Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Parable of the Good Samaritan (January 27, 2013)

Even if you never went to a Christian Sunday School, I bet you have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. It is so common, that the term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous for someone who helps a stranger. It is an ordinary kind of phrase, with a clear meaning. But I want to suggest to you that this story is actually kind of extraordinary, if we bother to look more closely. This is the nature of parables- like a box that sometimes remains shut so we can only see the surface, and sometimes opens for us so we can see what is inside.

In the gospels that record the life and teachings of Jesus, he would often answer a question or a criticism with a parable. A parable is a kind of teaching story; the word comes from the Latin word for “comparison” and  a Greek root meaning “juxtaposition” from the root “para” which means “alongside” So when a story is laid alongside our current question or situation, there is something to be learned by the comparison. There were many gospels, or stories about the life of Jesus, written in the generations that followed Jesus’ death. But only 4 of these made it into the bible. These are called the “canonical gospels.” This story comes from the Gospel of Luke, who wrote about 90 years after Jesus was born.. The writer or writers of  Luke (if you want to be fancy you can call them the “Lukian authors”) juxtapose this parable with the question “who are our neighbors?” 

The first surprise is that the priest and the Levite do not stop to help. In fact, they cross to the other side of the street. We expect our religious leaders to, well, be leaders in living lives of compassion and justice. There is some discussion over the centuries about whether perhaps there was some religious prohibition about touching the man who was bloody and near death, or perhaps the motives were purely selfish, but the story itself  remains silent about this, so why they didn’t stop is not something for us to worry about.

The next surprise is that it is the Samaritan who does stop. Our retelling of the story by UU Religious educator Christopher Buice emphasizes the status of the Samaritan as an outcast. Probably if he had the money to pay for the hotel stay our Samaritan in the biblical story would not have been poor and dirty like the one in our children’s story, but probably was dressed like anyone else. (Although those of you who were here last week remember that the great teacher and sage Swami Vivekananda was turned away at many houses because his robes were dusty and travel worn).  Instead the social status of our Samaritan as an outsider was an ethnic one.  Samaritans were Semitic peoples who had common roots with Judaism but used  different versions of the  scriptures, and came from the north.

We want to identify with the Samaritan in this story. We know he is the hero. In answer to the question “what must we do to have eternal life” the Lukian author tells us that we must “go and do likewise.”  But how often are we really like this  good Samaritan. I don’t think I have ever helped a stranger to that extent. In this day when we fear blood-born diseases, I can’t imagine disinfecting the wounds of a stranger, then binding them. I have never taken financial responsibility for a stranger like that- paying for an indefinite stay in hotel? That can get pretty expensive. And the intimacy, the time of spending the night caring for the stranger, then promising to come back to see what more he needs on my way back through town.  The Samaritan is not “what any good person would do” but what someone really extraordinary would do. Someone very unusual.

Probably most of us are like the priest or the Levite. In hearing the story it is easy to judge them. But I know I have walked by folks holding a sign that read “hungry- need food” and turned my head away, not because I didn’t care, but because I felt torn. Sometimes I have passed a few dollars out the car window. For a little while I made up lunches each time I went to work because I knew I would pass a fellow with a sign that said “hungry” and I took him at his word. In fact, for a while when I was young I committed to helping every person I saw, but then the more I got involved the more cynical I became, I suppose some would call it “compassion fatigue”. I remember a fellow who said he needed a special kind of formula for his child so I walked with him to the grocery store, where he could not remember the ages or number of his children, and asked about the return policy on formula.  I remember a fellow who wanted money for insulin, but stopped coming by when I set up a meeting with someone from the American Diabetes association to look for ongoing sources of help with paying for insulin. Episodes like these dampened my enthusiasm and generosity for helping. Yes, sometimes I am literally the priest who walks by someone in need, and does not stop to help. 

Some biblical scholars who are interested in the historical Jesus, that is Jesus the man who lived in a certain time and place,  have looked at these texts and tried to separate out what parts of these stories might really have been uttered by Jesus, and what parts would have been added by storytellers and writers over the generations.   Often such scholars tell us the interpretations were added by later writers, and encourage us to look at the story standing on its own. Think about the question Luke situates this other alongside- “how does one enter the kingdom of heaven” and  “who are our neighbors?”  Notice that it doesn’t really match the question Jesus is said to have asked in finding the moral of the story “who was a neighbor to this man?” If we look at the story that way, Jesus is answering the question “who are our neighbors” by saying “someone who would stop and help us when we are broken, even though we are a stranger” is our neighbor. But I think that’s kind of rare, kind of special. Is no one else our neighbor? Another way of looking at this question is that in this case the Samaritan, the person who is a racial and religious minority is our neighbor, even when a respected leader in our own faith is not. In this light, the tale of the Good Samaritan is our day and age, when racial profiling still plays such a powerful role in our criminal justice system, in our immigration policy, or in our education system.  In this light the parable is about how people defy stereotypes, defy our expectations of them. We must be careful whom we include and whom we exclude. As a Universalist, this story reminds me that “everyone is our neighbor”

Much as in dream interpretation, I believe that parables lend themselves to many layers of interpretation. We have focused so far on this parable as a model for good behavior we have considered the social justice implications of inclusion and exclusion. Now I want to think about the theological implications of this parable. James Breech is one of those biblical scholars who want to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying and not saying, and to tease this apart from what the author Lukian Author wants to say. To Breech, the Good Samaritan is not the main character in this story, the man going down a road who fell among robbers is the main character.  This is the story of a man who is going about his travels and unexpectedly encounters meaningless violence. Breech points out that the  robbers “stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” And notes that  robbers do  not need to beat you and leave you as dead just to take your valuables, especially when they outnumber you. This, he affirms, is clearly meaningless violence. Evil. We hear about these things all the time in the news, right? In our hearts right now, for example, we have those horrible shootings in Newtown.   For  Breech this story not so much about how do we accrue merit by doing good deeds so that we can get into the kingdom of heaven, it is about how we can live knowing that such violence exists in the world.

Then, one after another, the next two men going down that road see the man  who was set on by robbers and  “passed by on the other side.” They see the forces of death, and they move away from it. They give the man up for dead, or as Breech says  “Their responses show that for them death is something to be avoided, that of them the effects of death are something that they are unwilling or unable to address with their own activity... In other words, their avoidance … implicitly recognizes [death] as the force which is ultimate in human life.” [Breech p. 176] SO Breech is saying that these two other men, and to him it doesn’t matter who they are, to him Luke was just coloring in the details that Jesus left plain, these other two men feel powerless in the face of death. They feel that the forces of life are so scarce that it is all we can do just to survive in this world. They represent “those who take survival and success as dominant criteria for judging situations.”

And the Good Samaritan, he is not the hero of the story. To Breech this story is not about an act of charity for a victim of violence, this story is about looking in the face of death and seeing life. Breech points out that the man who stops to help does not become friends with the man, does not cancel his own journey to stay and make sure he is healed; he simply is getting this man who went down a road back on his own journey.  Moreover, to Breech, helping is not an end in and of itself, it is an expression of life’s vital force. The Samaritan had such an abundance of life’s vital force that he saw life in the man others left for dead, and wanted to return the man to his journey.

To Breach, the point of the story is not the virtue of the Good Samaritan, or his eternal reward, nor even the success of his endeavor. He points out that Jesus is silent about whether or not the fellow who was set on by robbers survives. He proposes that this story, as with all of Jesus’ parables, shows us a radical way of looking at life -- one where death is not the “force that is ultimate in life” but that life itself is “charged with superabundant vitality, the power that sustains those who are human.”  This story  is about looking in the face of death, and seeing life, a “superabundant vitality” that sustains us even in the face of evil.

After the service today, we are going to have a chance to talk about those times when we find ourselves walking down the road, and see death, hardship, evil, How do we find life in that? How do we return those who have been stopped on their journey back onto their own story.  This story offers not only, as Luke suggests, a vision of reaching out a helping hand to those who need it most, even if they are strangers to us, but it also it reminds us that when we bind up the wounds of one who has been beset by robbers, that we are not the hero of that story, it is the story of the man journeying down the road, and our job is to return them to their story.  Some would say that this is how we build the kingdom of heaven right here among us.

Beech is suggesting something even more radical than that. In another passage of Luke: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” [Luke 17:20-21] Breech is suggesting that the Kingdom of God can be found right here in this moment, it is found in that very “superabundant vitality” in the act of the Good Samaritan, it can be found even in the face of death. This view of Jesus’ theology sounds almost like Buddhism, where a certain quality of presence, of attention, of cuing in to what is ultimate is available to us at all times if we would but look.

Finally, Jesus parable makes that radical suggestion that even when we ourselves are journeying down a road, and beset by robbers, whether that is physical violence or the death of a loved one, or an illness that sends us to the ICU, death is not the ultimate force in our lives.  It is that abundant vitality that is present all around us as we journey down the road.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Vivekananda (January 20, 2013)

The UU history book I turn to most often does not tell the story of Vivekananda, nor speculate about how the contact between Hinduism and Unitarianism may have changed our faith forever. We know that the transcendentalists were aware of the philosophical teachings of India. Emerson had been was introduced to Hindu literature by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. As early as the 1820s Emerson began to write of India in his journals and in the 1840s he began to publish excerpts from "Ethical Scriptures" in the transcendentalist journal The Dial. It is clear from his writings that Thoreau had the Bhagavad Gita (one  Hindu Scriptures) with him during his time at Walden.  "In the morning," he wrote, "I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta . . . in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial."

Emerson was an growing old when  Narendra Nath Datta was born in Calcutta on January 12 , 1863. (This past week the 150th anniversary of his birth was celebrated by the Unitarian church of Oakland in conjunction with the Swami Vivekananda Celebratory Organization with great ceremony.)  Narendra’s father was a lawyer, and his mother was described as “a devout woman.” He was a voracious reader, and studied Western Philosophy and History in college. It was not until after college that he first sought out the guru Ramakrishna. At first Narendra argued with the guru, and struggled with his teachings. After Narendra’s father died leaving the family penniless, Narendra had a crisis of faith, and ultimately accepted Ramakrishna as his teacher, renouncing everything else. Sadly less than a year later, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer and Narendra and other disciples cared for him until his death, continuing to study with him all the while. It was during Ramakrishna’s last year that they took on the ocher robes and formed the first monastic order of Ramakrishna.

After his death in 1886, Ramakrishna’s admirers stopped sending donations to fund the monastery he and his disciples had shared, and it had to be closed. Some followers went back to family life, but Narendra and other disciples chose a new house, small and rundown, and there formed a monastery based on Ramakrishna’s teachings  (the Ramakrishna Math) funded by “holy begging.” The word we use for this in English is “Mendicant,” a person who has taken a vow of poverty for religious reasons, and so must beg for food from door to door.[i]

In 1887, when he would have been only 24, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows, and  Narendra took the new name Swami Bibidishananda.  Vivekananda himself described the early days of the monastery:  “We underwent a lot of religious practice at the Baranagar Math. We used to get up at 3:00 am and become absorbed in japa and meditation. What a strong spirit of detachment we had in those days! We had no thought even as to whether the world existed or not.” [ii]

In 1888 he began  5 years as wandering monk, His sole possessions were a water pot, staff, and his two favorite books—Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ.  He crossed India walking or taking the train when a ticket was donated by a benefactor, visiting centers of learning and meeting people from all walks of life, often staying with them in their homes.

During his time as a wandering monk, Vivekananda had the "Vision of one India", He wrote, “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, 'An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses."[iii]  Before this vision, many folks had encouraged him to represent India at the World parliament of religions, but it was this desire to speak to the rich western nations about the plight of the poor of his country that finally convinced him to go. Said Vivekananda: “it is for this reason — to find means for the salvation of the poor of India — that I am going to America.” [iv]  The Raja of Khetri, provided him with an orange silk robe, an ocher turban, some funds for his travels, and a first-class ticket on a ship that would take him to North America. The Raja also gave him the name “Vivekananda”.[v] Which is a combination of the words for “wisdom” and for “joy” and it was by this name that he would be known around the world.

The Boat traveled first to Japan, then to Vancouver, before arriving in Chicago in July. Soon after his arrival in Chicago, he went to the information bureau of the Exposition to ask about the upcoming  Parliament of Religions. There he learned both that the Parliament  had been put off until the first week of September , and that no one without” credentials from a bona fide organization” would be accepted as a delegate. Not only that, he was also told also that it was then too late for him to be registered as a delegate. Assuming that the presence of the holy man himself would be all that was needed to participate in the Parliament, none of  his Indian benefactors and disciples, not even the Raja, had contacted the organizers of the Parliament of Religions to learn their protocols.  His Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, later remembered,

''The Swami himself was as simple in the ways of the world as his disciples, and when he was once sure that he was divinely called to make this attempt, he could see no difficulties in the way. Nothing could have been more typical of the lack of organizedness of Hinduism itself than this going forth of its representative unannounced, and without formal credentials, to enter the strongly guarded door of the world's wealth and power.”[vi]

In the meantime, the money  from India was running out --things were much more expensive in America.  He did not have enough to maintain him in Chicago until September. A friend suggested he travel to Boston where living was cheaper, and on the train Vancouver to Chicago he met Kate Sanborn, who  invited him to her house in the countryside outside Boston where he joined her a couple of weeks later.[vii]

It was there at her estate, that Swami Vivekananda was introduced to a number of Bostonians, including her cousin, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Sanborn was a Transcendentalist, and  friend of both Thoreau and Emerson. He also met such  Unitarian luminaries as  Jane Addams , Julia Ward Howe and  the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Many sources claim that his first real public talk in America was at the Annisquam Universalist Church, in Gloucester August 25th, 1893. [viii] Days later he gave his second talk at the East Church, 2nd Congregational, a Unitarian church in Salem. During his two visits to the West Vivekananda  spoke at  Unitarian and Universalist congregations some twenty-seven times.  How could our movement have been unchanged by his visit among us?

One of the most important connections Vivekananda made during this time was Harvard Classics Professor J.H. Wright. It was at Professor Wright's invitation, that  Vivekananda delivered his first public lecture at the Unitarian Church. When Vivekananda mentioned to Prof. Wright that he had no credentials, the professor replied, 'To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun about its right to shine.' Wright wrote a number of letters concerning Vivekananda to people connected with the Parliament, including  to a friend who was serving the chairman of the committee on selection of delegates, and said, 'Here is a man more learned than all our learned professors put together.'  It was Professor Wright bought the Swami a railroad ticket for Chicago. Regarding Professor Wright, Vivekananda himself wrote "He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation."

Along with a list of many speaking appearances Vivekananda made during this time, in the timeline of his visit to America we also find the entry: “Chased by mob, escaped in dark passage.”  Vivekananda was denounced as well as praised during his time in America. When he arrived back in Chicago before the Parliament, he did not know how to get from the train station to the Exposition center. When he went, as he had in India, go door to door asking for help, he would be rudely shooed away. Finally he had the good fortune of knocking on the door of a family who knew of the Parliament, and helped him get to the Art Institute of Chicago where he needed to be.

The World Parliament of Religions began on  September 11, 1893, and lasted until to September 27. It was attended by over 7000 people from 80 countries and was  the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide. The parliament is the place where Shaku Soen spoke, the first Zen master to travel to the United States. Many conservative religious opposed the event; for example the  Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter of disapproval based on “the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims” (in Barrows 1893, 20-2).[ix]

At the Parliament, Vivekananda was received with thundering ovations.  IN this and his other talks in America he made three points that were appealing to Unitarians and Universalists which I want to share with you today. First, he  called for a universal religion which, as he said “would have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, and would recognize a divinity in every man or woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force would be centered in aiding humanity to realize its Divine nature."

Vivekananda also spoke to the one-ness of God. There was and still  is a common misconception that Hinduism is polytheistic, and that its followers worship idols.Vivekananda told the audience at the World Parliament gathering:

“At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshipers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism”

So Vivekananda is saying that the worship of these different attributes of God is not a worship of many gods. Instead, it is a path that some follow in seeking God. In fact, the belief in unity extends beyond one unified God, to a fundamental unity (or non-duality) of all that is.

“This is the common religion of all the sects of India; but, then, perfection is absolute, and the absolute cannot be two or three. It cannot have any qualities. It cannot be an individual. And so when a soul becomes perfect and absolute, it must become one with Brahman…the ultimate of happiness being reached when it would become a universal consciousness.” [x]
He goes on to say:
“Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter; and Advaita, or nonduality, is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.Science is nothing but the finding of unity. As soon as science will reach perfect unity, it will stop from further progress because it will have reached the goal. Thus Chemistry will not progress farther when it will discover one element out of which all others can be made. Physics will stop when it will be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations. The science of religion became perfect when it discovered the Being who is the one life in a universe of death, the one who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, the one who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all science.”
The other idea that spoke so readily to religious liberals, was the idea that there are many valid religious paths.  He said:

“To the Hindus, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material person, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, say the Hindus. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.

It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns.”[xi]

After the parliament, Vivekananda continued to speak across America On Feb. 14, 1894, Vivekananda spoke to a packed crowd at the Unitarian Church in Detroit. “His eloquent and graceful manner pleased his listeners … showing approval by outbursts of applause,” the Free Press wrote. “The Eastern brother is most impressive.” The Detroit Journal wrote that if Vivekananda “could be induced to remain for a week longer, the largest hall in Detroit would not hold the crowds which would be anxious to hear him. … Every seat in the Unitarian church was occupied, and many were compelled to stand.”

First Unitarian Church of Oakland welcomed Swami Vivekananda to their pulpit in 1900. According to Swami Nikhilananda, “Swami Vivekananda journeyed to Oakland as the guest of Dr. Benjamin Fay Mills, the minister of the First Unitarian Church, and there gave eight lectures to crowded audiences which often numbered as high as two thousand.”  Since the Oakland church was near the seminary I attended, I have often worshiped there, and can’t imagine how more than a few hundred could fit there even if it was seated well past its capacity.  Reports estimate that at one five hundred people were turned away.

According to the Swami Vivekananda Celebratory Organization, one who attended these sermons in Oakland reported: “He stood on the platform of the Unitarian Church pouring forth glorious truths in a voice unlike any voice one had ever heard before...Those who came to the first lecture came to the second and to the third, bringing others with them. "Come," they said, "hear this wonderful man. He is like no one we have ever heard" and they came until there was no place to hold them.”

Vivekananda died just a few years later in 1902 at the age of 39, but before that time he founded Vedanta society  in US, which generated centers around the United States. [A footnote here-  Vednanta refers to teachings of the Vedas, the holy writings of this religions tradition. In actuality “Hindusim” is a word coined by the Persians to refer to residents of India because it was on the other side of the Sindhu River (also called the Indus)] He revitalized Hinduism in India, and many say his lectures in the United states prepared the way for yoga and Transcendental Meditation which were later widely received in the West. Given the number of influential Unitarian and Universalist thinkers Vivekananda met during his time here, the number of  our churches that he visited? How could our movement have been unchanged by his visit among us?

[i] http://vaniquotes.org/wiki/Imitating_Rupa_Gosvami

[ii] Chetananda, Swami (1997), God lived with them: life stories of sixteen monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, St. Louis, Missouri: Vedanta Society of St. Louis.

[iii] Banhatti, G.S. (1995), Life and Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, p. 276,

[iv] http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda_biography/06_trip_to_america.htm

[v] http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda_biography/06_trip_to_america.htm

[vi] http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda_biography/06_trip_to_america.htm

[vii] An extensive timeline of his visit to the US can be found at vedanta.org/vs/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/chronology2.pdf

[viii] http://rbalu.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/swami-vivekanandas-first-public-speech-in-the-usa/

[ix] http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/worldparliamentofreligions1893.htm

[x] . (paper on Hinduism) http://www.vivekananda.org/readings.asp

[xi] . (paper on Hinduism) http://www.vivekananda.org/readings.asp

Friday, January 18, 2013

First Things First (January 6, 2013)

Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like you are working hard all day, but then when it comes time for bed you wonder, “ where has the day gone? I worked so hard all day, why does it seem like nothing got done?”  Other days, especially in the dark of winter, it is common to become so overwhelmed by life that we can hardly do anything at all.  Sometimes our lives push and pull at us, flowing in their own inertial way and we wonder – is this the life I meant to live? In the words of the great New Wave songwriter David Byrne of the Talking Heads:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Life is the eternal balancing of our intentions and plans with the surprises and powerful forces beyond our control, as large as a tidal wave, as small as a newborn that won’t nap. And whether you find yourself in a shotgun shack or behind the wheel of a large automobile, the choices we make matter.

When I was just starting my first full time ministry and also becoming a new mom, I realized that time management was going to be really important. I took a seminar called “First things First” based on work by time management guru Steven Covey. Steven Covey died this summer, and I wanted to recognize him because he was one of the first teachers of time management that included values and principles in his teaching about how to get things done. Covey noticed that we often fall into doing whatever  is most urgent,  greasing the squeakiest wheel. Instead, we can live the life we intend to live, we can choose to do what is really important to us and to our world.  The first question, then, is what comes first in your life?

We will start by asking, when you imagine your life, who do you want to be? Maybe you imagine “I always wanted to live an ethical life” or “I want to have a lot of good friends” or “I want to always be learning new things.” Our vision of our life shows us what is important to us, what our values are. Values are not just the  noble things, they are everything that comes into play when we make decisions --when we have to choose one thing over another.  Good food is a value. Beauty, art, fun, logic, silence, freedom of thought, responsibility, fame, wealth.   From the noble, to the selfish to the silly, what we value shapes our life. Take a moment or two now to silently make a list for yourself of the things you value, from the sublime to the ordinary.  [silent pause]
Now the problem with that list, is that not everything we love, if pursued with great consistency and strength of will, helps us become a better, more spiritually satisfied people. If “good food” is at the top of your list, and pursued with a singleness of purpose, we all know that is not going to turn out well. But if we approach a passion for good food with principle, it can absolutely be part of a well- rounded, ethical, enjoyable life.  Fortunately, we already have a very nice list of  principles right at the beginning of our hymnal- our UU principles. We believe in each person’s capacity to know what is right- to use their conscience to create not only a life of meaning for themselves but also to live with justice equity and compassion towards a goal of peace liberty and justice for all. 

To help us round out our sense of what is important Covey explains that one of the most important things for us to do every year, every week, is what he calls “Sharpening the saw” He reminds us that we are more effective in our work, in being the people we want to be if we consistently take time to take care of our main tool- our self. He divides the self into 4 areas: Mental, (our capacity to learn new things and grow throughout our lives) spiritual (here Covey emphasizes our sense of direction and purpose, but as a minister I can add our sense of inner peace, our capacity to make meaning from our lives and sense of being part of something larger than ourselves), physical (which includes not only care of our body, but all our physical needs, like our home and our finances) and social (the depth and health of all our relationships, that web of which we are a part).  He also lifts up what  calls “the fire within” which is our sense of passion and aliveness. So let’s take a moment now to think about each of those 5 areas of our life, and to ask: what parts of our saw are keen, and which parts have grown dull?[pause]

We also  want to make sure our relationships are an important part of what we know is important in the coming year. So now I’d like you to think about  up to 6 roles we have in our life, say “sister” or “mom” or “counselor” or “science student” or “church member” and for each role thing about what would be the most important thing you could do. It might be concrete, like “help my daughter with her math homework” or more abstract like “be more fully present when I am hanging out with my friends.” And remember the importance of the “fire within” if the thing you come up with first makes you want to take a nap, try again, what would not only feed your relationships but would kindle that inner fire [pause]

Covey suggests that whereas most time management plans are based on the clock, what we really is a compass. All those things you’ve got written on your paper or imagined in your mind right now, those are your compass. But as much as I love lists, I know that what you need in the middle of a confusing day is not a list, but something much simpler.  I would like for us to hone these into a compass for this coming year. So we must ask ourselves, of all those important things, which is the most important thing. I submit to you that while we can do many things over the course of our lives, on any given day we can only have 1 or at most 2 most important things. Look over all those things, and decide, what is the most important thing or 2 for this coming year. It is hopefully something that is in line with your principles, is a value you cherish, and deepen relationships with yourself or others. And most importantly it should make you feel excited, it should give you energy. [pause]

Once you are really ready to commit to this, and maybe you aren’t ready yet.  Maybe it will take a few days of thinking and pondering, but when you are ready to commit to a single intention, it becomes like a touch stone that you carry around with you throughout the year. You don’t have to have a plan for exactly how to manifest this intention, but if this is truly your intention, you can meditate on it, visualize it like Marcia described in her reflection. Look for it as you go through your days. You might even pick an object that reminds you of this intention and put it in your pocket, or on your nightstand to serve as a reminder. When I came to the realization that I wanted to make environmental justice a touch stone in my life,  I had no idea what that could look like, so I was amazed once I started looking for it, being open to it, that opportunities were all around me. But if I had never clarified my intention, I would have missed out on all those opportunities.

Once you have clarified your intentions, your priorities, now, finally you can put first things first. I mean, literally, first.  That way, no matter how the days flow by, whatever you hold to be most important will get your first, best energy. One of the most important things in my life is preaching for you. So on my sermon writing days, when I am freshly showered I take a cup of steaming hot coffee up to my study to write. I try not to open my e-mail or Facebook or even to look at that pile of assorted nonsense on my desk until I have done a real chunk of writing. Some days this is hard because there are so many other things, also important, clamoring for attention. 

One day last month I had 3 things to do before I came down to be with you all in the evening.  One was a sermon, the other was to prepare for my meeting that night, and the third was to run some packages to the post office. I REALLY wanted to dash out and mail those packages, because I was humming with that sense of Holiday Urgency, but I remembered the importance of putting first things first, and so I got my first things done before heading out to do my errands. And Just as I was finishing up I got a call from the school nurse “You might want to come get your son” she said “he doesn’t feel too well.” Now… my son was first. So up I lept, with  time enough to get my son at the school, fix him some hot tea, get him tucked in. His dad came home from work and I came here to be with you.  

As we enter 2013, some would say a whole new era, I encourage you to take some time to figure out what things are most important to you: what things will bring your life into balance, will manifest your values and principles, will kindle your inner light, will bring you into right relationship with yourself and with the world. And then, put your mind, spirit, physical resources and relationships behind it. Put the first things first, and then no matter what else may come, your life will be grounded in that which is really important. Plant your intentions like seeds, tend them like a farmer, and may your garden grow.