something to hold onto, a way to keep going even when all other meaning falters and the world seems to collapse around us. Kindness, put into action, matters even when no one will know of it, even when all record will be destroyed, all consequences undone. It will still have been accomplished. It will still be worth it.

The rabbinic tradition makes a distinction between actions motivated by loving-kindness and the more specific financial charity which can be done with a variety of different motives and feelings. While the giving of money to those in need – in Hebrew, tzedakah – is still very important, gemilut  chasadim is considered superior for three reasons: we can do it with our bodies, not just with our money, we can offer it to the rich as well as the poor, and we can extend it to the dead as well as to the living.

Gemilut chasadim means, literally, “paying back loving-kindness.” There is a strong sense of reciprocity in the term. Not in the sense that we should show kindness only to those who show it to us, or to give out kindness according to the amount we have received from others. Instead this means responding to the kindness and mercy of our existence – which we must experience from the universe and from other people throughout our lives if we are to survive at all – by cultivating that same generosity of spirit in ourselves and in the actions we choose to make. This same sort of cultivation is an essential element of Buddhist practice, and there are a number of different renderings of words used to affirm and renew an attitude of benevolent kindness. One of these reads as follows:

May all beings be happy, content, and fulfilled.

May all beings be healed and whole.

May all have whatever they want and need.

May all be protected from harm and free from fear.

May all beings enjoy inner peace and ease.

May all be awakened, liberated, and free.

And may there be peace in this world, and throughout the entire universe.

None of this comes easy, of course. Seeking to practice being kind – actively, intentionally, unrelentingly – we push back against the current order of the world. It is good, then, to get as much practice as we can. This is, in fact, one of the chief roles of our congregation: to provide us all with opportunities to serve needs beyond our own. If you need a means to practice gemilut chasadim – and all of us do – I want to remind you of some of the avenues you can find here to do so. We serve a free meal to anyone who can use one every Tuesday night, one Monday night each month, and are now expanding to serve meals at River House – a men’s shelter here in Beverly, on Wednesday nights. Ron Sweet, Nat Carpenter, and Melissa Goggin lead us in that project. Would you mind standing or making yourselves known if you’re here?

Through the Family Promise network we host homeless families here in our sanctuary about four times each year, which is a big undertaking and requires a lot of hands. Anne Geikie and Susan Elliott are our chief coordinators, and Dunc Balantyne happens to be the president of our whole local chapter. Would you please rise? Pastoral Care Committee. ASAPROSAR. Small Group Ministry. Meditation Group.

All those years ago, when I was sad to realize that donating blood was off the list of my possible contributions to society, there was something important missing in my life. I was away from the congregation where I grew up, and I hadn’t yet found another. It is possible to be very kind alone, but it would be difficult to find as many ways of practicing kindness, without first finding an intentional community of which to be a part. This congregation is one such community, in which we have come together in order to practice and cultivate the spirit of loving-kindness.

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First Parish Church

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