Spirit of Justice

“The Spirit of Justice a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely”

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, May 8, 2016

Sometimes irony can be pretty overpowering.  On Tuesday evening our refugee committee was gathering.  We had received word that our Syrian refugee family, the Adams clan, will finally be arriving in Edmonton on May 19th.  We met to make some final plans for receiving them.

And as we were gathering, we learned that just a few minutes before the entire city of Ft. Mac had been given the evacuation order and that the highways were choked with up to 88,000 fleeing Albertans…refugees of a different sort.

Wednesday morning I was awoken by the 7 a.m. CBC news with updates on this crisis and a text on my phone asking what the church might do?

With our resources going towards the Syrian family, our Keeler Hall space given over to the Garage Sale the answer was not much.  It wasn’t an answer that felt very good.

It wasn’t a great start to my day.

As you no doubt heard, later in the day we were all asked to support the Red Cross in a unified effort.  Sometimes the best answer IS to throw money at the problem and let the skilled people handle things, but it still wasn’t emotionally satisfying.  My angst was not relieved.  All day I parsed my feelings.  In truth, I don’t even know anyone in Fort McMurray.  I’ve never been there.  You would think I might have a little of my usual distance and perspective.

But I didn’t.  The ‘big one’ just hit our end of the province and I was being forced to sit on the sidelines.  All week, anytime I saw a picture of the magnificently terrifying flames I found myself close to tears, emotion welling up in my throat.  Every time I heard a story, not of heroism, but of simple competence like the way emergency personnel successfully helped 88,000 safely evacuate, sometimes under terrifying conditions, I choked up.

I came to realize that my emotions had as much to do with spirituality as with the actual crisis.  For what is spirituality but the sense of connecting with something greater than ourselves?  A lot of religions have tried to make that about a felt connection to God or Allah or Buddha, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t cover all the bases.  For me, spirituality is about connection to other beings – and perhaps nature – at a deep core level.  Watching people flee the fires and feeling, “That could be me,” is an expression of a spiritual connection, a sad and oddly joyous celebration of common humanity.

A lot of us felt it.  This was something more than first responders doing their job well.  There was more to it, something that called these people to the work of fire fighting, emergency medical service, disaster relief.  I suggest that it is something deep inside, something spiritual.  Even our mayor couldn’t get through a press conference about Edmonton’s response without choking up.  For a lot of people, maybe for all of us to one degree or another, being of use, being a helper, being a problem solver is a core piece of spiritual identity, even if we don’t frame in in that language.

In our hymnbook the poet Marge Piercey captures both the desire and the spirituality of shared humanity in a piece called “To Be of Use” #567 We have recast it as a responsive reading.  Let’s read it together:

I want to be with people who submerge in the task,

Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along.

Who stand in the line and haul in their places.

Who are not parlour generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.  Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing done well has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries out for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

Our theme this month is “How do I satisfy my spiritual thirst?”  It might seem that fighting wildfires might not be very spiritual, but I think deep down that it is.

Some years ago three ministerial colleagues wrote an essay on the spirituality of Social Justice.  They told a story:

A friend of ours, an African-American community activist, relates what happened one evening when she spoke about her work. An elderly black church member approached her afterward.  “Gail”, the woman said, “it was so wonderful to hear you this evening.  You are such a spiritual person!” Dumbfounded, Gail said later that she had no idea what the woman meant. “How can I be spiritual?” she exclaimed. “I’m an atheist!”  This elderly listener was expressing the notion that justice-making and spiritual wholeness go hand-in-hand, two sides of the same coin.  What begins as mysticism ends in social action.

This understanding of spiritual practice is engagement in the world, not withdrawal from it.

For a good many of us, seeking justice in the very broadest sense is one way to slake our spiritual thirst. It is the means to live our beliefs into the world, to move through this life with some sense of wholeness and balance.

And that broadest sense, justice-making means looking out for one another.  Certainly, it can mean standing up for the underdog, fighting bad laws, fighting for the respect and worth of those among us who have been diminished by hatred, prejudice and marginalization.  Our Social Justice Wrecking Crew – as they have come to style themselves – is made up of a large number of people who do just that.  They are a group of folks who want to stand against injustice where they find it and be of use.  Their spirits call them to act, to do something… and they do a good job.

But a broader sense of this spirit of justice is simply being a good neighbour, being a good citizen.  Be a benefit to the world because it’s the right thing to do and because helping in whatever way we can lets us sleep at night.

Sleeping well at night is a good thing, a pretty good reward for trying to be the best people we can be.  Sleeping well is one sign of inner spiritual peace.  So this crisis comes along and most of us are told we can’t help much – unless, perhaps we have family or friends directly affected.  To make an awful pun, where’s the spiritual justice in that?

I actually wrote this section on Wednesday morning at the height of the evacuation.  My personal resources are going elsewhere to other good causes.  My knee is hurting and my heart is aching for the people losing their homes.  I might wanted to do more, but right then I couldn’t.  It was frustrating.

I spoke with a lot of people this week and know that sense of empty frustration is not unique. But here’s the truth of it, the core message of the sermon, the takeaway.  It’s really pretty simple.

All we can do is what we can do, and we have to see that as enough.  And if it isn’t enough, then we can just hold the hand of someone suffering.

That’s it.  Respect your own limits.  Do what you can do and don’t get wrapped up in self-recrimination for not doing more.  This week I was grateful that the doctor I needed to see was here for me and not off on the front lines.  I am grateful that our City continued delivering normal services even as they set up to receive Fort McMurrians at the Expo Centre.

I am reminded of the standard warning on airplanes.  “In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks drop out of the overhead compartment, first put your mask on and only then assist those next to you.

There is nothing wrong with attending to our own needs first and then offering whatever help we can to others in need.  And sure, like those guys who stood by the side of the highway with gas cans, some of us will be in the right place at the right time with the ability to do something more.  Fantastic.  We can all celebrate that.  And someday in the past or future we were or will be the ones offering that special help.  We take turns. We stand in line and pass the bags along.  That’s part of the spirituality of social justice as well, taking turns.  No one does it alone.  Superheroes only exist in movies and coming books.

If we are the types who feel deep empathy, if we are the types who are feeling some angst that we aren’t doing more, then must forgive ourselves for only doing what we can.  And we must also stop and appreciate that what we are doing matters.

I mentioned that when I learned of the evacuation we were just starting a refugee committee meeting.  That matters too.  Others among us were caring for loved ones, some in distress.  Still others were helping provide needed services just by doing their jobs, keeping the economy going, making music and so on. Some were busy enough just being good mothers and fathers. We have to honour our contributions to the world as well.  We are fundamentally good people trying to treat others with respect, honesty and fairness.  These everyday interactions spring from our own spiritual views, that indescribable collection of feelings, intuition and spiritual connection that define us and give us purpose in the world.  And to stay sane, we have to honour our limits. Do what we can do and understand that it is enough.

The 20th century activist Dorothy Day summed it up beautifully:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort.  They cannot see that we must lay one small brick at a time, take one step at a time.  A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions.  Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that.  No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.  There’s too much work to do.”