The Sense of Our Small Effort

The story goes that once there was a king who ruled in a certain country, and like most kings – and indeed, like most of the highest leaders in most places and times – he was exceedingly wealthy, although many of his subjects had almost nothing to live on at all. Each night, his table was set with more food than he could have eaten in a month, while throughout his kingdom, his people went hungry. That was until one day when a renowned and accomplished hunter came to the palace gate with his enormous dog, and asked for an audience with the king. The king, who fancied himself a skilled hunter despite his sedentary lifestyle, granted the man and his dog permission to enter.

But the meeting between the king and the hunter had barely begun when the dog began to bark, loudly. So loudly and so continuously, in fact, that the noise was inescapable and impossible to ignore – it filled the entire palace so that no work could be done, and no pleasure could be had, by those inside it. The king, of course, demanded that the hunter should stop his dog from barking. The hunter, apparently unbothered by the sound, calmly explained that the condition was beyond his control: the dog was hungry, and would not be silent again until it was full. This seemed to the king the sort of problem which he could easily have solved. He ordered food to be brought for the dog.

The dog ate quickly and hungrily, and then resumed barking again. It did this over, and over, and over again. No matter how much food was brought, it could not be satisfied, or even delayed for very long. The deafening noise of the animal continued. The exasperated king commanded the hunter to leave the palace with his loud, voracious animal, but the hunter refused. He explained, “This dog feels the hunger of every person in your kingdom who does not have enough to eat. So long as anyone else goes hungry, the barking will not stop.”

The king looked to his guards and counselors to solve the problem for him, by simply doing away with the dog. But by now it was quite clear that this was no ordinary animal, and no one in the king’s employ, and certainly not the king himself, felt confident in trying to fight off such a beast. With no other alternative, the king ordered his kitchens and storehouses opened, so that the food meant for his table could be redistributed among the many people of his nation who had a greater need for it than him. It was a great effort, and required a complete reorganization of the palace. Not only did the king now enjoy much less sumptuous and grandiose banquets every day, but the staff he depended on to do even the smallest of tasks for him and cater to even his most arbitrary whim now had to be put to work ensuring that no one in the kingdom went to bed with an empty stomach. The staff was largely relieved, however, to have good reason to get out of that palace filled with unbearable barking all day and night.

Finally, after weeks of effort and activity, one morning, the dog simply stopped barking. The last empty belly had been filled. And so the dog and the hunter set out to visit some other land where some had much while many had none, and the king was finally able to get some rest.

This sermon is the third in a monthly series on the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism, a distillation of the stream of religious thought to which Unitarian Universalism belongs originally proposed by James Luther Adams, one of our most influential theological thinkers. Adams had a habit of writing long, and writing dense, so that his ideas did not arrive pre-summarized. But, as a reminder, attempted to give you a one-line heading for each of them, as follows:

  1. Revelation is not sealed.
  2. The only just relationships are free relationships.
  3. Our purpose is to work towards a just and loving community.
  4. Actions, people, and institutions must be judged not only by their intentions, but also by their effects.
  5. It is possible to change the world for the better, therefore there is cause for hope.

Today’s subject is the third smooth stone: that our purpose is to work towards a just and loving community. In many ways this might be the simplest and the least readily debatable of Adams’ five contentions. For this is statement is directly articulated in the principles, purposes, and sources of Unitarian Universalism – the living document which, as a religious movement, we have composed together and agreed upon as an articulation of our faith. Our second principle declares that we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, while our sixth states that we share the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. And our second source explains that the living tradition we share comes, in part, from the words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. When we talk about what we are here to do, the creation of a just and loving community is clearly center stage for us.

And when we look at our history and in particular at the ancestors we celebrate most, it’s clear that our prevailing value is progress towards a better world for all people. We count among our honored dead women’s suffrage activists like Susan B. Anthony and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, slavery abolitionists such as Horace Greeley, Theodore Parker, and Francis Ellen Watkins Haper – again – environmental activists like Rachel Carson, and anti-war activists such as Bertrand Russell and Julia Ward Howe. When we choose the figures from our history that we elevate as exemplars it is consistently, first and foremost, for their efforts to make the world we share more compassionate and fair.

And all of this is thoroughly in line with a major strain in the teachings of the world’s religions. In Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, comes an elegant and simple command repeated throughout the Jewish tradition: tzedek, tzedek, tirdoff. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Throughout the Gospels, the teacher Jesus announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and to be found within the hearts and selves of those hearing his teachings. In Islam, in the hadith, the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, we find the instruction that if one encounters evil, you must oppose it with your hand – by your actions. If you cannot oppose it by your hand, then you must do so by your tongue – by your speech. If you cannot oppose it by your tongue, then you must do so in your heart – rejecting the evil you cannot change, even if it can only be in secret. But this is the weakest form of faith, the Prophet said. It is always best to challenge evil with your actions.

But although it is central to how we understand ourselves, and consonant with the vein of human faith which inspires and informs who we are as Unitarian Universalists, this is certainly the most challenging of the five smooth stones from a practical level. Because while the other four are statements about how we view the world and ourselves, a commitment to making the world more peaceful and more just is a commitment to take action. To take action which can frequently be demanding and costly, and to take action in situations where the right course is not always obvious or clear.

There is a story from the Yoruba people, which is told in different forms in different parts of the African Diaspora. Olodumare was the high god of the Yoruba tradition, and his children were the orishas – the lesser gods who walked among human beings and liked to become involved in affairs on earth. The orishas, however, did not listen to Olodumare, and so, to punish him, he stopped allowing the rain to fall upon the earth. When the human beings who lived down here on earth noticed that the rains had been absent for a long, long time they cried out to the orishas for their help, asking what it was they had done to offend them. But the orishas knew that the fault was with them, and not with humankind.

The orishas tried to send the same message up the chain, to cry out to Olodumare for mercy and forgiveness. But he was too far from them, way up at the top of the sky, and so he could not hear their apologies. One by one, each of the orishas took their turn trying to climb high enough to deliver the message of contrition, but none of them could make it. That was, until it came to Oshun, Olodumare’s youngest daughter. Her siblings laughed at the thought that she might do what they could not, but, nonetheless, she tried.

Oshun took the form of a peacock, and flew up into the sky. The higher she climbed, the closer she got to the sun, which alternately bleached and scorched most of her beautiful feathers. Some the wind tore off all together, and the last of these, the ones on her head, were burned off entirely, never to grow back. Nevertheless, she persisted. She flew higher and closer to the sun than any of her siblings had dared, and with her last bit of strength she managed to reach her father’s house, only to collapse into his arms. Her colorful, vibrant form as a peacock had been changed dramatically, into that of a vulture. But at the cost of her beauty, she’d accomplished her mission. She whispered an apology to Olodumare on behalf of herself and her siblings. She asked for the rains to return, and so, they did.

We don’t always know where the commitment to work for a better world will take us. In 2008, a Unitarian Universalist young adult named Tim DeChristopher attended an oil and gas extraction rights lease auction in Salt Lake City. This is a mechanism by which the US Department of the Interior leases the right to drill for oil and natural gas on public lands in the West to big energy companies and those looking to sell to them. Tim hadn’t come to participate, but to protest. He thought that if he was lucky and bold enough, he might be able to create a minor disruption, and perhaps slow down the process just a bit. He was motivated by an awareness that Climate Change is real, that it’s caused by human activity, largely our society’s gargantuan appetite for fossil fuels. And by the knowledge that human-caused Climate Change poses a very real danger to human life. But a funny thing happened when Tim went to the oil and gas lease auction: someone in charge of such things assumed he was there to bid, and gave him card with which to do so. Momentarily flummoxed that it could be that easy, Tim DeChristopher decided to make use of the strange opportunity that had just been given to him. Over the course of the auction, he bid on and won rights to 22,500 acres of public land. Extraction rights he had no intention of using or reselling, and also no money with which to pay for. When this was discovered, the results of the entire auction had to be scrapped – the disruption he’d caused proved to be much larger and more effective than his original ambitions.

Ultimately, Tim served 21 months in federal prison for his on-the-spot attempt to make a more just and more peaceful world. The First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Tim’s congregation, supported him throughout the court proceedings and his incarceration. Speaking as a climate activist, and as a religious liberal, Tim said, “Our actions need to line up with our talk…We have to throw ourselves into the gears of the machine that threatens our survival.”

It matters what’s in our hearts. It matters what we say. But most of all it matters what we do, because what we choose to do is the deepest truth about who we are. As the inheritors of a liberal faith, it is up to us to fulfill the promise that has been passed on to us, and not only to say that we exist to work for justice and peace, but to actually do so.

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