Note: The original sermon, delivered at the West Wing Weekend on September 27, 2018, may be seen here; it includes multiple references to the show. The sermon below was delivered with the title “T.H.I.N.K” at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta, NY on October 28, 2018.
How many of you grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood – or showed it to your children as they were growing up? I was born at just the right time – I was 4 when it first appeared on WMHT, the PBS station in Albany – the perfect age for this unique show; and paired with Sesame Street, which came out at the same time, this little white girl from the northernmost of the Taconic Mountains suddenly was learning about towns and cities, counting and spelling (in both English and Spanish), what other people looked like, what it meant to use our imagination, and what it meant to be a neighbor.
I was reminded of the powerful ministry this gentle Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh conducted for decades when I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor on a flight to Lincoln, Nebraska, this summer – and it struck me how important it was to hear these messages in the wake of the King assassination, in the midst of the Vietnam war, in the restlessness of the country – something a little kid knew nothing about except that things seemed wrong and some of my schoolmates’ dads never came home.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that this documentary, and the upcoming film about Fred Rogers, starring Tom Hanks, is resonating so deeply right now. The lessons Mr. Rogers was teaching us – and is still teaching us – help ground us when we feel utterly ungrounded. They are there for the taking – reminders of what Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum reminded us that we learned in Kindergarten – how to be kind and how to share, and how to forgive, and how to take care of ourselves and each other.
And we need these reminders. Too often, I fear, we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle – and lately, the anxieties – of our lives, that we forget to pay attention to others. We forget that while we are the lead characters in our own stories, we are but bit players and maybe just background extras in the stories of other people. So many times, it seems, other people try to upstage us with their ideas, opinions, and criticisms – or worse, we upstage them as if we’re more important or valued. It’s no wonder Mr. Rogers Neighborhood continues to be so important. The ministry of Rogers focused on teaching children – and us – how to live out the assertion that we have inherent worth and dignity just by being human, and how to treat ourselves and each other.
And while I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect the grounding for some of those lessons comes from a sometimes difficult but ultimately helpful text from the Letter to the Ephesians. I say difficult, because the writer uses the metaphor of a marriage to explain his point – and here’s where that pesky “wives, be subject to your husbands” things shows up. Yeah. I know. But what he’s really getting at – and states at the beginning and end of this passage is simply this: “be subject to one another.”
Now for those not familiar with the biblical text, this epistle (or letter) to the church in Ephesus, is one of many written in the name of Paul of Tarsus, carrying on the ministry of someone who planted these Jesus churches around the Mediterranean. Paul’s like a mega church pastor, only his congregations are probably small. But he has this collection of churches he stewards, like a regional consultant – the Evin Carvil-Zeimer of his day. And well… let’s not kid ourselves. People 2000 years ago were much like people today, and any time you get a bunch of people collected in an organization, there’s gonna be trouble. Especially when they’re collected around a mission, or a vision, or a belief.
So these letters – these epistles – aren’t (to me, anyway) so much sacred text as swift kicks in their collective kiesters. Over and over again, Paul – or one of his staff, anyway – is telling them to (a) stop bending the stories of Jesus to make you look good and (b) stop being bad! This one to the Ephesians is no different. My hunch is that there was a lot of conflict and infighting there, so this letter is very much reminding everyone to get along with one another. Especially since the figure they’re centering their organization around – Jesus – is most assuredly not keen on people treating each other with disrespect.
In other words, this isn’t so much about a particular belief or connection to a particular god, it’s about you, and it’s about me, which means it’s about us.
What we are talking about is seeing one another as family – as the people we devote our last measure of affection to. It’s how we are seen, and cared for, and thought of.
This – and the congregational covenant you will be voting on later today – is calling us back to our best selves. And yes, this covenant is about how we treat one another, the people we have known for months, years, decades. The people we work side by side with on committees and events and projects. The people we celebrate with and mourn with. The people who delight us and annoy us but whom we consider family. The people who we see, care for, think of – and hope are seen by, cared for by, and thought of by.
Now I know that people don’t always get along well all the time – especially when there are decades of history. When I first started serving our congregation in Southold on Long Island, I had a series of meetings with members so I could learn more about the congregation and the people. In one afternoon, I was to meet with a woman I’ll call Dorothy, who had been a member for about 40 years, and then later with another woman I’ll call Caroline, who had been a member for about … 40 years. Both women had served as president, on various committees, taught religious education – they’d done it all. In my conversation with Dorothy, I learned about the seven year span that she and Caroline hadn’t talked to one another because Caroline had done something she deemed terrible, but at some point they forgot about it and while they still argue a lot, they’re talking again. A few hours later, I learned from Caroline about how she and Dorothy hadn’t talked for about seven years because Dorothy had done something she deemed terrible, but at some point they forgot about it and while they still argue a lot, they’re talking again.
My point – and I do have one – is that many of you have similar stories. We sometimes speak without thinking because ‘these people know me and I can say anything around them and it doesn’t matter.’ But it does, and the way we treat each other and speak to each other can cause long-held grudges and hard rifts. We assume there’s a level of trust, forgetting that trust needs to constantly be built and tended. I wonder if Caroline and Dorothy could have avoided the seven year silence if they’d thought about how they were seeing each other, speaking to each other, and being subject to each other – or if they’d realize what had happened and made an effort to call one another back into covenant. I wonder what happens when we do.
This stuff matters, because if we don’t get it right inside our walls, we have no hope of getting it right outside our walls. Because being subject to one another is about family, and friends, and fellow UUSO members, but it’s also about strangers in the workplace, in the coffee shop, on I-88, at the airport, at the gym, in our houses of worship. This is about how we treat one another with our policies and our laws. This is how we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion.
Now let me be clear. Being subject to one another is not about being subservient, as some might want to interpret that Ephesians text – this is not about an imbalance of power – or at least it shouldn’t be. Rather, it is about attention. Simply being attentive to one another.
We might see it as being kind.
Now I want to make a distinction – I do not mean nice. I hate that word, nice. Nice is wishy washy. Nice rolls over. Nice buys into the gospel of comfort, that says we don’t want to offend. Nice is complacent. Nice doesn’t make waves or make a stink and lets people have their own version of truth even when it’s not factual. Nice doesn’t want to bother anybody. Nice says comfort is more important than goodness, ease more valued than doing what’s right.
We are, however, supposed to be kind.
Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, Kindness holds the door, Kindness builds a ramp, Kindness explains, Kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice.
But that’s just the start. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.
Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in many big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and votes – and makes sure other people can get to vote too, and goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness believes the survivors.. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water and asks forgiveness. Kindness knows that trans people cannot be erased. Kindness presses legislators to send aid to Puerto Rico, and North Carolina, and Florida. Kindness works for racial justice because it knows that Black Lives Matter.
Kindness answers yes. Kindness doesn’t calculate the return on investment or the risk to reputation or the fear of comments. Kindness is present to the moment.
Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness matters.
Kindness doesn’t assume everyone knows how we do things here. Kindness welcomes new ideas as a gift, not a challenge. Kindness embraces complexity. Kindness embraces discomfort in service to something better. Kindness prefers effectiveness over efficiency. Kindness apologizes and takes responsibility. Kindness lets go of perfectionism. Kindness speaks honestly but also speaks with thoughtfulness and care.
Imagine if we were thoughtful about how we communicate with one another. The image on the front of your orders of service reminds us to THINK –to consider what it is we are about to say. Is it thoughtful? Meaning – did we think before we spoke? Is it helpful – meaning, does what you are about to say actually offer advice or information or just criticism? Is it inspiring – does it give a boost or does it shame? Is it needed – meaning simply that – does it actually need to be said, or would it just make you feel smarter or superior? And is it kind? Well, we have explored kind… which I think is the key. Kindness is how we live into covenant with one another, how we act as Fred Rogers taught us to act, how the writer of Ephesians wants us to act.
You see, there’s a reason the writer of Ephesians uses a marriage as his metaphor for being subject to one another. He’s not just talking about affection for others but understanding that when all is said and done, we’re all part of one family, one body. How can we be unkind to one part of our body when it’s so intrinsically a part of us? As gospel artist Hezekiah Walker sings in “I Need You To Survive” – “I need you / you need me / we’re all a part of God’s body.” Imagine when we think of another person this way, and show them they matter, to see them as individuals, to listen to their stories and consider their needs. Imagine if we thought of OURSELVES this way and were kind to ourselves?
Because when we start acting that way toward ourselves… and then each other… we begin to see how we can be subject to one other even if “other” are people who disagree with us at the top of their voices.
We are subject to one another when we stop building walls and start building bridges. We are subject to one another when we work for equal rights and equal pay and safety and clean water and accessibility for everyone. We are subject to one another when we join our forces together – remembering Margaret Mead’s words to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Be subject to one another, pleads the writer of Ephesians. And every religious path worth its salt. And your congregational covenant… which is a promise to be subject to one another, to be kind to one another, and to forgive one another.
We know this stuff. We learned it as children. And it’s what drew us to the life-giving message of Unitarian Universalism in the first place. We just need to remember… to notice each other’s needs and seize the moment to act. To be willing to be uncomfortable in service to something greater than ourselves. To give of ourselves out of love and affection and compassion. To be truly kind to one another. To think before we speak, and we must speak with openness and generosity. To answer the call of our principles and our morals and ethics and our faith.
Let us be subject to one another.