Sermon – Climbing Up the Mountain – January 19, 2014

Sermon “Climbing Up the Mountain”

Copyright: Sarah K. Person

Delivered: January 19, 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough


Peace asks of us that we pound our own metaphorical swords into plowshares.  Join us as we reflect on the words of scripture and sages on our personal efforts for peace and justice.  Everything, they tell us, must start in our own hearts.


That passage we just read together is a bit disturbing when you consider it.  Qoheleth (that was his name before the Greeks changed it) is telling us there is a time of war and a time of peace, a time to hurt and a time to heal, a time to hate and a time to love.  Scholars say Qoheleth was part of the intellectual elite of his culture.  He was also skeptical, cynical, reflective, getting on in years and scared.  I chose this reading because I want to know how, how we get from war to peace, from hurting or being hurt to healing or being healed, from hate to love.

I have a confession to make: I’m with Qoheleth, I’m getting on in years and there are things that scare me.  I’m scared when I do something new, when I do something bigger, when I do something that affects others, when I get involved with people who are completely different from me, when I have to – want to – relate to people I might not like, and find some solidarity.  I’d like to imagine myself as an otter – adventurous, playful and smart – but in reality I think I’m closer to an antisocial porcupine.  How do we get from fear to peace?  From wanting to hurt to wanting to heal”  From being hurt to being healed?  From Hostly hating with every fiber of our being to honestly loving?  When you think about it, that is the toughest part of the work we do here, isn’t it?  And we have to do that work first before we get to the good stuff.

So I was especially taken with the sentiment offered by an imam at a large interfaith service on Friday.  Imam William Suhaib Webb was the guest speaker at the annual Shabbat Tzedkek, the Justice Sabbath.  It’s an event that honors Martin Luther King, Jr. and it’s held at Boston’s Temple Israel.  Jews, Christians and Muslims have worked hard, especially over the past few years, to “forge new relationships.”[1]  “’We have to be able to take each other as brothers and sisters,’” Webb said in his sermon.  “We have to learn to forgive each other, and we have to learn to not believe the things we are told about each other before we sit and face each other, and get to know each other, and hug each other, and love each other, and cry together, and share together.’”

It reminded me of a night years ago, the night after September 11, 2001, when my home church of Dedham just opened its doors to anyone who needed and wanted to walk in.  I sat there with my minister as people, many of them strangers, slowly entered the doors and made their way forward and sat down.  And we cried together, and we shared together.  And one man said to me, among other things: “You know why I’m here?  I’m here because you don’t preach hate.”  I realized that this faith was worth my life, was worth devoting my life to.  And just like that night, and all the nights after, I knew that there is a world that needs and wants what we have to give and I had to be part of it.

We make a difference, you and I.  Your generosity has probably saved at least one life, and maybe more in the past six months alone.  I’ve been using the discretionary fund (we call it the minister’s discretionary fund but I’m really using it on your behalf) to help individuals and families in need.  We are the equivalent of the Emergency Room.  We’ll get folks shelter at a nearby hotel or campground, help them get food and diapers at the supermarket and, as soon as possible, connect them to organizations that can really help; like the Salvation Army, the Council on Aging, and the Veteran’s outreach agent.  I feel blessed to be able to do this – even though it is a bit like shoring up a sandcastle while the tide is roaring in.  But we’re doing a little bit to help people when they’re exhausted in body and spirit and just want a break for a few days.

Because I’m new to this part of the world and ignorant of the way it works, I sat down with Norm who works to develop housing and housing competency and Kelly who works to develop families and family competency.  I wanted to learn what people face when they’re at risk of homelessness and addiction and domestic violence and trying to get help from our commonwealth.  Norm and Kelly are two of our members who do a lot more to help folks while that tide is roaring in.  To beat this metaphor to death, their efforts are made of brick rather than sand, and have more lasting consequences.

But there are days when even they feel disheartened.  The odds that our at-risk people will make it grow longer every day.  A budget cut means fewer people being eligible for a warm shelter and a meal, fewer families getting attention.  Nonprofits are scrambling and faith-based organizations like ours are picking up the slack when they can.  I am blessed to have found a home of people who make this possible.

We’ve made a home for those who are sore in spirit, for those who seek company and inspiration.  We’ve made a home for those who are looking beyond their lives for a sense of greater purpose.  We’ve made a home for ourselves in a community that needs our perspective on how to treat one another with dignity and respect.

Not long ago, I led a memorial service for a wonderful man who was a loving and aggravating husband, a good father and a great leader.  He climbed mountains.  He would lead groups of his employees on these amazing life adventures and teach them what it meant to push themselves to their limits, to be strong, to be weak, to have to rely on one another, to have to know themselves without all the self-deception and lies but with the stark truth of the mountain and the climb and the dependency.  And, as I always do, I learned something from this man and the ones who loved him.

I learned this; that I and every one of us carries a load of fear and doubt that weights us down.  That pulls us back to the hard-packed earth.  That tells us we can’t reach up and grab hold and pull with all our might.  I can’t that load tells us.  I don’t deserve, that load tells us.  We can’t, we don’t deserve.  And because we can’t, and don’t deserve, we’ll tell each other we can’t afford the cost.  We’ll feel it, we’ll hear it, and we’ll see it as the year progresses.

I learned this; if we want to grow wiser, if we want to grow up, we have to climb up this mountain.  This mountain is the world, and this world is indifferent.  This world is despair.  This world is rough=edged and our way is steep.  This world takes every bit of our attention, every ounce of energy, every effort of will, every modicum of respect, and every moment of love.  We cannot climb to the summit of our imaginings carrying a heavy load of fear and doubt.  It’s more than a burden; it’s a kind of blindness – not seeing the possibilities, not seeing the path.  We have to cast away a part of that.

And when we let go of some of that load, we’ll see something else.  We’ll see we are not climbing this mountain alone.  We are each other’s lifelines.  We are each other’s respite and companionship and we also goad and shove each other upward when we get tired.  Our principles and purposes are nothing if they come easily.

And while we do this, we learn how to be honest and vulnerable and how to be with people with whom we don’t entirely agree, because there is something more important to be done.  That is church.  That is a church that matters.  We matter.  We make a difference.  We need to do what it takes to carry on, even if that means letting go.  Thank you for doing what you do and letting me be a part of it – I will never be along on this mountain.

[1] Lisa Wangsness, “Leaders of several faiths meet at Temple Israel”, Boston Globe, Vol. 285, No. 18, Saturday, January 18, 2014, p.1,3.

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