Rev. Rod Debs, pastor
October 6, 2013
Story for All Ages: “Power, Wealth and Knowledge”
Once upon a time there was a little planet called Gaia in the Milky Way. A few kings owned all the power, wealth and knowledge. Each king on Gaia could make all his people do whatever he wanted them to do (that’s power). Each king owned everything on his part of the planet (that’s wealth). And each king knew everything he wanted to know because he made all the teachers teach him (that’s knowledge).
But Gaia’s kings were afraid. They were afraid that another king would take all their power and wealth and knowledge.
So each king got his whole family together and shared with them his power, wealth and knowledge. Once they all had a share, the royal family’s power, wealth and knowledge grew. Even so, they were afraid other royal families might want to conquer them.
So the royal families decided to share their power, wealth and knowledge with their favorite men in each realm, called aristocrats. The aristocrats became wealthy landowners with the power to make laws and with time to learn as much as they wanted to learn.
The kings, the royal families and the rich land-owner aristocrats were still afraid. Poor people were always trying to get the power, wealth and knowledge that the aristocrats and royal families enjoyed.
The story goes that a lot of poor people who wanted power, wealth and knowledge, traveled to a part of Gaia where they could take for themselves all the power, wealth and knowledge. They passed laws that gave all free white men with property the power to make the laws. Who did that leave out? (women, men who had no property, dark-skinned slaves,…)
Pretty soon men who had no property wanted equal rights to power, wealth and knowledge. Women and African slaves also wanted equal rights to power, wealth and knowledge. Women and slaves wanted the rights to own themselves, and they wanted freedom to go to school too. When they got a share of power, wealth and knowledge, they created even more power, wealth and knowledge.
On Gaia, whom do you think is still left out of having equal power, wealth and knowledge? People with disabilities and health problems need the power, wealth and knowledge necessary to get health care. Gay people just want equal right to marry whomever they love. Immigrants want the right to work for their own share of power, wealth and knowledge. Children want the right to an education so you can have a share of Gaia’s power, wealth and knowledge. Who’s left out?
What about the plants and animals? What power do plants and animals have when people destroy their natural habitat and cover nature in houses and roads? Some really important animals like bees are in real trouble. Why are they so important to us?
Is Gaia left out too? What happens if plants and animals and Gaia don’t have the power to take care of themselves, and they die?
In Gaia’s story when kings and royal families and aristocrats shared the power, wealth and knowledge, power, wealth and knowledge grew. Sharing created more of it, not less! So the truth we can learn is this: When we spread around the power, wealth and knowledge, it grows more power, wealth and knowledge!
Message: The practice of hospitality involves rituals that vary from culture to culture: bowing, cheek kissing, hand-kissing, handshake, bumping fists; holding the door open; words of greeting – Hola! Hello! Salaam! Namaste! Shalom! Welcome! Please come in!; offer of water, tea, coffee, alcoholic beverage; offer to join family meal, special feast, Hors d’oeuvres; offer of protection or refuge, shelter for the night; extending to the perception of special honor that “the guest is God.” Hospitality is usually offered to friends and invited guests.
Desert Hospitality is historically wider, even universalist despite, or perhaps because of the harsh desert environment. Under Desert Hospitality, enemies are not turned away from receiving water, food and shelter as visiting guests. To understand this, I picture what it must be like to live in the desert without seeing a stranger for months or years at a time! What would it be like to watch a stranger dying of thirst or hunger or of exposure to the sun? Perhaps the fragility of human life and the rich stimulation brought by an exotic stranger made irrelevant the division of other people into categories of friend and enemy.
It is such universal inclusion or radical hospitality that draws so many of us to feel at home when we first visit Unitarian Universalist congregations. Some of us had felt excluded by the creeds and judgmentalism of our religions of origin. Even if we never told others how we really felt, we knew that sharing our doubts and heretical feelings would not go over well. And the secular world was also full of exclusion from social circles and from political and economic parties as well. Even our flesh and blood families are torn apart by conflict and division. It is not surprising that the universalist spirit of radical hospitality among Unitarian Universalists creates this feeling that we are finally at home here.
In his book Growing a Beloved Community, Tom Owen-Towle writes: “The bottom line is that we are an intentionally diverse community, encompassing all sorts of souls… saluting not only the greats of our own heritage but also the last, the lost, and the least of all humanity…. Universalism excludes no one….” Unitarianism affirms “the inherent worth and supreme dignity of every person, contending that even the shaggiest and shadiest among us are redeemable. Our stubborn belief in the bedrock preciousness of individuals ought never be taken for granted; it is not shared in large portions of the world, and it is frequently threatened by bigotry and intolerance here in America. It remains a distinctive, critical hallmark of our way of doing church” (p.11).
I do not want to suggest that many other religions do not also reach out in compassion for “the last, the lost, and the least of all humanity.” The Hebrew prophets and Islam laid out practices to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and for the stranger within your gates, a universal, desert hospitality. Jesus also instructed the wealthy to sell what they had and give to the poor. Matthew 25.40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (NIV).
Compassion for “the last, the lost, and the least of all humanity” is a universal human sensitivity. It’s a function of our mirror neurons that we identify with and share in the pain we read in the facial expressions of others. We really do feel their pain! At the same time, fear and anger often override our natural human compassion. When we are frightened or angry, our bodies create testosterone and adrenaline that shut off the oxytocin receptors, shutting down our compassionate fellow-feeling, and we can do all kinds of scarey things: noble self-sacrifice, on the one hand, and war crime atrocities on the other. We’re hard-wired for both compassion and aggression.
Religions, at their best, are profound human efforts to organize into moral discipline the practice of compassion especially for “the lost, the last and the least.” Religions also seek to internalize in every follower the moral discipline to restrain our violent reactivity in times of fear and anger. But at its worst, extremists of every faith including our own, have distorted our religious traditions to demonize an enemy and to practice vengeance rather than compassion. Even Buddhist monks have been known to kill.
We first betray Universal Hospitality when we divide humanity into good- and evil-doers, into friends and enemies, into saints and sinners. Then it is righteous to protect the good by doing harm to evil-doers. It is noble to join with friends to fight enemies. It is God’s plan that saints crusade against sinners to protect the innocent from evil, knowing that saints who die will go to heaven, and sinners will go to eternal hell-fire.
Tom Owen-Towle writes of this betrayal: “It’s tempting… to cast people as saints or sinners. But an open-hearted faith like ours…. Unitarian Universalism insists there’s health in the most troublesome parishioners and demonic potential in the most prized among us…. Our faith commitment (is) to universal respect: reverencing everyone without idolizing anyone” (Growing a Beloved Community, p.10).
How then do we hold one another in beloved community given our troublesome and sometimes nasty human potential?
One aspect of Desert Hospitality easy to overlook is the behavioral expectations of Guests who receive hospitality. Guests who disrespect their host or who violate the trust of hospitality extended to them would forfeit that privilege. Guests must behave.
As a newcomer to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Binghamton, New York, in the early ‘80’s, I experienced a generous and kind hospitality from Unitarian Universalists who did not share my activist opposition to United States military involvement in Central America. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure they disagreed with my politics. Yet, they lived out their covenant affirming my inherent worth and dignity, my right of conscience, living their part of the promise of mutual trust and support. I felt at home because they recognized with our Unitarian forbear Francis David (1510-1579), that “We need not think alike to love alike.” Binghamton’s Unitarian Universalists lived their covenant of universal respect and open-hearted acceptance toward me.
I felt at home. Then came the test whether I myself would live the Unitarian Universalist covenant that “We need not think alike to love alike.” How would I behave toward those who violated my deeply-felt values? Would my behavior affirm the inherent worth and dignity and the right of conscience of others? What kind of a guest of hospitality would I be? Yes, if I had behaved offensively toward those of religious or political views with which I disagreed, if I had violated our covenant of mutual trust and support with my hosts, the Unitarian Universalists would have challenged me to behave better if I wished to stay.
Tom Owen-Towle writes: “This is the maddening but necessary paradox we religious liberals must ride: We’re accepted as we are even as we’re challenged to grow toward whom we might become” (Growing a Beloved Community, p.13).
We may feel at home when we are welcomed into Unitarian Universalist community. But once we are at home, it is not our exclusive club to pull up the ladder after us. The claim our Unitarian Universalist covenant has upon us, is to grow in open-hearted acceptance toward those with whom we disagree. Passionately disagree!
You, the members of this Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast, have been faithful to our covenant of mutual trust and support, widening the circle. Here we represent different political parties. We are atheists, Christians, humanists, Buddhists, pagans, and more; we are vegans, vegetarians and carnivores; we are smokers and nonsmokers; anti-gun and gun owners; we are Pro-Choice and Right-to-Life; we send our children to public school, home-school, and religious schools; we serve in the military, are contractors, pacifists and anti-militarists; we are gay, transgender, straight; we have various attitudes on immigration, health care, and the national debt. You have listened to one another without using hurtful words. You have proved “We need not think alike to love alike.”
This is the challenge of our faith: to widen the circle of our love; to live our covenant of open-hearted respect for one another especially when we disagree, grateful for the radical hospitality others have shown to include us.