Sunday sermon by Don Barker
11 June 2017
I want to tell you a story.
I starts at the Five and Dime Ale House in Baltimore:
And it ends at Jimmy’s Grille in Bridgeville, Delaware:
In between were three days in Hell.
The title of my story is, “What Happened to Me on Election Night”.
The title of my story is not, “What Happened on Election Night.” Or “What Happened to America on Election Night.” Others are telling that story, over and over, every day in the real news and the fake news, in social media and late-night comedy.
Now, you probably came here this morning to hear a sermon, not a story. Maybe you came here to get religion. And why not? This is a pulpit after all, and this is a sanctuary – a holy place — and this building where we meet is a church. So, why am I telling you a story instead of preaching a sermon? Because for Unitarians and Universalists, our own story is our religion. Our own stories are the preaching of it. This is true for all people, of course, no matter where they are this morning.
My story this morning is not about the politics of Election Night. In fact, I’m going to get a little personal here. And I hope you’re okay with that. But neither is it – as you might be guessing – about our UU faith in social justice work. My story is not about social justice. It’s about religion and my own spiritual crisis.
Now, you will hear better preaching and sermons later this morning – during coffee hour after this service. Especially if you hang out with the baristas in the kitchen. And you would get more religion if you were to slip out the back door there and go down the hallway to spend this hour in the playroom with the little ones. Even so, I hope my story – What Happened to Me on Election Night – will also speak to you about religion. And that it may draw out more conversation about your religion during some future coffee hour, or maybe here from the pulpit some Sunday. And if Election Night was not a crisis for you, I hope my story will speak to your own spiritual crisis, and your religion.
Part of my religion is a simple practice of daily zazen – that is, seated meditation in the Soto Zen style. I’ve kept this practice since 2004, about the time that Rita and I first joined UUFE. My Zen teachers include Hakuin from 18th c Japan, Alan Watts in the 60s and Shunryu Suzuki in the 70s in San Francisco, Steve Hagen in Minneapolis, and Stephen Batchelor in France today – and my kids. I’ll quote some of them this morning.
So, what happened to me on Election night?
I don’t know about you. But for me, it was a seismic shift. That shift shook my UU faith. With no faith, I spent three days in Hell, gazing into the dark abyss of human nature – or so I thought. I was in Hell until I was visited by four Zen Masters and three heavenly Bodhisattvas, who brought me back out of the dark and into the light. Here is my Election Night story:
Like I said, It starts at the Five and Dime Ale House on The Avenue in Hampden – Baltimore’s bohemian neighborhood. Our daughter, Audrey, knew that I was on my own for the week. (Rita was back up in Chicago with grandkids). So Audrey invited me to her election night party with friends at the Five and Dime.
Yes, we were cautiously optimistic that it would be – if not a party – at least a big sigh of relief from our political point of view. During the previous weeks, Rita and I and our kids in Baltimore, Chicago, Madison, and Seaford had been following Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog of statistics-driven election forecasts. We were checking in and commenting to each other daily, then hourly – with a constant stream of text messages zipping between us, expressing our joys and concerns about the election forecast.
So here we were now at the Five and Dime – Audrey and her partner Steve and I and dozens of others crowded into the pub. We ordered food and beer and started watching the story unfold on the wall of TV screens. No sports channels tonight – all news and opinion. It was mostly in the background at first. We would look up from our small plates and brew and conversation now and then. But then we looked up again and stared and blinked – when the election map showed the first big state light up red. But we kept eating and having a good time. Two more beers. And then two more red states.
Now the mood was changing at the Five and Dime. So was our mood. We paid our check and stepped out onto the street to say good-bye. It was late, and I had planned to stay over at Audrey and Steve’s place that night. But I just wanted to be alone. My kid had to ask me, “Are you okay to drive, Dad?” I was totally okay, wide awake.
I drove my truck through downtown Baltimore, down I-97 through Annapolis, and across the Bay Bridge toward home. I kept pulling over along the way to catch up on tweets from Rita and Paul and Alan in Chicago, Nathan in Madison, Amanda in Seaford, and Audrey, still awake back in Baltimore, waiting for a safe-arrival message from her dad. Each expressed their shock and dismay. Then one by one, they expressed their love for each other and signed off for the night. And I continued the drive alone through the dark countryside toward home.
I pulled into the carport and sent a text to my boss at 2 a.m.: “Hey, Lila, I am totally sick to my stomach and will not be at work the rest of the week. I have no idea when I’ll be feeling better.” I was thinking this would be my private sickout, the beginning of my personal, angry protest. She texted right back – at 2:02 am: “Oh my, Don. I hope you’ll be okay.”
Well, I was not okay. And this was not really a protest. It was just the start of an angry week in solitary confinement. My own prison and hell. Not the Christian Hell. We don’t believe in that anymore. This was Zen Hell. Like in this Zen story which I first heard when Beth Hansen’s son, Chris the Zen monk, told it here a few years ago. I’ve adapted it:
A samurai approached the monk Hakuin and demanded, “I want to know about heaven and hell. Do they really exist?”
Hakuin looked at the samurai and asked, “Who are you?”
“I am a samurai,” announced the proud social justice warrior.
“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such things? You are merely a puppy soldier! And a liberal! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions!” Hakuin waved his hand and dissed the samurai.
The enraged samurai could not stand Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, ready for the kill. Hakuin said slowly, “This is hell.”
The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. He was humbled by Hakuin’s wisdom and his compassion. He put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.
“And this is heaven,” Hakuin calmly said.
You can imagine how this exchange between Hakuin and the samurai might play out on Facebook today. Maybe with live video at the end. That’s where I was – sword raised, unbowed, tweeting a lot in ALL CAPS. Three days like this. Home alone, mostly working in my wood shop, sword raised, growling. And talking to myself, asking myself, “Can this be real?” And sometimes singing out loud to myself. (No one else at home, and we have no close neighbors.) Singing with sword raised the hymn we sang together this morning:
We’ll build a land where sisters and brothers,
anointed by God may then create peace:
where justice shall roll down like waters,
and peace like an ever flowing stream.
But this sounded empty and hopeless to me now. And guess what: The last thing I wanted to do was go to church at UUFE next Sunday and look you in the face. Because just that previous Sunday, we were building this land, and we were in charge. Anointed by God! But by Wednesday, I felt like I was part of the oppressed majority.
“Hey UUFE, I feel sick and won’t be coming to church for awhile. I don’t know when I’ll be feeling better.”
But I still had my zazen – my religious practice. Every morning before dawn, following my breath, watching my thoughts come and go. Aware of and listening to the never-ending discourse with myself, and sometimes my discourse with demons. And hearing birds through the open window, more and more of them as dawn broke, and the Zen Masters started to make their appearance.
The first to appear was Steve Hagen, the Zen teacher in Minneapolis. To remind me of the very first lesson he taught me in the very first book I read on Buddhism and Zen: Buddhism is Not What You Think. He reminded me that everything is in constant flux and flow and change. But we take the flow and change of life and freeze it, and turn it into ideas – and ideologies. Like ideas about our dear country.
“There you are”, he said, “sword still raised, longing to be back in America while you are standing in your own back yard, in Ridgely, Maryland, USA. You are longing for your idea of America – how you think America should be. And you are ignoring the reality – turning your back on your Ridgely neighbors – the reality all around you. And that is why you don’t want to go back to UUFE and sing about faith in the city you will build.”
Then the second Zen Master appeared in a text message. It was Nathan, our son in Madison: “Hey Dad, your faith is misplaced. Too much faith in reason and the progressive movement. Here, read this.”
It was a New York Times piece by Costica Bradatan, a professor of humanities and comparative religion. It was titled, Our Delight in Destruction. (NYT online, March 27, 2017.)
Professor Bradatan re-introduces us to the Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. I think of Dostoevsky as a Zen master. But he doesn’t sit looking at the wall, like other Zen masters. He looks straight into the dark abyss of human nature, and he writes about what he sees there.
You remember Dostoevsky from college freshman lit. You had to read Crime and Punishment. You thought that was hard? Try Notes from the Underground. Dostoevsky writes that the day will come when humankind will toss out rationality and “reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of … [living] once more according to our own stupid will!”
Professor Bradatan agrees with Dostoevsky – that we should not assume that human beings are driven by a rational “pursuit of happiness” – as individuals or as a society. We should not assume that “history is a progression toward more inclusion, understanding and respect and … away from intolerance and racism.”
He asks, “What if we in fact take delight in destruction?” Dostoevsky shines a light on that destructive delight: It is clear and obvious, he wrote, that “evil lies deeper in human beings than our social-physicians suppose … No social structure will [ever] eliminate evil; the human soul will remain as it has always been, [because] abnormality and sin arise from that soul itself.”
How do we find our way out of the dark?
I think Dostoevsky was saying that UU social justice work alone will not lead us out. That it will never change the dark heart of mankind. And neither will sermons about social justice. We need something more, and different.
Professor Bradatan points to it, but with a warning. He wrote, “Today it is considered unrigorous and unprofitable to talk of matters of the human heart — that obscure little thing that, more than logic or arguments, makes people act and live and die. … Dealing with the human abyss used to be the province of religion, but ever since God died, we haven’t really been able to find a good replacement. [But] if we are to remain human, we must explore and reach deep into the human heart.”
“How ironic.” I thought. “I abandoned religion 30 years ago because I no longer believed in Christian Hell. But there I was, sitting in Zen Hell.” And now here I am at a pulpit once again, preaching Modernist Hell. And that we need religion to deal with it.
But I would never go back to the religion of my father and his father. Not even for a pass out of Hell. So I wondered,
Where is this religion that Dostoevsky and the Professor of Humanities think is the only power that can heal humanity? Is that religion preached here at UUFE?
That’s when the fourth Zen master appeared, in the Kindle app on my phone, with a suggestion. It was Stephen Batchelor with a hint from his newest book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. He wrote:
“Secular critics dismiss religious institutions and beliefs as outdated, dogmatic, repressive. But they forget they were created to address the deepest human concerns.
“Religion [for our day can deal] with our wish to come to terms with … our own birth and death. For many people, religious thoughts and acts are those that engage their deepest, core relationship to the totality of their life and the meaning of life. That is what the theologian Paul Tillich called one’s ‘ultimate concern.’ “
I recently had a long conversation with a young person who had attended UUFE a few Sundays to check us out. She had reached the point in her life where she felt the need to explore her “Ultimate Concern” and the deeper questions of life. She wasn’t even sure what those questions are. I was sorry to hear that she wasn’t finding either the questions or the answers here. And she was not sure she would be back.
You and I can change that. By talking more with each other about our Ultimate Concern – our own religions. There are many opportunities to do this.
One of them is already built into every Sunday service. We call it Joys and Sorrows. But we might just as well call it Joys and Ultimate Concerns. Our time for Joys and Sorrows can be the religious pinnacle of our Sunday service. Our Sacrament, our Eucharist.
Another opportunity reaches out to us all summer long, and on any Sunday – like today – when our part-time minister Reverend Sue is away, and we ourselves must preach religion to ourselves. I hope that when the Worship Committee contacts you and asks if you’re ready to tell your story from the pulpit, you will say yes. Or even better: Don’t wait. Give Reverend Sue or Nancy Orr or the UUFE office a call. Let them know you have a story to tell.
Another opportunity to share our Ultimate Concern appeared in this week’s UU liFE email. It was that notice from Gayle that she’s re-starting the Adult Religious Education program here at UUFE. Notice that it’s not called Adult Social Justice Education. (That’s a different night of the week. Jim Richardson leads that.) Gayle’s invitation is an opportunity for us to get together regularly in small groups to share our Ultimate Concern.
Besides preaching or storytelling – whether here from the pulpit or in small circles – there is another vital aspect to religion, of course:
How we act out our Ultimate Concern
Stephen Batchelor lists out the formal means by which we express our religion – “Adherence to sacred texts, submission to the authority of monastics and priests [that was my way for 30 years], performance of rites and rituals, participation in spiritual retreats” All of these “articulate, frame, and enact our ultimate concerns.” And we should never dismiss or disregard any of these paths.
But there are other ways, like the way of the Bodhisattvas. These are the saints of Buddhism – enlightened beings who choose not to sail off to Nirvana but to stick around and help save the rest of us. What’s magical and heavenly about Bodhisattvas is they teach you without telling you they’re teaching you. They just be who they are and do what they do.
So, now I’ll finish my story – What Happened to Me on Election Night – by telling you of the three heavenly Bodhisattvas who visited me and finally delivered me from Hell.
Some bodhisattvas are warriors and carry a sword, like Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Knowledge and Wisdom. Others carry a scalpel, like Audrey the Bodhisattva of Urban Social Justice, who is also an animal vet. Since the Women’s March back in January, Bodhisattva Audrey had been working 10- and 12-hour shifts doing surgeries at the animal hospital. But she made time to form up a group of friends and neighbors, and she held biweekly meetings without fail and guided her group through all of the Ten Actions that grew out of the Women’s March. Their hashtag is #HampdenResistance. It sounds harsh. But bodhisattvas are gentle, never harsh. They are all lower case.
So there I was in Hell, following Bodhisattva Audrey on Facebook. I was still unbowed when I replied to one of her group posts. She texted me right back and wrote, “Dad, I had to remove your post from my timeline, because it was not nice.” But she urged me to keep posting, stay engaged, and keep adding my voice to the great swell of voices. I bow to you, Bodhisattva Audrey.
Most bodhisattvas are not buddhas or arahats or monks or mendicants – just ordinary householders, like Bodhisattva Amanda – a homemaker mom. It was three days after the election – Veteran’s Day – when Bodhisattva Amanda appeared to me. This Bodhisattva has four kids, yet she still found time to drive up from Seaford with Liam, age 4, and Cami, 9 months, to visit Grandpa in Hell – and take me out to lunch at Jimmy’s Grill in Bridgeville.
Jimmy’s was full of old vets, because they serve all the local vets free lunch every Veteran’s Day. A couple of the old vets at the next table chatted up Amanda and smiled at the kids. She asked them where they had served and when. I wanted to ask them who they had voted for – and why! But the Bodhisattva touched me, so I just bowed to the old veterans. And I held Cami in my arms while Liam ate and played with his mac and cheese and hid like a ninja turtle under the table, and Amanda asked me how I was doing, and she listened with her heart. I bow to you, Bodhisattva Amanda.
The third Bodhisattva appeared to me at the end of the week, late in the evening. Back from Chicago. I had been paroled from Hell by this time, but I was still on probation. (I will be for a long time.) We sat before our woodstove and ate small chips of dark cocoa. (Cocoa is the only real temptation for a Bodhisattva.) She was knitting another of those pink hats with the pointy ears. Knitting needles clicking, she said, “This is going to take a very long time. It will be so exhausting.”
I said, “I think so, too. By the time we get through this, I will be bowed down at last with old age.”