Sermon – The Moment of the Rose by, Ethan Loewi, Intern Minister

2019 August 25
by DoMC

The Moment of the Rose

Ethan Loewi

August 25, 2019 

Good morning! Lovely to be here with you. For those who don’t know me, which at this point is all of you, I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. My name’s Ethan Loewi—I’m a second year seminarian at Yale Divinity School, and it is my great privilege to start today as your new Intern Minister. Going forward, I promise to keep this light on autobiography—because my life is not, what’s the word, interesting.

            I had a happy childhood in Portland, Oregon, where I was raised by a coven by middle- aged hippies. My environment was a big old liberal dog-pile. My two older brothers and I went to an elementary school that had no grades, a pagan solstice festival and not one, but five different marimba ensembles. Our logo was a yin-yang. I didn’t grow up UU, but it’s become a huge part of my life: I’m divinity student, and I worked this past summer as a hospital chaplain. A lot of my college friends went immediately to work at Google or JPMorgan, and had quite a few questions for me. Questions like have you lost your mind? Is this a cry for help? And just how much do you hate money? To which I have consistently responded Yes, Yes, and with the fury of a thousand suns. But there is more to my decision to pursue this work than mere insanity, and my lifelong aversion to any career that might pay me a living wage. I’m drawn to Unitarian Universalism because I believe that we have the chance to make religion do something different. I’ve come to know the kindness of the UU community—your willingness to accept people not in spite of their idiosyncrasies, but because of them. I’ve witnessed the remarkable social justice work you do: the compassion you put into the world as activists, organizers, educators, and simply as friends. To welcome strangers as family, in a church that houses many faiths—this is the radical potential of a UU congregation.

            So I’m very glad to be here. Like I said it’s a blessing—and a pleasure, and a privilege. However, for the sake of transparency, I also want to say that I kind of hate new beginnings. I know that sounds horribly negative, and I guess it is; but it’s hard work to put down roots. And I can’t stand the combination of pressure and superficiality that usually attend the genre of the first impression. But most of all, as I begin my path in ministry, I am daunted by the work to come. The scope of it, and the sheer magnitude. I feel like a mountaineer at the base of Everest—looking up, and not even knowing where the peak is. I’m struck by a kind of inverted vertigo; which makes me dizzy at how far I have to climb.

            Religious community, as you all know, is complicated. There is always something to worry or complain about. I look at the change we want to affect in the world, and I think “How could we ever do enough?” We Uus are people with big ideals and grand aspirations. So grand that failure to reach them can feel preordained. I sometimes feel trapped within a certain cold arithmetic: my time plus my energy, multiplied by my ability, minus the challenges ahead, equals a very large negative number. I guess what I’m saying is I hate math. Math never comes out of my metaphors looking good. The real enemy here is math.

            These feelings of helplessness can be destructive. Like fire, they only need a little oxygen to burn and spread. I often feel like the people in our Emerson reading—those who always lament the past, or fear the future, while missing out on the richness of the present. Like most spiritual challenges, this devious union of doubt and detachment is far easier observed that ameliorated. But in my past summer of work, I felt it healed in myself to a remarkable degree. And I would like to suggest to you that this healing lies in moments.

            For 12 weeks of this summer, I worked as a chaplain at a VA hospital in West Haven, Connecticut. My job, in a nutshell, was talking to sick people: offering spiritual care to hospitalized veterans through conversation. Sometimes that meant talking about God: grappling with answer-less questions about suffering and loss. Sometimes it meant listening to them talk about their motorcycle. Veterans are really, really into motorcycles. Sometimes it just meant being present. Looking them in the eye, completely silent, awestruck in the presence of a grief too great for words. In these moments of deep connection, I felt my spirit seized. As though in that moment, we were immersed in something numinous. Something mysteriously beautiful, irreducibly singular, and rising above time.

            I am so, so grateful to those veterans—in part because they didn’t have to talk to me: they could’ve told me to get the hell out, but they didn’t. They were gracious and funny and open, allowing a stranger to come in and talk about some of the most sensitive aspects of their lives. After the best of these conversation, I felt re-humanized. Whenever a patient thanked me for the visit, I thanked them as well. Because they probably helped me as much or more as I helped them. This phenomenon, the healing that comes from human connection, makes me think of a passage from Dante’s Purgatorio. Virgil, Dante’s guide, is explaining to the clueless poet how the afterlife works. Here he reveals the nature of divine love.

            Where ardor is, that Good gives of Itself;
            and where more love is, there that Good confers
            a greater measure of eternal worth.

            And when there are more souls above who love,
            there’s more to love well there, and they love more,
            and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.

To paraphrase: love generates love. When we dare to give fully of ourselves, a virtuous cycle is created. Let us strive to take part in that cycle. In a very UU move, I’m now going to pivot from the words of a 13th century Roman Catholic to the words of a 20th century Hasidic Jew. The philosopher Martin Buber, in his famous work I and Thou, describes the difference between I-It relationships, which objectify other people into an It, and I-Thou relationships, which view the other as a truly independent subject. Buber’s central claim is that “all real living is meeting.” And he writes about the essence of relationality: the moments of connection that allow us to transcend our deepest spiritual anxieties.

            Buber writes “When I confront a human being as a Thou, he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, they are a Thou and fill the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but them; but everything else lives in their light.”

            When we find moments to help each other, to truly give, the spiritual impact can be thunderous. And we do need each other’s help. If we held the keys to our own locks, we would unlock them. We will fully heal the crises in our world, or live our values perfectly. As a religious community, and as individuals, we will always be in process. It’s not just that we have a big mountain to climb: we will also die on that mountain. So let’s not fret ourselves to pieces worrying about the peak. Let’s focus on climbing hard, and climbing well. And I say that as a massive worrier! I have inherited a tremendously rich legacy of Jewish neuroticism. But the question of “am I doing enough” loses its sting entirely when I am immersed in doing. I have learned that a year of misery and failure can be sublimated in one hour of good work. And the redeeming outcomes of your hardship may be closer than you think.

            We may get dizzy when we think about the big picture, all the problems in the world—but forget the big picture for now. Do one thing for one person. Find one moment of connection. In the words of T.S. Eliot: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree /
Are of equal duration.Seek out your moment of the rose. You may be shocked at how forcefully it changes you, heals you, gives you new life. Every insecurity and fear you feel today will vanish from your mind, in the obliterating power of that moment. In our finite lives, and finite work, we will find moments of infinity. I found them as a chaplain, but they can be found anywhere. Especially in New York City. We are surrounded by socioeconomic injustice and spiritual anguish. There are people who you can help. And you are enough. You are enough. You are enough. If you hear nothing else I say, I hope you will hear that.

            I’d like to wrap up with an apologetic return to autobiography. Like a lot of people, especially in my generation, I grew up with a complex and tension-filled relationship to religion. As a child I attended mainline protestant churches— because my mother is an organist. But from her, and from my secular Jewish father, I inherited a deep skepticism of organized religion—and a constant awareness of the harm it can cause. For many if not most of my friends, religion is a punchline, or ignored entirely. Our national conversation around faith has stagnated to a seemingly hopeless swamp of gladitorial meanness and mutual confusion. The only mainstream conversations about faith we seem to hear anymore are debates between atheists and theists, in which the real competition seems to be who can condescend with greater smugness. The fact that a third of millenials identify as religiously unaffiliated, I find deeply unsurprising. But the gifts of religion—community, purpose, inspiration—are still there. And still needed.

            For those millions of unaffiliated people, the spiritual urge endures. Though a third of millennials are religiously unaffiliated, two thirds believe in a God or universal spirit. The problem lies in our religious institutions: their baggage of patriarchy,  prejudice, and dogmatism. And if religion can’t grow beyond those failings, it deserves to be a relic. As Unitarian Universalists, we have the power to help lead that growth. Ours is a faith meant to move. Religious liberalism is a powerful idea; let us be vocal about it, and not cede one inch of passion or authority to those who would wield faith as a weapon for discrimination and obedience. Religious pluralism is a revolutionary idea. It is also a very challenging one. It bears implicit tensions, and by its nature resists easy solutions. Mistakes are inevitable. And I don’t want to scandalize anyone by saying this, but…I might make mistakes. I might make mistakes on a pretty regular basis. I might be the worst thing to ever happen to this place. You will be stunned by the awesome breadth and depth of my incompetence.

            Let me urge, then, that we be forgiving as we engage the work to come. Imprinted on my mind as though tattooed there is a quote from the great theologian Tillich: “Forgiveness is the answer to the question implied in our existence.”

            Inconveniently enough, when we think we cannot forgive is when our forgiveness matters most. Tillich also said “Forgiveness is unconditional, or it is not forgiveness at all.” We may struggle, and backslide–but a virtue untested is not a virtue, it is filigree. Ceremonial armor, that crumbles with a single blow. Lastly, let me say that forgiveness is not one distinct moment. We can’t just snap our fingers and forgive; it’s a process, a life stance. Jesus forgave even those who crucified him; we may never reach that level. But we can try. We can work at it. Because forgiveness is not an act, but a state. The stubborn, affectionate pressure of one forehead to another.

            At 58 years of age, Unitarian Universalism is a movement in its infancy; our best work lies ahead. Its character and scope will reveal themselves day by day, if we are bold and persistent in our searching. Revelations lie in wait, for those who seek them out with open mind and hungry soul. As Emerson wrote, “we are on the brink of an ocean of thought in which we do not yet swim.” Let us pursue our work with courage and prophetic passion. Let us not be a faith of negations, but of joyful conviction. Let us not be covetous of our truth, nor censorious towards the truth of others. Let us forgive when we fall short, and value our common ground of love above our differences of theology. Forgiveness is love’s profession—love’s 9 to 5, if you will. What we are doing is too hard to go without it.

            I’m so grateful for the chance to be a part of this community. In our bright successes and quotidian failures, let us walk with open heart and open mind. May it be so.

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