The Light Within


Unitarian Church of Edmonton, January 25, 2015

First we begin with an editorial on justice that in some ways served as a reading for the day.  The sermon follows.

Pulpit Editorial on behalf of the UCE Social Justice Committee – Jeff Bisanz

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those are not my words but the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If they sound strangely familiar, it’s probably because we read them just a few minutes ago.

At the heart of the reading is the concept of social justice, the often vaguely defined idea that because we are all “tied in a single garment of destiny,” we need to make sure that there is some equity, some fairness, in how wealth, opportunity, and privilege are distributed in our society.  As Unitarians, at least three of our Principles are all about equity and justice.  And as much as a church is about developing spirituality and a sense of community, it is also about helping us to live our principles in the wider world.

My purposes in this pulpit editorial are to tell you about some decisions the Social Justice Committee has made about its own directions and commitments, and to invite you to get involved as you see fit.

Over the past few months the Social Justice Committee has been thinking about its roles and duties, and about how to maximize its service to the Church.  In this church we have a rich history of involvement in social justice issues.  We can think of the legacy of Stan Calder and others in the struggle for the rights of LGBT individuals, and there is more.  Several members of our congregation are involved in the City’s initiative to eliminate homelessness, in building houses through Habitat for Humanity, in the peace movement, in providing support for poor communities in Latin America, in human rights activities, and much more.

The Social Justice Committee is sort of a microcosm of the congregation.  Members are involved in lots of activities related to social justice.  But as is often the case for social justice in our region and around the world, our efforts tend to be fragmented.  We’re all working on different things, good things, but moving in different directions.  All good, but there is little opportunity to pool our resources so as to get as much impact as possible.

Over the past several months the Social Justice Committee has been thinking about these things.  We have discussed our strengths, our limitations, and our aspirations.  The discussion has been painful at times, but also stimulating.  We’ve made some decisions.

First, we have settled on two broad “functions” that we would like the Social Justice Committee to serve.  One is engaging and educating ourselves and the congregation on issues related to social justice.  The other is promoting our commitment to social justice as part of the identity of both the Committee and the UCE.  The point is that from now on it’s not enough for the Committe to just be doing things on its own.  We want to help the Church be involved in social justice issues, and we want that involvement to be a big part of the identity of the Church.

Next, we realize that we can’t tackle all the problems of the world at once, and we see the value of working in a collaborative way on a few, targeted issues.  After some discussion, we have agreed to focus our efforts on two related areas, homelessness and poverty.  These are core issues for our community, and we think the Church can have an impact.  Let me just say that “focus” does not mean that we will or should ignore anything else.  In fact, focusing on homelessness and poverty inevitably means that we also will have to be concerned with Aboriginal and newcomer issues, human rights, and the delivery of educational, social, and health services, especially as they relate to homelessness and poverty.  And of course members of the Committee and Church will continue pursue their favorite social justice issues.  But we will collaborate on homelessness and poverty.

Next, we agreed on two “strategic goals” for the immediate future: educating ourselves and the congregation about homelessness and poverty; and supporting the work of local initiatives, such as the City’s work on homelessness and the Mayor’s Task Force on Eliminating Poverty.

In short, the Social Justice Committee will try to move from fragmented activities to collective action focused on homelessness and poverty.  I think this is a big decision, and it’s sort of scary.  But we see value in moving in this direction, and we want to give it our best shot.

So, we would like to invite anyone who is interested to get involved.  First, we would really appreciate your feedback on our new tack.  Is this a good way to go?

Second, we are beginning to educate ourselves about homelessness and poverty locally.  We invite you to join us and help us think through some of the problems in these areas.  Two opportunities are coming up.  Next Sunday is February 1, and it’s a Soup Sunday.  The Social Justice Committee will show a video on homelessness during the lunch.  If you are interested, please join in.  The following Sunday, February 8, we will hold a discussion about homelessness and poverty after the morning service.  If you would like to join in the discussion, please do so.  If you would like to read some related articles in advance, let a member of the Committee know.

Third, if you are interested in getting involved in any way, great!  You might have some special knowledge or experience that would be helpful, or you might have some ideas that we could pursue.  Or you might just be interested.  You could join the Committee, but you don’t have to; there are other ways to get involved.  Just let a member of the committee know that you are interested.  We are just figuring out to proceed, and we would welcome your contributions!

In closing, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Social justice is all about equity.  Some view it as wildly idealistic; many of us see it as the ultimate in practicality.  Maybe it’s both.  The Social Justice Committee is trying to figure out how the Church can make a collective contribution to social justice, and at the same time weave social justice into the fabric of the Church even more than in the past.  We would appreciate your ideas, your guidance, your support, and your participation.

Thank you.

Sermon: The Light Within

This month we have been exploring the theme of “What would it mean to be people of LIGHT?”  On the first Sunday I looked at the history of our symbol, the Flaming Chalice, and the many contemporary meanings we give to it.  It is our light, and we each get to determine what it means to us.  How Unitarian is that?

In the second week Chorealis led a wonderful and powerful service that equated inner light with the guiding voice we sometimes hear coming from deep within us. I found it to be transformative.

Last Sunday I picked up on a December sermon and explored positive images we find in darkness, the contrasting element that makes light so rich and meaningful.  The darkness is for rest, renewal and the rediscovery of creativity.  I understand that some of the small groups that have been meeting picked up on this in their conversations as well.  That’s great.  If we commit to theme ministry next year, we will create more opportunities for small group conversations.

Today I want to complete this exploration by looking at the light within, and hopefully tie it in to the message about social justice Jeff shared with us a few minutes ago.

In ancient days, back before cities and industry, back in the time when even flints were barely understood and very rare, back then tribes had fire keepers.  This was an extremely important job for, as that other Jeff has been saying on Survivor for years, “Fire is life”.

When the tribe was on the move to better caves or following the herds, the fire keeper would carefully pack live embers in some kind of container, most often a piece of horn.  Packed gently and carefully with tinder, the ember would continue to smoulder.  The horn would be closed to keep it from burning too quickly and to protect it from rain.  The light would be hidden.  The fire keeper would have to check on it now and again in the course of the day add fuel, give it oxygen and keep the light alive.  And when the time came to make camp, the fire keeper would gently blow the ember back to female and kindle the common fire, beginng the process of making the next day’s embers.

Though it could not always be seen or felt, the tribe’s fire was always burning.  The rest of the people had faith that the fire keeper would keep that light alive for them all. We need to know the light is burning somewhere.  It is both our faith and our hope.

Light is more than keeping darkness at bay, more than helping us see. It is about more than keeping us warm as well.  I suspect that long before religious scriptures and doctrines were written, we humans understood the spiritual quality of fire.  We who gather around the Flaming Chalice today surely do.  There is nothing quite as comforting and hypnotic as the dancing flame, whether it be candles lit to create a mood at dinner table, in bed or bath, gathering around an outdoor fire to watch the dancing sparks.  The light draws us in, calms us, comforts us in body and spirit.  Indeed, I invite you to go home and simply sit in a room lit only by candle light.  You will be drawn into its depths.

So many readings of all kinds allude to that tiny spark of light that sustains.  So many writers, poets and artists have used that image.

If, using the ideas from last week’s sermon, soul lives in the darkness, then surely spirit resides in the light.  Look at the old Christian paintings: saints are always depicted with a glowing halo.  In the Pentecost story, the grieving apostles were said to be dithering about in the absence of the risen Christ, now  ascended into heaven.  God sent them the Holy Spirit who visited them in the form of tongues of flame dancing above their heads.  They were ‘inspired’ -discovered new gifts, new strengths and new courage.  Their spirits were renewed, their hopes lifted.

The Jewish Scriptures speak of inner light in the same way.  In our opening words Isaiah is exhorting the people of Israel to live well, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless.  And the reward for living up to such a duty?

Then your light will burst forth like the morning,

your new skin will quickly grow over your wound;

your righteousness will precede you,

and Adonai’s glory will follow you. 

Your light will burst forth”.  That tiny spark glowing in you will grow and overwhelm you and simply burst forth! The implication is that it was always there, but that when you don’t feed it with right action, it grows dim and weak – too weak to even light your way or keep you warm.  And while taking care of just yourself is a good and responsible thing to do, if we never connect with others, if we never do good beyond ourselves, that light will not sustain us.  But live with compassion and generosity and the light will grow and burn brightly, because it is what God, or moral living, or righteousness calls us do to.

The important thing is that the light is there inside of us.  It is part of being human.  We are each fire keepers in our way, guarding those precious, glowing embers not just for ourselves, but for all who need them.  The challenge of living is to see how well we can do that simple but all important job.  How well do we connect and care for that light inside us and then how do we share it with others.

From time to time, when I am discussing the subject of prayer, I like to refer to Howard Thurman.  In the mid-20th century, Thurman was a liberal African-American preacher, writer, lecturer and teacher.

He described prayer as an inward journey across a sea inside of us.  In the middle of that sea sits a small island.  In the middle of the island sits a small stone temple and in the middle of that temple burns a flame.  The purpose of our prayers is not to summon the help from some far away God in heaven, but rather to find courage and strength and comfort from that light that already burns inside each of us.

That’s always made sense to me, to the little Catholic kid whose mother’s favourite quote was “God helps those who help themselves.”  Look first to the light inside.  That is the source of your strength.

Each week we light our candles of care and connection.  In no small way, those candles represent that same fire inside that inner temple on our inner sea.  The act of lighting that candle is a prayer directed inward, an outer world reminder that we need to nurture and summon that light within.

Or perhaps we are lighting it to inspire and warm the spark in another.

If you look in our grey hymnal under the section labelled “Chalice Lightings”, the first one you will find, #447 is the one by Albert Schweitzer:

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by the spark from another person.  Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

Sure we all have to walk through the darkness sometimes.  As I said last week, there is a natural cycle.  We need the rest, and time to grieve losses and time to heal.  We need to lie fallow in the darkness.  Most of the time we get ourselves back to the light.  Most of the time, but not always.  Sometimes we need a helping hand, or someone to show us the way, or perhaps someone even to give us that kick in the pants that gets us going again.

The rare gift is knowing when to rekindle that light in another person and when to let them rest awhile longer.  But when the timing is right, what a gift it is.  Sharing our light with another banishes loneliness and isolation and warms the soul that has grown too cold on its own.

Nurturing the light anywhere brightens it everywhere.  It doesn’t have to be obvious or life saving in some big dramatic way.  Sometimes the smallest things help turn things around.  It’s like a smile or even a laugh.  It’s infectious.  It does not just add light, it lightens the heart.  We don’t need to start conflagrations.  Sometimes we need only light a simple match.

One of my favourite vignettes from literature is the fence whitewashing scene from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Tom is charged with whitewashing the fence at Aunt Polly’s house, a most loathsome task in his opinion.  His solution is to get out there and make it look like the most fun job in the world, whistling and acting as if he is clearly enjoying himself.  Pretty soon other kids come by and soon are begging him for a chance to help.  The moral seems to be, make it fun, make it light  and people will help.

Or you might say, let your light shine and people will be drawn by it.

And that gets me back to Jeff Bisanz’s earlier message about the focused direction of our Social

Justice Committee. I think that is a great step forward, and having worked with Audrey Brooks on the Interfaith Housing Initiative in this city, I was certainly pleased when they chose to support ending homelessness and Mayor Iveson’s new initiative to end poverty in this city.  When the city gets behind initiatives like that the chances of success go up dramatically.  Light shared is twice as bright, but when we can join with many others and in turn multiply our single candle power by a factor of thousands and then the light does truly burst forth. We have witnessed that in the success of the ten year Plan to End Homelessness. Now in year four the city has already reached it’s goal of housing 3,000 people, 85% of whom remain housed.

So consider coming to the events they have lined up.  Come and see the film at Soup Sunday next week.  I guarantee when you see how some formerly homeless people have literally saved their lives, you will feel brighter.  And come and listen to the speaker they will bring in sometime in the future.  It is amazing how finding solutions to the housing question betters our city and lessens the stress on our various public and social services.  Addressing poverty will only increase those social and economic benefits.

And consider volunteering for Habitat for Humanity this spring.  You don’t need great building skills, believe me.  I volunteer.  heck, Audrey volunteers!  But I promise you a wonderful feeling from helping build someone a home and a great sense that you have made our city just a little better, just a little more humane.

To reach out and share our light is just such a good and simple thing to do.  I am reminded of another of our hymnal Chalice Lightings taken from a Passover liturgy:

May the light we now kindle

inspire us to use our powers 

to heal and not to harm,

to help and not to hinder,

to bless and not to curse,

to serve you, Spirit of freedom.

We all need light in our lives.  We need the physical light that shows us the way.  We need the light and warmth of another person or a community so we don’t feel alone and isolated.  We need the vitamins offered by the sun and the food it helps produce from the earth.  We need darkness too, but endless darkness would be the death of us, quite literally.

We are people of the light, and so we need to find ways to extend our light to others, to help them when they are suffering, to help us appreciate our own gifts given and received.  All those things come to us when we share, when we act as if we are people of light.