Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Beloved Community

Here's the sermon I offered at the Woodinville UU Church today. It was fun to meet one of my new readers, Kelly, who came to the service. Welcome, Kelly, to UU possibilities.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 21, 2008

In 1968, I was offered what I then considered a dubious opportunity-----to be one of the six women in the first Colorado Outward Bound course designed for teachers. I say dubious because I’d never been much of an outdoorswoman, my camping skills were practically nil, and the prospect of spending several weeks in the wilderness, living on cheese and raisins, didn’t thrill me.

My husband and I had been married only 18 months when he was asked to head up a wilderness camping experience for juvenile offenders in Denver. To prepare, he was to take part in this new Outward Bound course, a wilderness experience which included long backpack hikes, rock climbing, white water rafting, and a 3 day solo without food or shelter. All his expenses would be paid by Denver Juvenile Court, and he accepted with alacrity, with one stipulation, that I also be subsidized to attend Outward Bound with him.

Outwardly, I pretended to be thrilled. Inwardly, I quailed. And when confirmation came for him but not for me, I was inwardly delighted. “Oh,” I said, “they must not have had enough money to cover my scholarship. Too bad, I’m so sorry.” Not a hint of sarcasm escaped my lips, but my heart was greatly relieved.

The first day of the course came, and Larry headed off to his orientation. At noon he called. “You’re supposed to be here,” he said. “Your stuff got lost in the mail.”

My husband had been running two and three miles a day to get in shape. I had been eating bonbons and swilling Cokes. Exercise was not my strong suit in those days.

So with visions of blisters and twenty mile hikes and C-rations in my head, I packed up my jeans and t-shirts, my nearly-virgin hiking boots, and my resolve, and headed off to Outward Bound.

We were divided up into patrols of 5 or 6 persons. The women were all in one patrol; in those days, they separated males and females and there were only six of us. At least my husband would not witness my shame, I rationalized as I trudged off.

Our first exercise was to hike from a point near Vail, Colorado, over a 10,000 foot pass in the Gore Range of the Rockies, about a 25 mile loop in three days, a piece of cake, according to our instructors. The six of us women were in varying conditions of fitness, and I found I wasn’t the worst off. Another woman, Sara, a teacher in Denver Public Schools, was also very out of shape and her hiking boots were brand new.

The blisters she acquired the first day caused her to change into her Keds, her slicksoled little tennis shoes, not the best footwear for hiking the Rockies, and about noon on the second day, it happened. Sara, struggling up a steep, muddy incline, lost her footing and fell heavily on her right ankle. We all heard the awful “pop” it made as it gave way.

Sara sat and cried while we gathered around to decide what to do. She had either broken her ankle or had torn ligaments; it was hugely swollen and it was clear she wasn’t walking anywhere.

We were about 12 miles from any kind of help and it was already afternoon. We treated Sara for shock, and, armed with flashlights and without their packs, two women headed for help. We knew that another patrol was on a trail about two drainages away. Our hope was that we could intercept them and get their help in evacuating Sara.

Sara had been injured about halfway up the pass, so once she was splinted and given some aspirin for the pain, we began to work our way up the trail. At first, we tried to support her in a standing position, but to hop uphill on one leg is no easy thing to do, and eventually, we took turns helping Sara scoot up the steep pass trail backwards, on her bottom, while we held her injured ankle up off the ground by her pants leg.

It took us hours of struggle, but by nightfall, we had crossed the saddle of the pass and could make camp. Sara was in serious pain, and we were exhausted. We cooked our freeze-dried supper (food had never tasted so good), and collapsed into our sleeping bags. A late night thunderstorm lashed the peaks around us and whipped our light tent tarps into a frenzy, keeping us restless and anxious most of the night.

Just before dawn, we were awakened by the sounds of the other patrol rolling into our camp. They had hiked all night to get to us and were hungry and tired. But Sara was our first concern, and we made her a makeshift litter out of a sleeping bag and lodgepole pines and began our trek down the mountain immediately.

We got Sara to a clinic in Vail that day and knew she would be okay. But we had experienced something that I had never known before---what it could do for a group of individuals to meet a challenge together.

This, of course, is the philosophy of the Outward Bound adventure. Not to get someone injured so that others can rescue them, but to offer a challenge beyond day-to-day challenges, a challenge that requires people to push themselves beyond what they think they’re capable of, to find compassion for others, and to serve others unselfishly.

This was my first experience with real community, with belonging to a group that accomplished something meaningful for ourselves and others. We became close in a way that I’d never experienced before. I felt known by them, valued by them, and in return, I knew and valued my comrades. My faith in them became so strong that I was willing to back off a 150 foot cliff tied to a rope, with just a skinny little woman named Lolita, one of the women in my patrol, belaying me to keep me from falling as I did my first rappel down the cliff face.

Community is an incredible thing, an experience that calls from us our best, supports us at our weakest times, and offers to others a sense of hope and encouragement.

In the Community UU Church of Santa Monica, California, hangs a statement written by our Universalist forebear Angus MacLean.

"My idea of a church...., is based on what seems to be the natural way which people acquire goodness and wisdom and give these to each other....Probably no one can be spiritually always robust, and everyone is at times one of the little helpless ones whose life and happiness are in the hands of his (or her) neighbors. One who has not been completely dependent upon another's good will has still something to learn.”

He goes on: “The most gifted and secure will find himself at times the victim of misfortune, and he may find the one he regarded as least worthy the first to be at his door wanting to know what he can do.

“Today I am well, and the sick are glad to have me visit them; tomorrow I may look upon the world through the eyes of the suffering...., today I am young and tomorrow I am old and struggling to adjust to the fact. Today I am virtuous and tomorrow I may have done that which appalls me, and I need understanding and forgiveness.

“Every day and every hour we are sustained by others’ reactions or destroyed thereby...., a church community should be most alert to these facts. It should be the Beloved Community."

Martin Luther King Jr. also invoked the image of the Beloved Community, as he spoke of the outcome of nonviolent resistance. As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men (and women).”

An ardent student of the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dr. King was much impressed with the Mahatma’s befriending of his adversaries, most of whom professed profound admiration for Gandhi’s courage and intellect. Dr. King believed that the age-old tradition of hating one’s opponents was not only immoral, but bad strategy which perpetuated the cycle of revenge and retaliation. Only nonviolence, he believed, had the power to break the cycle of retributive violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation.

In a 1957 speech, Birth of A New Nation, Dr. King said, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness.”

The idea of Beloved Community is a concept that fits Unitarian Universalism well. Our ideals of inherent worth and dignity, unity in diversity, world community, and the interdependent web of all existence are perfectly aligned with the construction of intentional community, with the creation of the Beloved Community.

The concept of the Beloved Community reminds us that rugged individualism is not our goal, as a congregation. Our independent wills help us to pursue our purpose, which is to weave a viable interdependent web. We individuals are embedded in communities of meaning. Our task as members of a congregation is to create a setting in which unity and love for one another is the rule.

What can be done to encourage the presence of the Beloved Community here at WUUC? I offer some thoughts about what the Beloved Community needs to flourish. And I am indebted to my colleague the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle for helping to shape my thoughts on this subject.

First, Beloved Community means facing hard times together. Authentic religion has little to do with sweetness and comfort. Rather, it is a love that holds to the difficult, attempts the dangerous, doesn’t give up in the face of adversity.

Second, Beloved Community blooms where it’s planted. There is plenty to do right here in this place. We cannot ignore the work to be done in our midst, between us, in favor of lofty goals in far-off places. We are rooted here; let’s make the most of it.

Third, Beloved Community requires constant vigilance. It requires watchfulness, to guard against behavior within the community that would undermine the shared covenant. We must wrestle, rather than fight, struggle fairly rather than draw blood, hold each other in sorrowful times and reach outward in justice-building and peace-making, rather than look narcissistically inward.

Fourth, Beloved Community honors the law of respectfulness. Respect means literally to look at something or someone again and again, to re-inspect. It is the only way we can forge a community of equality. Respect is a really big law which means that we have to treat everything with respect, the earth, the animals, the plants, the sky, each other. Everything.

Fifth, Beloved Community means that everyone is welcome, whether they are attractive or odd. Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God, says the Hebrew proverb, and the Christian scripture echoes it: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” This one is hard. We say we accept differences but in practice we gravitate toward homogeneity. Beloved Community stretches us and teaches us to welcome difference---and to ask all to respect and share our covenant.

Sixth, Beloved Community cares for its members, supports and celebrates the achievements of members, grieving alongside those who are bereft, lifting and embracing all within its sacred circle.

Seventh, Beloved Community means that conflicts are desirable and dealt with openly and honestly. The goal of conflict is healthy change, rather than injury or retaliation. Healthy conflict serves to sharpen issues and elicit new perspectives. The Beloved Community grows through differences of opinion that are sorted out peacefully.

Eighth, the Beloved Community offers justice balanced with joy. Authentic community-builders take their work seriously but not grimly, remembering that humor and silliness are a wonderful antidote to despair. Did you know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a comic and a prankster, in addition to being a great moral activist? Those in his inner circle often remarked upon his zaniness and sense of humor.

Ninth, Beloved Community means constant rebirth; it is not tight and rigid but fluid and flexible, always forming and re-forming depending on the issues which confront it, not
dependent on any guru or vow, but tied to a variety of events, persons, and scriptures.

And finally, Beloved Community is ultimately eternal. Our Universalist ancestors tell us that we were created by a loving power, that we are transformed by love’s redeeming power, and that we will eventually find ourselves forever in its kindly, tender embrace. The Apostle Paul says, “Love never ends. Prophecies and languages will vanish, but love never fails.”

And this I believe is the chief hallmark of the Beloved Community, that our love for each other is unfailing. It prevails throughout the hard times, it governs our behavior toward each other, it holds us accountable for our behavior, and it stretches us into new understandings and abilities.

We welcome others into our Beloved Community and offer them love as well, asking them to join us in mutual respect for each other, in ongoing self-examination, in joy at one another’s successes and in sorrow at one another’s losses.

Let us bend ourselves to the task of creating Beloved Community here at Woodinville UU Church, in which we are safe, in which we are actively reaching out, and in which we love and are loved and are accountable to each other for our behavior. Let’s pause for a moment of silent reflection and prayer.

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have the power to heal our world and to heal each other, as we come together in Beloved Community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Miss Kitty said...

AWESOME. This was just what I needed to read today. Thank you, Ms. K.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Miss K, for your very kind words. Glad it was helpful.

PS. Love those Myrtle Mae Mondays!

~Kelly Faith! Holiday~ said...

Thank you for your kind welcome to WUUC, Rev. K! I enjoyed your sermon, and appreciate how friendly and inviting everyone was. I'm looking forward to attending again! :) Have a wonderful rest of the week~ Kelly

ms. kitty said...

Kelly, I'm so glad we had a chance to meet! I hope our paths will cross again.